The Parchment Is Burning, but the Letters Soar Freely
We are on a date, but Dafne’s heart isn’t in it. Both she and her date keep darting their eyes to me where I sit on one side of the table, a frozen explosion of orange fur against the pressed quiet of the white tablecloth. I imagine the gentleman thought he was more open-minded than he has turned out to be once in my presence. Dafne has unthinkingly placed me so that I face him. As always, I’m snarling and my limbs are splayed out midleap. I must look like I’m going for his throat.
Once I was a cat, now I am a handbag. An east-west, two handle, top zip, barrel bag—no slouch or hobo, but no clutch or minaudiére either—akin to a satchel, often mistaken for a muff. I go day into evening with grace, if also with daring. I don’t claim I’m better dead, only that I get out more.
You are shocked. Most people are, encountering me the first time, dangling from Dafne’s arm. Many find me repellent—Dafne, sick. I’ve seen the expression on people’s faces go from amusement to horror as they realize I am—was—a cat, a real cat.
My owner nods. “Ginger long-haired domestic,” she says. “Schrödinger’s Cat.”
“As in quantum mechanics,” she says, as though that clears up everything. “Feel free,” and offers me up for petting. She enjoys herself, Dafne.
She could at least have put me on the floor out of sight, but Dafne isn’t thinking about her date’s comfort. She isn’t thinking about her date, period. She’s thinking about the letter she received last week, which she keeps tucked in my inside pocket. When the letter arrived, she tossed it into the wastebasket without reading it. The next day, she pulled it out and read it, then tossed it again. Later, she retrieved it, put it in me for safekeeping, and whenever we are alone, she pulls it out and rereads it, folds it carefully, puts it away, takes it out, stares at it, asks me, “What if I don’t?”
I want to say, if you don’t, if you don’t . . . you will regret it every day for the rest of your life, and maybe past that if my experience is the norm. It’s a moment’s decision, a tiny movement, I would tell her, the decay of a single atom that creates and destroys whole universes. Go see your mother, I want to say. She is going to die. I snarl at her in silence.
It is another mark of Dafne’s sense of humor that she chose to preserve my face in a snarling aspect. I was a mild, affectionate cat; I lived a soft life in her apartment until the end, and I am not sure that precise expression ever passed over my face. Maybe in the moment I saw the car coming at me, though. Maybe then.
The gentleman is making a game effort to engage Dafne, to get past what I think he’s beginning to feel isn’t edgy and artistic in her but perhaps merely ghoulish. He pours more wine—Pinot Noir is a mistake; she thinks he’s being trendy, but then, if he’d ordered merlot or, God forbid, chardonnay, she would have thought he was being ironic. Dafne has no patience for irony in others, though she herself is guilty of it—guilty from the moment she took a scalpel to my corpse and lined me in satin. “Like a furry little coffin,” she explains. The date flags, and Dafne says after, “I don’t care.”
Dafne is a designer at the cutting edge, ever storming the ramparts of propriety—her fashion demonstrates virtuosity, if not restraint. These days she is making a mouse-skin dress for an important fashion show at the Museum of Modern Art. This may be the show that elevates her work from what one critic called “queasy couture” to Art. She is nervous. The dress, she says, must be perfect.
As I am no longer in the mouse-catching business, Dafne turns to her friend from high school, Byron, a biologist. When his lab is done experimenting on them, Byron smuggles euthanized lab mice out to Dafne. He says there’s no danger to the public. He works with genes, not diseases. The only danger is to Byron himself, his job, should he be discovered. Where Dafne is concerned, though, Byron’s sense of self-preservation seems to fly out the window.
“Good old Byron,” Dafne says. “Next time, bring more of these freckled ones. They look great mixed in with the white ones.”
Dafne has been called a visionary, a kook, a con artist, but even her detractors are hard-pressed to deny her talent. She is obsessed with her work, identifies with it utterly. Dafne’s fashion is Dafne, full stop. With her current passion for taxidermy, though, even her fans are wondering whether she has finally lost her grip. Gone seven thirty, as Dafne is fond of saying. Seven thirty is the hospital code for a mental patient.
But she is not insane, merely exploring the next frontier of taboo—death—and exposing, as usual, people’s hypocrisy. Can you not see her sense when she says that most people will wear leather, fur, feathers, scales—just not from an animal they knew personally? She argues that just because she knew me, loved me, had a relationship with me, why should that mean she can’t also wear me? An eminently logical position. It has, though, it must be conceded, been murder on her love life.
