A short story about being whole.
There’s a thing I do sometimes when I’m lying awake in bed (which is always – bed is just a place I go when it gets dark because it isn’t seemly to be anywhere else) where I imagine myself made up of all the little tiny bits of matter that I am. She told me once that the molecules and atoms and sub-atoms and whatever else make up the universe aren’t really there; they’re not little balls of stuff like in the textbooks but are actually vibrating on a big graph that plots space against time and what we call matter or energy are just the places where they vibrate so fast that the lines just blur into one. Or something. When I think about that too hard it sounds all wrong. She was always better at explaining these things than I ever was at understanding them. Maybe I didn’t get what she meant, or maybe I’m remembering it wrong or maybe she got it wrong somehow (as impossible as that still seems to me). Either way, this is how I see things. The whole universe is vibrating around me, those little strings of probability plucking and strumming away and making us all exist, and I imagine that I can stay so still – slow down my breathing, slow down my heart, let every muscle go slack – that even my molecules stop moving and then the universe will vibrate right through me. I’ll fall into a billion little pieces, disappearing into nothing, just melting away as the world spins on. These are the thoughts that occupy my mind, now.
Everything is made up of pieces, eventually. We both believed that, even if we saw it in different ways. I was the artist, or at least I’d sometimes flatter myself that described me. Maybe I was just dumb. Compared to her, I always felt dumb. She was the scientist, the wizzkid, the girl genius. How could our brains be the same size, made of the same combination of DNA, and yet hers be capable of holding so much more than mine? It wasn’t fair. But then, she said the same about me. She said she envied my eyes and how I looked at the world. I suppose, when I think back, we informed each other. We each took pieces of each other to assemble a coherent whole. She talked about atoms and molecules and cells, and I talked about interplays of light and foreground and background and whatever other half-baked nonsense I’d read about recently.
Here we are, on a hilltop. She holds my hand flat in hers, palm upwards. It’s early summer and the sky is startling blue (I know the shade; I have it in a tube at home, stuffed into a box with the rest of my artist junk – my pieces are chaotic, hers are orderly). There’s a haze over the city and the distant buzz of traffic thrums through the air, but here we are peaceful and serene. She’s examining the pale skin on the palm of my hand and tracing the lines with a finger. “Do you know how many cells there are in your body?” she asks me.
“You know I don’t…”
“How much is a trillion?”
“It’s a million million.”
“Isn’t that a billion?”
“That’s a thousand million.” She smiles. “Know how many stars there are in the galaxy?”
“What do you think?”
“A few hundred billion. You have more cells in you than stars in the sky. Isn’t that amazing?”
“I don’t know.” I hate to admit when I don’t have an opinion about these things. I look down at my skin and frown deeply. I suppose it is hard to believe, but how can I even know it’s true anyway? “You can’t count all those cells, and you probably can’t count all the stars either,” I say, “how can you be certain?”
“Of course you can count them, silly.”
“How? No one could live long enough.” Even I know that.
“You don’t count them one by one…”
“What other way is there?”
She laughs and drops my hand into her lap. “Do you ever listen to anything you’re told?”
“Not really.” I can’t help smiling with her. We have the same smile, of course (except she has a dimple on her cheek where I don’t), and I always wondered if that made it doubly infectious. Babies smile at an upturned line, she told me once (on another day, somewhere very different), because smiling helps us bond. Could she and I be bonded any more than we were?
“You can count in other ways,” she assured me, “but just take my word for it. All of us, everyone on Earth, and every animal and every plant – from tree to tiny blade of grass – is bigger and more complicated than a galaxy.”
“But we’re in the galaxy,” I say, fumbling my way towards insight, “so isn’t it more complex? And there are other planets…”
“You’re right.” She gives me a different kind of smile, the ones only she can give, the best ones. “It’s fractal I guess.”
I roll over onto my belly and pick at the grass. Every blade a galaxy. I think about that, turning over that little green sliver of infinity in my hands. “Fractal?”
“Fractal is…no matter what scale you observe something at, it looks the same.”
I make an indifferent noise. “I guess.”
“Like, okay.” She comes and lies down next to me and finds a rock which she digs out of the soil and holds up. “See this?”
I can still see it. Just a little grey stone, no bigger than the top joint of a thumb, layered (sedimentary, my sieve of a brain deigns to remember now), completely unassuming, completely irrelevant, completely fascinating when wielded by her.
“What about it?”
