A Complex Filament of Light
- by S. Qiouyi Lu -
After winter, spring in Antarctica is almost pleasant, most days just barely below freezing. As you make your way back to the station, you stop and glance at the horizon—you prefer these days of twilight, the soft orange glow of sun on the horizon contrasting beautifully with the deep indigo of the sky. It’s more interesting than never ending daylight, more comforting than the long nights of winter. And it’s still enough of a distinction to create the illusion of darkness, to trick your body into maintaining a circadian rhythm.
Your snowmobile cuts through the snow and ice, kicking up flurries in your wake. As you crest another hill, the Delaney–Chen station comes into view. Your stomach grumbles—you got here just in time. You park your snowmobile out front and make your way inside, taking off your scarf and gloves in pace with your steps. You load up on cafeteria food and find a spot by the window.
Before you eat, you have to take your multivitamin. It has a chalky feeling to it and a taste that isn’t exactly pleasant. But as you swallow the pill, you remind yourself that it’s for your own good—fruit and vegetables are hard to come by in the Antarctic, and vitamin deficiency is not something you want to deal with. It’s hard enough being out here without adding health problems on top of everything.
You turn the bottle. The multivitamins tumble. A memory emerges and, try as you might to suppress it, you can’t help but think about the time you were sixteen and rummaging around in your sister’s closet, looking for that one shirt you liked. Soft with wear, it’d go perfect with your jeans, if only you could find it. It wasn’t anywhere in the closet; perhaps it was in one of the bedside drawers. As you opened one, you heard a rattle. Startled, you looked in: a transparent orange bottle full of pills had fallen on its side. Unable to hold back your curiosity, you picked up the bottle and read the label: JULIE XU. Fluoxetine, 60mg. Take one at night with water.
The hairs on the back of your neck rose; the same sensation steals over you now. Even though the multivitamin is a necessity, you can’t help but feel some shame in taking it. You tell yourself the emotion is irrational, but your parents’ words have dug deep into you: Western medicine is harmful. It has so many negative side effects. You don’t need to take it—you’re fine, you’re healthy.
But you’ve seen what vitamin B deficiency does—what scurvy does out here. You swallow your shame and take a sip of water.
“Hey, Alicia! Mind if I join you?”
You look up. Daphne Wong, perhaps the most cheerful and most nosy of everyone in your cohort, stands beside your table cradling a steaming mug of hot chocolate. You’re not in the mood to make small talk, but you don’t want to be rude. You shrug.
Daphne slides into the seat across from you and pushes her slim glasses up on her nose. You take another sip of water and poke at your food. You can’t think of anything to say, but you know Daphne’s going to start chattering in three . . . two . . .
“So I know you mentioned it a few days ago, but I just wanted to make sure I’m doing it right—your pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘them,’ right? Like ‘they’re going to the store’ and ‘I’m going with them’?”
You nod. “Yeah.” You want to stay closed off and cold, but it warms your heart that someone’s actually paying attention to the things you say and trying to accommodate you. It’s hard to find that in people. “Thanks,” you add.
“Oh, no problem; actually, my sister is trans—”
You start zoning out. You’ve heard a ton of stories about people who know people who are trans or nonbinary. It’s not that it bothers you that much, but hearing about sisters is something you can’t really deal with right now. You try to get a spoonful of mashed potatoes, and only then do you notice your hands are shaking. Daphne’s eyes flit down. Crap—she’s noticed, too.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” You stand, your chair scraping against the floor, the sound loud enough to make you wince. “I—I’m tired. I’m going to head off to bed.”
“But you haven’t eaten—”
You pick up your tray. “I’ll just take it back to my room.”
“Well, if you’re sure.”
You are. You say goodbye and head to your room. You can feel Daphne’s eyes following you on the way out; it’s annoying and a little bit creepy. You just need your space.
You end up lying down and falling asleep, your dinner tray untouched on your desk.