Dafne named me after a thought experiment in quantum mechanics popularly known as Schrödinger’s Cat, possibly to honor her physicist father, whom she never knew, possibly to express her view of the world, which is that it is full of shit, to quote her. Erwin Schrödinger devised this reductio ad absurdum to expose the problems with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics when applied not just to subatomic particles but to macro systems like cats and boxes and scientists.
Surely you’ve heard of the experiment by now, so common is its use to illustrate the subatomic probabilities quantum mechanics describes. Like an aging film star, its fame has turned it into a bit of a cliché: a cat sits in a steel box with a radioactive atom. If the atom decays, a hammer that smashes a vial of cyanide gas is triggered. If the atom does not decay, the vial stays intact, and the cat does not die a horrible death.
The Copenhagen boys maintained that in quantum physics, the act of observation affects outcome. If that’s so, Schrödinger argued, then before the observer opens the box to see what happened to the cat, the cat must exist in a “superstate,” both alive and dead, expressing all possible outcomes. Only when the scientist opens the box does the probabilistic state of the cat “collapse” into one reality or the other: alive or dead.
But if the state of the cat depends on an observer, Schrödinger wondered, mightn’t the cat itself observe the atom, the vial, the box and therefore, make a superstate wherein it was simultaneously alive and dead unlikely?
From where I sit, I think, yes, what about the consciousness of the cat? Surely the cat would have some status as an observer, some effect. That may be a question more appropriately put to the brain men, not the math men. But in my current state, they all seem to run together—biologists, physicists, alchemists—like watercolors, like children in a school yard, like Neanderthals pointing and hooting at what they don’t understand.
To address the problem, some scientists came up with the “Many-Worlds Interpretation”: at the moment of observation, whether by the cat or the scientist, worlds divide. Thus, in one world, the cat is dead being observed by a scientist. In another, the cat is alive being observed by the scientist. In yet another, the cat is dead and the box still sealed, or the cat is alive and the box is sealed. And on and on.
I personally like this theory, though others have come along since then. I like the idea of worlds dividing into infinity, versions of reality being played out simultaneously. Oh, I can almost hear you physicists cringing. “Too easy!” you protest. “A profound misunderstanding of the thought experiment’s application.” You hate it when anyone uses Schrödinger’s cat as a metaphor to describe aspects of life or the seen world, don’t you? As far as I can tell, though, I am neither metaphor nor alive, nor for that matter “seen” in the strict sense. So, perhaps you quantum-brains might see fit to cut me a little slack in my state.
Despite fleeting mystical moods, Dafne believes in no other world but this one, fragile and disappointing as it is. She scoffs at superstates—mash-ups of live and dead cats—but sees no irony in the fact that she still talks to me as though I were alive. (I shouldn’t, perhaps, cast stones, as I am talking to someone I can’t even see: do you exist?) I think it would strain to the breaking point what she thinks of as her wide-open mind to know that I seem to be dead and alive at the same time. Though not in a way Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, or Schrödinger could have predicted.
Mostly, Dafne calls me “Cat,” uppercase intact. Were the uppercase to collapse, I think, I would go from particular to generic, infamy to obscurity, life to death, if you will, but then you could argue that Dafne has banished that possibility by turning me into a handbag. I will be forever particular, singular; she has in some sense frozen me as an uppercase Cat. Thus, I am the physicist’s own feline, the cat that dies and then again doesn’t, the box in which the cat and the atom both expire or don’t, the experiment itself, the question, the argument, the white-hot heart of doubt. Am I science, sorcery, theology, or magical thinking? In some universes, I am just a handbag.
“Do you know what happens when you get sucked into a black hole, Cat?” Dafne once said to me. “You get squeezed—like a tube of toothpaste. And stretched. One end of you accelerates faster than the other end so you get literally torn apart. Then the same thing happens to each half of you and then those halves and so on. Now imagine that black hole is a mean old Polish woman.”
At the time I probably just looked at her and maybe licked myself, but her words have stuck with me. Dafne has always railed to me against her mother, as long as I’ve known her. Out of her mouth have come the most vivid, electric descriptions of a monster of dark energy. The mother fairly crackled with organizing principle, with particulate bonds so magnetic she was more solid than the nugget of densest matter at the beginning of our universe, in the instant before the Big Bang.
Dafne said, “Staying away from her is an act of sanity, believe me. The highest expression of self-preservation.”
Imagine, then, how flabbergasted I was (in retrospect, of course; in life, flabbergast was beyond my ken) by the quiet, modest, gray-coated woman with still more than a hint of an accent, who once, and only once, visited us. She picked me up and rubbed her cheek against me—“Kitty, kitty,” she said—before Dafne took me away from her and clutched me to her chest.