“Rocks are fractal. No matter how you scale them up or down, they look the same. This piece of stone could be a mountain or a tiny pebble, and still be the same shape, have the same contours at the same scale. Examine it under a microscope, and it looks no different. The universe is like that. Matter clumps together, energy radiates outwards, you look through the Hubble Telescope and…”
I let her carry on. Some of it makes sense: if I tried, I’d understand, but I’m not interested. I like hearing her voice. My first memory is her voice. Typical that she started talking before me. I wasn’t far behind, but I remember lying there in our cot while she sat up, happily babbling away. Or maybe I just think I remember that. Who can recall being a baby, really? But either way, I love her voice. We have the same one, of course (I’ve heard us both on tape and even I can’t tell who’s who), but mine sounds different inside my own head, so to me hers is unique. Her talking excitedly about some science nonsense is like a soothing lullaby. I allow it to send me drifting off to a place of calm serenity. We’re back in that cot, tiny children holding hands as we sleep. Identical cherubic faces, identical chubby fingers intertwined. A fantasy image, but I’ve seen the photos. We were cute.
I hold up my hands, making a frame across the landscape. There’s a wisp of cloud rising over St. Paul’s, and it’s between us and the sun, not so it blocks out the light but just enough to make the underside unusually dark. Someone is unlucky enough to be sitting out on the one terrace in London that’s in the shade. I put that on the extreme left, the cathedral’s tower (that’s the wrong word. Rotunda. It comes to me, now, years later, but actually maybe that’s not right either…) just below and slightly to the right. Then the sweep of the city beyond it, with a little copse of trees down there by the lazy loop of river, balancing out the other side. Should I add more clouds for drama? No; it would distract from the lonely one creeping up behind the cathedral, so singular against that powder blue dome of sky.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks.
I realise she stopped talking a little while ago. “How to paint this.”
“How could you capture something so beautiful?”
“I’m not capturing it. I’m setting it free.”
“I love how you see the world. You divide everything into pieces you can digest.”
“It’s already in pieces,” I say, with the half-smile curving my lips that I get when I think I’m about to be very clever, “I’m just putting it back together.”
I remember that day and a thousand others just like it. I remember being very small but old enough to have our own beds. We didn’t like that. One of us would always sneak into the other’s to curl up. We slept better that way. We grew out of it, but for a little while even being a few feet apart across a bedroom was unbearable. I remember us lying like that, both just half-awake, listening to the beating of our hearts. They had the same rhythm, the same tone, beat for beat. I didn’t know which was hers and which was mine.
This is another thing she told me: she said, one day, grey and dreary, in a chain coffee shop, waiting for something dull, “We’re all pieces of each other.”
“Yeah?” I drew circles in spilled sugar with my finger. She only drank black tea, unsweetened, I drank extravagant coffees filled with bags of sugar. There was more than the dimple separating us now.
“Every atom is recycled by the universe over and over again. Every bit of me that I think is me once belonged to someone else. To Shakespeare, Genghis Khan, Jesus. Whoever. And every single atom in my body gets replaced every seven years so we’re never truly the same people.”
“You’ve told me this before.”
“I know, but I was just thinking about it.”
I glance up. “Why?”
She’s looking out the window at the rain beading on the glass. The wind is fierce outside in the street and a woman’s umbrella gets turned inside out. A little child on a harness held by his mother totters along, his face hidden by a woolly hat and every other feature swaddled in layers of coat and jumper so he looks like a little Michelin Man being buffeted by the gusts. The clothes shop across the way has a sale on, but I can never find anything I like in that place. “It just seemed that sort of day,” she says.
Pieces of her. It was just like her to have been an organ donor. When I found that out (why hadn’t I known? It seems like a thing I should have known) I remembered another conversation. “We could be like spare parts for each other,” she’d said. I think the telly was showing something about robots. It was a childish joke, now rendered tragic by time and events. I didn’t need the spare parts. They went to people who did. Pieces of her, scattered around, put inside somebody else. It seemed wrong. They were pieces of me too.
It was a senseless accident. No poetry to it. She might have enjoyed the randomness of chance that led to it occurring, I just despaired at the lack of artistry. This is where you mind goes when you face this kind of horror. A van swerved in the street and no one knew why. It ploughed straight into a lamppost, but not before ploughing straight through my sister. She and the driver were both killed instantly. If there was some sense I could get revenge on the man that did this, maybe I’d be able to feel some kind of completion. Instead there’s just this hole inside me, where she used to be. There’s nothing magical or mystical about being a twin – all it is is familiarity, learned responses, behavioural tics and stuff like that. That’s what she’d have said anyway. You grow up with someone, so close to them, so aware of your similarity, you can’t help but feel like they’re a part of you.
For me it’s more than a feeling. We were pieces of each other. Two halves of one whole. I can’t paint without her voice and I can’t sleep without her heartbeat. Do you know what it’s like, to lose part of yourself? You probably do. This isn’t unique. But I take comfort from that conversation on that rainy, cold day when I was drawing in condiments and she was thinking about the universe. Every atom gets recycled. In a literal sense, pieces of her have become pieces of me now. If I speak into a microphone and play it back, I can hear her voice. If I hold my hand to my chest, I can feel her heartbeat. When I look into a mirror and force myself to smile, for just a moment she’s alive again and I can’t even breathe for that stunning second of stolen joy.
Illusions. Tricks. But they get me through these days, until I learn to fall to pieces and drop through the universe.