Today, you’re working with your team to take an ice core sample from the sheet below you. The drills are solar-powered, able to tunnel deep and extract information about Antarctica’s past—Earth’s past, and perhaps future. Your team can read ocean acidification from the composition of the core: It used to be that the oceans were at a steady pH of 8.11, but nowadays they’re closer to an average of 7.83. The Southern Ocean, though, is usually at a pH of 7.79 because of its unique chemistry. You’ve seen more than one mollusc with its shell twisted, dissolved by acidification until the layers simply wore away. No past sample ever showed conditions as bad as now, but perhaps you can still learn something from the cycles of history, from how oceans can recover salinity.
Layers and layers and layers. The Earth is like that; people are like that. If you could peel back your skin, core a bone from your flesh, perhaps your skeleton would reveal truths about you, too. You think about the scars on your sister’s thighs: Was she trying to feel, trying to open herself, to cut through nothingness to finally understand something about herself? You think about your own unmarred thighs and wonder what that sensation, of blade breaking skin, is like. But perhaps you shouldn’t be wondering.
You’re dazed again, working on autopilot as you help to pull up the ice core, examine it, get it prepped for testing and storage.
You’re not hungry by the time you retire to the base, even though you’ve been working hard all day. You sit at your same spot by a window, hands curled around a mug of cheap Lipton tea—the only kind at the station. You keep blowing at the surface though it’s already gone lukewarm. It’s soothing, this little microcosm of you and water, the rippling an image on which you can focus, clearing other images from your mind.
Daphne again. You’d snap at her, but you don’t have the emotional capacity to feel angry right now. You say nothing, and Daphne sits across from you, her brow furrowed.
“Are you okay? I’m worried about you,” she says. “You’ve been so out of it and you’re working so hard. Is there something you want to talk about? I mean, we’re grad students, we’re all miserable, but we don’t talk about it enough, you know?”
It’s true: you don’t talk about it. You can’t talk about it. You can’t talk about your mother’s panicked call; about the way nothing feels real, first with you thousands of miles from home in another state, and now at the bottom of the world. You could be dreaming and you wouldn’t even know.
“I’m fine,” you say, but when you hear the sound of your voice, you know it won’t convince Daphne. “I’m fine,” you repeat anyway, more to convince yourself than her.
Daphne starts talking again, and her words fade into a buzz in your mind. Your parents should have bonded more after what happened, should have taken it as proof that mental health is important, that they should pay attention to their own, too. But you know they’re fighting even more now. They’ve been too caught up in their own issues to contact you. Part of you feels relieved while the rest of you feels guilty: You’re relieved that you no longer need to play mediator between them—no longer need to play the role of their therapist—but you’re worried nonetheless about how they’re coping. Last you heard, they were readying for a divorce, and you’re secretly happy about it. Maybe they’d be better off not having to feel each other’s pain.
You look up. Daphne looks so goddamn concerned. And she’s so close—too close to you. The room is too small, and there are so many people around.
“You know you can talk to me about anything, right?”
You’d laugh if you could. Like you could just drop a truth bomb on a stranger. Like you could just open your mouth and say, My sister killed herself eight months ago and I’m still not over it. Your throat closes up and you can barely breathe. You shake your head. A moment later, your throat opens just enough for a few words to slip past.
“I need some air,” you say, and dash outside. You hop on a snowmobile; you need to get away. As twilight descends, the roar of your snowmobile sounds tinny to your ears, distant as you put as much space between you and the station as you can.
You think Daphne’s calling your name, but you’re too far gone to hear.
You stop halfway between the Delaney–Chen station and the Amundsen–Scott station at the South Pole. You’re in the middle of nowhere, the snow packed hard beneath you; you get off the snowmobile and lean against it, brace your weight against the machine.
Sometimes, when you’re surrounded by snow and ice and frigid water, you forget that Antarctica is the world’s largest desert. It’s one-and-a-half times the size of the Sahara, and so dry that, if you’re not careful, your skin will crack. Even with the increased precipitation that the rise in temperatures has caused, Antarctica still can’t be categorized as any other kind of ecosystem.