“Schrödinger’s Cat, Mother. He’s got a name. Why did you come?”
“My daughter,” the mother said.
“My father’s daughter,” said Dafne, and the mother left.
Dafne’s mother was as solid as human beings ever are, which is to say, not very. When I met her, she was already beginning to dissolve, this old-world woman, her definition graying out. It turns out it was Dafne’s words, her very language, that created the mother of all singularities, a black hole with such gravitational pull, all matter must be sucked into her.
To the outside world, Dafne seems to have sprung, fully formed, out of a clam shell, or from the head of a demigod, so eccentrically beautiful and removed is she. She never speaks of her family, admits no connections, dropped her last name before assaulting the fashion scene. She calls history “a disease,” accepts none but natural history. She has been known when asked about her lineage to go into an abbreviated lecture on the ascent of man.
Dafne created herself in reaction to her religious mother and in identification with that cipher, her father, whom her mother left in Poland when martial law was declared. All Dafne knows is that he was a physicist, an atheist, and he refused to leave his homeland. Nothing of his work remains, and for this, along with abandoning him, denying Dafne her father, though he died when she was quite small, and for pushing her religion on her, Dafne blames and rejects her mother. Her mother is the Word, her father, the number Zero, Dafne’s favorite number. Infinitely empty. The Word to her is just a wall against which she throws herself over and over, away from which she runs and cannot stop running.
I do not know all that’s in the letter. Dafne only reads parts to me. She says her mother is dying and wants her to come. “Do you remember the story of Rabbi Chanina?” her mother writes.
“Remember it?” Dafne says. “It gave me nightmares for years.”
Rabbi Chanina ben Tradion was a second-century martyr whom the Romans burned at the stake for preaching the Law of JHWH in the streets. He burned, holding to his chest the great scroll of the Torah. As the flames consumed him together with the Word of God transcribed onto the skin of an animal, his mourning students called out to him, “What do you see?”
He said, “The parchment is burning, but the letters soar freely to God.”
Dafne shivers. “That’s the kind of crazy shit that drove me away in the first place.”
I was curious about this story, Dafne’s mother having referenced it in her letter, and sometimes, if I let my focus go fuzzy, into something like a trance state, knowledge comes creeping in at the edges of my sight. I see a scaffolding rising up, or a tower, on the horizon of my consciousness, and it is, in this case, the Avodah Zorah, the laws against worshipping false idols, from the Torah, which contains within its ancient walls the story of the burning rabbi.
I can only do this trick with history or received knowledge, never with people. I’m not a mind reader. Or a fortune teller. I, like you, only know how something ends if it has ended already. I am sorry to have to break it to you: we seem to have no more control after death than we do in life.
I feel the letter scratching at my lining. Every time she reads it, it gets a little more crumpled, and its edges poke me in a maddening way. It’s as if the handwriting itself, which is uneven and spiky, is sticking me, each letter a bent pin, a broken needle.
Rabbi Chanina’s students begged him to open his mouth to the fire, that he might die more quickly, but he told them, “He who has given the soul must also take it away; no man may hasten his death.”
I wonder why Dafne’s mother wrote of this story in her letter. Dafne might not care, but the curiosity is killing me.
“Onions, Cat,” Dafne says. “Every apartment in Brighton Beach smells like onions frying. The whole neighborhood. You can’t imagine. It gets in your hair and clothes and skin. I don’t even like sitting too near the subway doors at the Ocean Parkway stop. They open and you think you’re going to get a sea breeze,” she shakes her head, “then, wham! Like being hit by an onion truck.” It wasn’t until she moved to Manhattan, she says, that she realized how pervasive and sinister the scent was. She hasn’t been back in years.
The question of Dafne visiting her mother in Brighton Beach is not so much a question of should she but will she. I’ve already said she should. I don’t think that’s open for debate, though Dafne obviously does. What I am wondering now is whether my observing her is having an impact on this outcome. I can’t help but think about the other worlds in which she has already visited her, already taken the B train to Ocean Parkway, already walked on the boardwalk gathering her courage to enter Seacoast Towers and take the elevator to the fifteenth floor. In some world, she is letting the smell of onions seep into her clothes as she walks down the dimly lit, slightly shabby hallway and stands at the door marked 15d. Somewhere, she pushes the old-fashioned doorbell—bing, bong—and waits a hundred years for her frail mother to come to the door. No. It’s a nurse who answers. “I know who you are,” says the nurse, when Dafne starts to explain. “Come in.”