Despite the hurt in your heart, despite the pain in your mind, you can’t let a single tear fall. Something dams up and you choke it back until there’s a prickling at the corners of your eyes, the wind wicking you away until your eyes are left with only salt.
You loved your sister. You love your sister. It still doesn’t feel right that she’s gone. Jovial Julie you’d called her, ever since you learned the word “jovial” in sixth grade. You still called her that even when she wasn’t.
There’s so much rage in your heart too—rage at your parents who said depression wasn’t real; rage at your community who thought therapy was something that Chinese people don’t do, that only white people do. They pay to have a friend listen to them complain. Except that’s not what therapy is, is it? Julie was getting better, she really was, until your parents pulled her from therapy and said they wouldn’t pay for it anymore.
And then. And then.
You were away at college, and you still feel guilty about that. What if you’d gone to school closer to home? What if you’d spent more time with Julie? What if you’d talked more about how she was doing during your video chats instead of her just nodding along to you complaining about classes and friends?
You wish the tears would fall.
Suddenly you feel like your weight is so much more than what the snowmobile can bear, like gravity’s increased and is pushing you down to the frigid ground. You feel like your heart could burst, like your whole being could burst, and as you sink to your knees you think Goddammit, why can’t I just cry—
Dry heaving, your gloved hands clutching your face, you become aware of a dim light creeping through your eyelids. You take your hands away, and even with your eyes closed, you can still sense it.
You open your eyes and look up. An aurora australis—you’ve seen a handful of them by now, but somehow this one seems more intense, more beautiful, perhaps because the ozone layer is thinner here and every wavelength of light can filter through. The aurora is green with a hint of pink, undulating across the sky like a ribbon, a whisper of snow sidewinding over asphalt.
“Julie?” you say, and then wonder why you even said that.
You remember a story you heard once: Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, back when they still used telegraphs, there had been a night when the aurora was just right to power a telegraph line between Boston and Portland, Maine. The operators had stopped the power between the two stations and sent messages back and forth by aurora alone.
You wish you could connect to this aurora, use its electricity to send a message to wherever Julie is now. You close your eyes again, and Julie’s face appears in your mind, making you choke back a sob. You’d tell her you were sorry; that you wish you’d known. You’d tell her how much she always mattered to you—
Crackling falls over you, and suddenly you’re enveloped in light, strange wavelengths pulsing through you. It’s like your whole body’s electric, and who’s to say it isn’t? Your neurons fire with electrical signals, after all, and now they feel like they’re opening up, each and every one. You hear the whispers of a million myriad voices, a chorus, a susurrus. One voice in particular stands out to you, soft like Julie’s, pleading again and again, Will you accept me? Will you open yourself to me?
Yes, you murmur, and realize then how you ache, how you’ve closed yourself so tight that your whole body is tense; how you’ve built a dozen walls, a fortress around yourself. Yes, I’ll accept you. Yes, I’ll open myself to you.
You open your eyes then and see with the aurora, all light and sound and electricity coursing through you. The world is a green glow and you swear you can see far enough that the horizon curves, that you’re rising even though you can feel the cold of packed snow against your knees. Your heart opens itself to the aurora, opens you to the aurora. Accepts its light into your very being.
Words swirl around you, words you can’t understand. Chattering, murmuring—you let them course through you and offer your own. You don’t know what you’re saying, but to be saying anything at all is a catharsis. You don’t know how long this lasts, only that your throat’s going hoarse and your body aches with a different kind of exhaustion.
Eventually, the aurora fades. Eventually, the light within your heart dims, and you’re back to feeling hollow and empty, back to feeling numb. Even so, you remember that sensation, that openness and oneness, and see a road unfurling before you.
When you’ve stopped shaking, when you’ve taken enough deep breaths to feel like you’re only human again and not some cosmic entity, you take the snowmobile and head back to the station. By the time you get there, sunrise is barely beginning, warm oranges slanting their way up from the horizon.
You’re surprised to see Daphne in the dining room, her head resting against her hand as she nods off over a cup of tea. This time, it’s your turn to slide into the seat across from her.
“Hey,” you say, and Daphne jerks awake. She smiles when she sees you.
“You’re back,” she says.
“Yeah,” you reply. “Did you wait up for me?”
“I was going to go after you if you weren’t back in . . .” Daphne checks her watch. “Another fifteen minutes or so. I wanted to give you some space, but . . .”
“Thanks,” you say. “I needed that.”
Daphne blows on her tea, and the fragrance wafts over to you.
“That’s not Lipton,” you say, and Daphne grins.
“I brought Tieguanyin.”
Your eyes widen. “No way.”
“I have more. Would you like some?”
“Sure,” you say. The conversation goes easily, beats moving back and forth without hesitation. It’s reassuring to be caught up in that rhythm. Even when Daphne breaks away to make you a cup of tea, the silence stretching to cover the distance between the two of you is comfortable in a way you haven’t felt in a long time.
Daphne returns and sets the mug of Tieguanyin beside you. The aroma of it is gorgeous, rich and floral, and you think the Bodhisattva Guanyin would smell like this, too, their figure radiating compassion and mercy. As you take a sip, the bitterness echoes your own in a way that cleanses your palate.
Daphne’s smile is patient, kind. With these opened eyes, you understand now that she cares about you—she’s the one person who’s been watching out for you here, the one person who’s bothered to check in on you. In the haze of your pain you’d interpreted her actions as nagging, but you wonder now if Julie would still be here if she’d had someone like Daphne in her life.
“How do you do it?” you say at last. “How are you always so happy?”
Daphne laughs. “Because I’m not.”
You tilt your head. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve struggled with depression since I was in elementary school. It got really bad in undergrad, and it’s only been the past few years that I’ve really started to recover. I’ve learned positive self-talk and I keep fighting every day, because I don’t want to fall into that pit again. Took a long, long time though, because I thought I didn’t need help or therapy.”
A lump rises in your throat. You don’t know what to say, even though you know how that feeling goes. You’ve thought about pursuing therapy here, with the station’s psychologist, but part of you is still terrified and embarrassed.
“Sorry, I know I’m pretty forthcoming about this . . .”
“No, no, it’s fine,” you say, and you mean it. “It’s—it’s nice to have this out in the open.”
Daphne nods. “Even without all the cultural issues, grad students deal disproportionately with mental health issues, you know? I always feel like we have to talk about it more. The only way to get better is to acknowledge the problem, after all. It’s been one of my goals ever since getting better—to be more of an advocate about this. So if you ever need anything . . .”
You do. And suddenly you’re crying. You’re crying at the table with Daphne and you can’t stop.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Daphne says, getting up. She takes the seat next to you and rubs your back. “I’m here. We can talk about it if you want, or you can just let it out. That’s important, too.”
Even through the pain your heart still swells with gratitude, with appreciation. You nod, all the while realizing that you can’t keep yourself closed off. You have to be open; you have to connect to others, allow them to be there for you. It’s going to be hard as hell, and it’s going to hurt more than you’ve ever known, but you’re going to have to allow yourself to feel that pain and share it with others. Daphne wants to be there for you, and it’s scary as fuck, but you’re going to let her be there for you.
You take a deep, shuddering breath, and the tears stem their flow enough for you to take another sip of tea to calm yourself. The bitter taste of it opens your soul, frees your tongue. As she waits for you to speak, you muster up another shaking breath.
Finally, you say, “My sister killed herself eight months ago. I’m still not over it.”
And you won’t be over it, not for a long time still. But as Daphne listens to you speak, as she responds with sympathy and kindness, you feel a new comfort easing over you.
“What was her name?” Daphne asks.
“Julie,” you say, and as Daphne repeats the name, an echo of the aurora’s light bridges your hearts.
© 2017 by S. Qiouyi Lu
S. Qiouyi Lu is a writer, editor, narrator, and translator; their fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Uncanny, and their poetry has appeared in Liminality and inkscrawl. In their spare time, S. enjoys destroying speculative fiction as a dread member of the Queer Asian SFFH Illuminati. Find out more at s.qiouyi.lu or follow them on Twitter at @sqiouyilu.