Across the apartment, through the window giving onto the cinder-block terrace, past the boardwalk and over the waves, which do not so much break on the beach as slop onto it, the Ferris wheel at Coney Island turns very slowly and looks miniature—it could be a gear in a watch, marking the swing and turn of minutes. Though no one has cooked onions in this apartment for a long time, the smell has lingered through a hundred thousand turns of that Ferris wheel and reaches over the threshold now to pull Dafne across.
She puts her hand out as though interrupting my imaginings. “I can’t talk about that smell anymore, Cat, it makes me sick.”
I wonder if she can really be convincing herself that the smell of onions can be a reasonable argument for not going to see her mother in her diminishment. And what is it about my particular observation of her that prevents that moment? If I look away, will she go? There’s a world in which a Schrödinger’s Cat is watching her, and she decides to go to Brighton Beach. I suppose it should be a comfort to believe it’s out there. Somehow, it’s not.
“And what kind of mother,” she asks me for the millionth time, “takes a child away from her father and thinks God is an acceptable substitute?”
If every child is an experiment, Dafne’s mother may have miscalculated the effect of her choices. She raised Dafne in the synagogue but refused to talk about her history: Poland, the Holocaust, Communism. Why should Dafne’s failure of imagination, then, drive me so crazy? Even my intrepid imagination falters at the prospect of the loss upon loss that has constituted her mother’s life since she entered Treblinka as a child and came out without her family. If there’s a black hole here, that would be it. Dafne’s mother kept that evil warp of time-space inside herself, perhaps to keep from drawing her daughter into it with her.
So, one can’t say that Dafne is utterly wrong about the dark energy she senses in her mother. One does find it annoying in the extreme, however, that she takes as her birthright that immunity from the disease of history that her mother suffered to give her. But that doesn’t make Dafne wrong . . . no, not wrong exactly. It makes her what her mother wanted her to be: an American.
“Physics,” says Dafne, “is God enough for me. And fashion.” Is she not illustrating a basic law of classical physics here? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The letter, though, has changed the conditions of the experiment.
“She left him knowing he was old,” Dafne says. “Knowing he could die soon. He must have hated her till the day he died.”
You do not know everything, I think. You don’t know anything.
“Let her die alone,” says Dafne, stuffing the letter back into me. “He probably did. Besides,” she waves around a hand so white you can see the blue veins beneath the skin, “death: people are so goddamned precious about it. We’re here, we’re not.” She swings me around by the handles. “Right, Cat? You get it.” One of my claws catches on her hair, midswing, and she cries out. She disentangles me, but leaves behind a couple of long, dyed blonde hairs twined in my claw.
Byron watches Dafne skin a mouse. Her child-sized fingers wield the scalpel like a surgeon: practiced, precise. She separates the skin from the muscles, slipping it off the mouse like a winter coat. The mouse looks naked and, I think, sad. I feel a surprising twinge of pity, looking at it. Poor mouse. In life, I wouldn’t have scrupled to torment it, then rip its head off. But, no, it’s not, I realize, exactly pity I feel. It’s self-pity. The mouse looks just as I did eviscerated. Poor Cat. I feel like crying.
Dafne starts on another one, the careful slice through the belly, the removal of internal organs. “My mother’s dying,” she says to Byron, looking keenly into the mouse’s insides.
“Your mother,” he says, as though trying to translate a word he doesn’t know.
“Come on, By, you remember her. She made you eat cabbage rolls after school.”
“It’s just . . . you haven’t talked about her in so long, I guess I thought . . .”
“She was already dead? No such luck. That was my father. Geniuses die off, but people like her, they’re immortal. She’ll still be flying around on her broomstick and eating children when I’m in my grave.”
“But you just said . . .”
“She says she’s dying. She wrote me a letter.” Dafne wiggles a finger beneath the skin on the back of the mouse. “I don’t believe it,” she says.
“But why would she write something like that if it weren’t true?”
Dafne snorts. “Byron, you kill me, you are so naive.”
“What are you going to do?”
Dafne holds the second mouse skin up to her work light, looking for holes or nicks. “Not a thing.”
“But even if she’s lying, doesn’t it strike you as kind of desperate?” Byron says. “Shouldn’t you go see her?”
Bravo, Byron, I want to shout. Perhaps there is a streak of alpha male in you after all. Maybe you will win the girl, who is oblivious to your feelings, who takes your slavish attentions for granted, who simply cannot imagine the sexless, the sweet, the weak Byron possessing passion. You are, to Dafne, an emotional invertebrate, an unthreatening, inert element of her ancient history. A source of dead animals. Prove her wrong! Manhandle her onto the B train, walk her to the threshold of her mother’s apartment and push her through, and she may open to you like a moonflower in the dark, may bend to your newly awakened will like a reed to the spring rush of a mighty river.
“Let her manipulate me like that?” Dafne says. “Don’t be an idiot.”
“Well . . . you know what’s best for you, I guess,” Byron says, a flush blooming over his pale gooseneck.
Oh Byron, you disappoint me. You sad, skinned boy. She will never love you. I wish to God I could turn my face to the wall, away from these dead-live people, away from the mouse that reminds me of me and makes me want to weep. I have figured it out, my state. This is hell. Sartre’s hell: other people. Yes, hell is a place where you are forced to observe the stupidity of other people, but where the proposed laws of quantum physics do not apply. Observing has no effect on outcome in hell. No radioactive atom will ever decay, will ever cause this box to be suffused with sweet cyanide. I will observe and observe and observe and never cause an effect on anything. I am the punch line of some cosmic joke: Einstein and Dante walk into a bar . . .
The letter from Dafne’s mother scrapes at my insides, and I wonder: what heinous thing did I perpetrate in life as a lowercase cat—what mouse, who in some other world was saint or Messiah, did I torture—to deserve this fate? This caught Cat state, this handbag mind? Reductio ad absurdum. Oh Dafne, what price fashion?
You are wondering by now why I care so passionately whether Dafne visits her mother before she dies, and I am wondering as well. Along with the self-pity, I am shocked to discover in myself what can only be called beliefs: ideas not supported by concrete evidence or even mathematical calculations, a kind of magical thinking wrapped in the metaphors of science. If Dafne goes to see her mother, I will be released. If she does not go see her mother, I will persist in this frozen awareness, far more expansive, yes, than my awareness as a mere cat, but without agency, an eternal, unwilling witness. Dafne is the radioactive atom, by its nature unstable. But just because someone is unstable doesn’t mean they will change their state. Not at all.
I don’t have proof of any of this, of course, just desire. Apparently, desire persists; there is no place it cannot follow.
I don’t think Dafne will go. If Dafne were the kind of person who heeded the dying wish of a hated mother, she would also be the kind of person who would never have carelessly left the apartment door open when taking the garbage to the incinerator room. She wouldn’t have forgotten that I was in there, then just a cat, not a Cat, curious about the hall, the stairs, the street. I had never been outside in my life, except in a pet crate. The feel of the outside air on my whiskers was crisp and ticklish; the concrete was pleasingly rough on my pads. An oak tree stood just before me, the ne plus ultra of scratching posts. I jumped over the low decorative iron fence, meant to keep out dogs on leashes, not newly emancipated cats, and I leaned against the tree and rubbed my back against the raspy bark. I turned to the trunk and sunk my claws into it, picking and raking it in ecstasy.
I linger here, because the particular heavenly feeling of my claws in that bark has stayed with me. I can conjure it up in an instant from whatever dark pocket of sense memory my awareness allows. Also, because the next moment plummets me from that glory into a nightmare of surprise and fear. Must I really proceed? Can’t I just pause here? No, that would be to condemn you to limbo, a state of Cat or of Dafne. Whatever world we are in, we must be in: a boy crashed his skateboard into the iron fence around my oak tree, and I was startled. I ran between two parked cars and out into the street.
I’m not good with cars. I don’t know what kind it was that slammed on its brakes but couldn’t stop in time. It was blue. I saw it coming for me, huge and screaming. My heart stopped, I think, even before it hit. My heart stopped, and I can well imagine that my face froze in a snarl of vain defense. Dafne didn’t realize I was gone until a neighbor picked my body up and brought me in.
If Dafne is right, and her father raged at her mother unto death, then that, genius notwithstanding, may be his real legacy to her. I fear she will burn with it forever, that angry fire.
Dafne is reading her mother’s letter again when Byron calls to tell her she’ll have to wait for more mice until another experiment cycle has been completed. When Dafne panics, she paces.
Dafne says, “This dress needs to be ready for the show on the twentieth.”
She accelerates around the apartment like a particle picking up speed in a supercollider. Dafne says, “Yes, I could go to a pet store, Byron, but they mostly sell pinks for snake food. No good to me without hair on them. Besides, me buying up every mouse in the city would look suspicious, don’t you think? Are you trying to get me arrested?”
I can practically feel the heat coming off her as she circles me. Her voice is rising with every turn and is taking on an almost metallic screech. Dafne says, “Being asked to do this show is the single most important thing that has ever happened to me. Somebody at that place has got to have some mice who’ve fulfilled their earthly purpose, goddammit.”
She stops abruptly, and it’s as though she’s been lowered into a deep freeze to bring her temperature down instantly. Her voice drops back to normal. Dafne says, “You’re the best, By.”
She feeds me maddening little pieces of the letter, like kitty treats. Dafne says, “Breast cancer isn’t a death sentence anymore, Cat.”
Dafne says, “She says she has things to say to me. She thinks I’ll be curious, so I’ll cave.”.
I wish I could still sink my teeth into something, for example, Dafne’s hand. It would be a balm to my frustration—my irritable observation. I’d like to taste blood again.
Dafne is beginning to fray—not so much that anyone who didn’t observe her as closely as I do every day would notice, but enough to tell me a mighty battle is raging beneath her porcelain exterior. She’s losing weight. She holds her stomach when she reads the letter now and shakes her head, grinning, as though it is so funny, it’s killing her. Emotions are triggering chemical reactions in her skin—red around the mucous membranes, the odd pimple, a strange, unnatural cast to her: she looks slightly radioactive. As though she might blow.
Byron shows up with a box of dead mice. “I’ll need more than this,” Dafne says. “This is for MoMA, okay? I’ve got to go; I’ve got a date.”
He looks as though he might cry but promises more. He isn’t looking in the pink himself these days, Byron, and I would not like to place a bet on which one of them will atomize first.
It turns out, it’s Byron. Dafne doesn’t hear from him for several days, and she is in full panic as the fashion show approaches. She leaves him messages, which degenerate from pleading to abusive. “I thought I could trust you,” she yells into the phone, “you genetics hack.”
When finally he surfaces, he looks a mess, as though he hasn’t slept for days, or washed, or eaten. Dafne stands, arms folded, holding the door open with her hip, and says, “Where the fuck have you been and where are my mice?” Byron falls on the corridor floor at her feet.
I want to take a moment to do a little thought experiment on love. A dialectic. Let us posit that love is real. If it is real, it should, according to science, be measurable. Let us then try to describe it. What is love? Call it an emotion, which is to say, a set of chemical reactions originating in the relationships between the environment, our sense organs, and our brain. Say, then, a woman is married to a man whom she loves. He disappoints her, grows ever darker, loses hope, lets the disease of history ravage him, contributes nothing to sustaining their lives, retreats into fantasies of lost genius. The original set of chemical reactions in her has long since burned out and away, and a new set has taken their place—we’ll call the new emotion anger. However, the woman continues to look after the man, to mind his well-being, to support his imaginary work—and here is the point—in the absence of any emotion resembling love. Is not her continued tender treatment of him love? If we accept that it is, then we also have to accept that love may not be an emotion, since she has long since ceased to feel it.
There is a word in Sanskrit, ananda, which roughly translates to “that force which holds the universe together.” Holds, then, as part of the known universe, a marriage together. Maybe this is what we mean when we talk about love. If love is not an emotion, then, but something both more elemental and pervasive, a universal force, how may we measure this force?
“Wait!” you say. “Why can’t love be both an emotion and an elemental force?” Ah, yes, like light: depending on how you measure it, sometimes a particle, sometimes a wave. But light, for all its ephemeral qualities, has weight: we can measure it. A box of light is heavier than an empty box, but a box of love? If it cannot be contained or measured thus, does it exist?
“But what about your emotions?” you say. “You have emotions, but don’t have a body. All I’ve got to convince me of your existence are your words.”
You are clever, catching me in my own paradox! You are like a latter-day Kant, keeping reason honest and off the path of metaphysical error. Yes, I emote without embodiment in the strict sense, and by the scientific standards I have proposed, I, like love, should not exist, yet here I am, asking you to take me and my words on faith. For it is on the side of faith I seem stubbornly, inevitably, to err.
Which brings me back to our connubial subjects: faith can go a long way toward propelling a woman into marrying a man, staying with him despite the repellent forces within him, despite the inevitability of rupture.
But I daydream. The point is, love and I are the unmeasurables; we may not exist and, therefore, are not, perhaps, to be trusted.
Catastrophe. If Byron had been discovered smuggling used mice from the lab, that would have been disaster enough. Likely unemployment, and a vague cloud of suspicion hanging over him. But he was discovered euthanizing mice that had not been experimented on—in essence, breeding mice to kill for Dafne. Our ethical-treatment friends might ask, what’s the difference? Either way, mice were killed for man’s whims: science or fashion. Ah, but Byron didn’t kill the mice for either; he killed them for quote unquote love, and that makes him crazy. His employer has suspended him, pending investigation, termination of his employment the almost certain outcome. As a friend, his boss has suggested sub rosa that mental treatment voluntarily entered into may vitiate any criminal proceedings. In other words, admit you’re nuts, get help, and we may not press charges.
Dafne is stunned into a rare but roiling silence. She lets Byron tell her the story of how he’s loved her since the first day of sixth grade, when she told their science teacher he had shit for brains, and of the crazed, ill-hidden thread of that love through the warp of their friendship over the years.
He says, “I told them it’s better the mice died for love than for science. I probably shouldn’t have said that.”
“By,” she says, over and over, like a sad and holy chant. “Oh, By.”
A kind of light radiates from Byron as the words spill out, so long swallowed. He looks at me as he speaks: easier to confess to my orange snarl than to Dafne’s pained countenance, I think. I tuck away his words in the invisible pocket in which I keep Dafne’s musings, the letter fragments I’ve heard, and the story of the burning rabbi. They seem to belong together, and something, in the end, may come of them.
Dafne says, “Why, why did you do this?”
Byron says, “You needed them. I couldn’t not help you.”
“You could,” she says. “You could have told me to go screw myself. It’s crazy to sacrifice yourself like that.”
“It’s not,” he says, smiling. “I love you.” He clearly delights in saying it out loud and will find reasons to say it as often as he can, in case this is his last opportunity.
Dafne says, “I’m worried about you. Are you going to try to kill yourself or something?”
Byron looks shocked. “I would never do that to you,” he says. “You don’t have anybody else.”
Dafne begins to weep, and Byron is happy rocking her against his chest. When she stills, he says, “Why do you hate your mother?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Because she lets me?”
The peace of catharsis descends upon Byron—what more can happen? He’s unemployed and possibly unemployable; he’s willingly or unwillingly going into treatment; and he’s deposited his heart in Dafne’s hands. He looks sweet and calm when he falls asleep with his head in her lap. Dafne, though—patting his heavy auburn head, gazing at the dress on her worktable, twelve mice shy of a masterpiece—looks ravaged. She is witnessing for the first time the effect she has had on someone she cares about, and that, in turn, is working its effect upon her. She has been bombarded by particles at great velocity, and she may shear off from herself in violent fission, releasing enough energy to end us all.
I vibrate with uncertainty. What shall I do—watch, or turn aside to the best of my wakeful ability? Which will hasten the explosion? Calm down, Cat. No man may hasten his death. And remember: you are Doubt’s Cat; observation is inert. But what if it isn’t, and a world is about to be born before and because of my very eyes?
Dafne slides out from under Byron, placing a sofa pillow under his head, and squints at herself in the cracked mirror above the bathroom sink as though she is farsighted and can’t quite make anything out this close, before splashing her face. She makes many phone calls then: one to remove herself from the fashion-show lineup at MoMA, the others to her mother, who isn’t home, and isn’t home, and isn’t home.
Dafne won’t let Byron go with her to see her mother at Mount Sinai. “Don’t do anything,” she says. “Wait for me.”
Here is what I am waiting for: the end. Dafne has made her decision; she is going to see her mother. And I’m still here. My little belief system—that my final peace rested on Dafne deciding to visit her mother—is going the way of the Greek pantheon, the Norse gods. Disappearing like day into dark, leaving me behind to suffer the effects of disillusionment. Why should the gods get to die and not me? I am scratching for something, anything: maybe the revelations her mother has to offer Dafne will do the trick. But it begins to feel like a trick, this foolish hope, and my doom stretches before me, infinite, awake.
Dafne looks at me with doubt, picks at the fur on my head, as though looking for fleas. I’ve never seen her so nervous, and I am no less agitated, though vastly less fidgety. She is debating whether to take me along: I contain her life, but perhaps it’s just too aggressive to take a dead-cat handbag to a woman’s deathbed. She dumps everything out of me and starts to put what she needs in a plain leather satchel, then changes her mind, replaces her wallet and the letter in my recesses, and we head uptown. She needs me, apparently.
The creature in the hospital bed is awake. Every identifier she’d accumulated over the years—wife, mother, Jew—has fallen away, leaving words like crow or winter or bone to flare briefly in the mind in their stead. Her skin seems to flow downward, away from her skeleton, like fabric on a dressmaker’s wire form. She stares up and rattles when she breathes through the oxygen mask. The tubes attached to her look like they are delivering the only fluid in her body: she is desiccated. She looks more like Dafne than I remember, and it is strange to see. I wonder if the look on Dafne’s face as we stand on the threshold of the semiprivate room comes from seeing her mother transformed into a barely living thing or from seeing her own death mask on another.
I was curious, after all her talk of how squeamish our society is about death, to observe how she would face this death. This uppercase Death, death with a name. I think she might faint, she is so pale and shaky, but she gathers her long habit of righteousness around her, steps up to the bed, places me on it, and says, clearly, loudly, “Mother.”
The woman blinks and turns her face to us. She cannot speak through the mask, but her eyes crinkle at the sight of Dafne. Whatever flimsy hope I’d retained for deathbed revelations evaporates. She can barely move, much less offer explanations. She is not the key to my release. At the moment, though, I care less for my own fate, observing hers unwind before me. She is suffering the slow decay of matter, the body’s betrayal, and that’s something I never experienced. I was here, then gone, then here, all without physical suffering. I feel something like awe before her end.
I think if she could swallow Dafne whole, she would; that’s the way she’s looking at her: starving. Dafne says, “Are you thirsty?”
Her mother shakes her head without taking her rheumy eyes from her daughter’s face. She points at Dafne.
Dafne says, “Me? Am I thirsty?”
Her mother shakes her head, points again.
Dafne says, “How am I?”
Her mother nods once.
“Fine,” says Dafne. “I’m fine.” Dafne is shaking.
Her mother lifts the wisps of her eyebrows.
That faint expression of doubt gives Dafne the hit she needs to keep reacting as if her mother were actually whom she created her to be. “Worry about yourself, Mother,” she says.
She smoothes her dress of her own design, as though her mother had criticized it, and grips my handles, shifting me closer, almost daring her mother to react with horror or disgust or reproach at the sight of me appearing to leap snarling at her in her hospital bed. Her mother focuses on me and she squints.
Dafne looks in this moment as though she is pulling back a lens and watching herself and is horrified by what she sees. She looks embarrassed at her own behavior, guilty, even—the expression is almost unfamiliar to me, so accustomed am I to seeing anger or disdain on her face. She looks so young like this—just a child—and she moves to take me off the bed, to hide me. Her mother stays Dafne’s hand, though, and pulls at her oxygen mask. Dafne tries to restrain her. “Don’t do that,” she says, but her mother continues to pull at it, until Dafne helps her lower it from her face.
Dafne’s mother points at me, says, “Funny,” and sucking hard at the hospital room air for all the oxygen molecules she can get, begins to laugh.
In the cab home, Dafne sets me on her lap, and we stare at one another. She is crying, and I try my failing best to imbue my snarl with sympathy. It’s as if she has shrunk in the last hour—her clothes look like they belong to someone larger.
“Help me,” Dafne says to Byron when we get back.
She takes the mouse-skin dress into the bathroom and puts it in the bathtub, then piles other outfits she’s made on top, including the one she’s wearing. Byron helps her crumple newspaper and stuff it into the pile, then they pour formaldehyde on top, and Dafne lights a candle. Byron remembers to open windows and disable the smoke alarms in the apartment and the hall. In her underwear, Dafne lights the newspaper with the candle.
“Listen,” she says and reads Byron the letter her mother sent as the clothes burn in the bathtub. Even with the formaldehyde, they do not flame up but smolder. It takes a very hot fire to burn through hide. Her mother tells her she has signed a living will, that if it were not against God’s Law, she would have liked to have been cremated, that it’s strange the things that inhabit her mind these days. “I am not afraid of the fire.”
Dafne places me on the smoking pile of clothes. My fur catches quickly, and I flame up the way her other creations did not.
“I have more to say,” Dafne’s mother wrote. “Always, my love.”
Dafne places the letter into my silk gut, and she and Byron stand, holding hands while watching me burn. Dafne is weeping.
“Is it your mother?” Byron asks. “Or are you sad about losing all your work?”
“I miss my cat,” says Dafne, and buries herself in his arms.
The flames are the same color as my fur—gold and orange and white—and for a moment I look like a cat made of fire; of fire I am beautiful. The story rises—a tower of words and numbers and, yes, emotions—as the letter disintegrates inside my burning belly, and I see I am not a cat, a Cat, a bag, a box, a doubt. I observe myself burning; I observe that I am the words, the words exploding. My letters, we are particles loosing our bonds, flying apart, brushing past Dafne and Byron embracing, on our way out.
Judith Edelman comes from a reclusive clan of neuroscientists and visual artists, which is why she writes stories and songs instead. She was the recipient of Pinch Journal’s 2011 literary prize in fiction, and her stories have been published in Alimentum, Bellevue Literary Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. On the music front, she has four albums out on the Compass Records and Thirty Tigers labels, and she has composed music and songs for science documentaries that have appeared on PBS’s Nova series, on Channel Four/London, and at Sundance, among other venues—about as close to actual science as she is likely to get.
“The Parchment Is Burning, but the Letters Soar Freely” appears in our Autumn 2014 issue.