Jens Meijen – The Light Years
The doorbell rings. I pick up the intercom and ask who it is. Silence. I go downstairs to check, my flipflops slapping against every step. In the vestibule of the apartment building, right before the mailboxes, there’s a pitch-black box. There is a HANDLE WITH CARE sticker on the top and, next to it, a National Postal Service label—one of Amazon’s many subsidiaries. No sender details. I pick it up—not heavy, but unwieldy—and carry it upstairs. Something seems to be sloshing around inside it with every step, like a flat stone in water. You’re waiting in the doorway. I go inside and put the box down on the table. We both stand there looking at it for a moment.
‘Open it,’ you say. I don’t move. ‘What, you think it’s a bomb or something?’
It’s not impossible, actually, although I imagine there are better, cheaper and more efficient ways to get rid of us, if someone wanted to do that. You lift the lid off. The pungent tang of fish fills the room. Inside the box is a plastic tub with some water in it containing a large, fat hermit crab. His shell is grayish brown and all scratched up, his legs a dull orange. The animal regards us with beady eyes mounted on two skinny stalks, makes a clicking noise, blows a saliva bubble from what is probably his mouth. The creature seems ancient, but maybe it’s just dried out. ‘This must be some kind of joke,’ I say quietly. We text our friends to ask who pulled this stunt. Dimitri sends back the video for a song called “Crab Rave” that features an entire army of crabs dancing to the music. Our friends think we’re joking. They have no idea what we’re talking about.
‘What should we do with it?’ you ask.
‘Cook it,’ I grin, and you roll your eyes. We look over at the hermit crab. We think he’s looking at us, too. Hard to tell.
‘We have to get him a tank,’ you say.
‘Yeah, like in those seafood restaurants,’ I say. ‘A tank for this guy must be pretty expensive. And what do they even eat?’
‘We can’t just leave him like this.’
‘We’ve already used up almost all of our water allowance. All those plants of yours are constantly thirsty…’
You cross your arms. ‘They don’t need that much. We’ll just pay extra. Or I’ll drink a little less.’
‘You should take him for a walk every now and then,’ I say to tease you. ‘We’ll have to buy a collar for him.’ I look at the creature. I couldn’t kill him. Take a hammer and drive a metal pin through his body. No.
I go to the pet store. Or, to be precise, the specialty animal supply store, but the sign was too small, so it ended up being the pet store. It’s not far from our apartment. A while back, the previous owner slipped and hit his head on the edge of the counter. We could hear the sirens from our living room. The kind of sirens that herald disaster, that put a peach pit in your stomach. Maybe people can unconsciously tell how serious an accident is from the doppler effect: when the ambulance drives by faster, the siren sounds different.
At any rate, the owner’s skull was crushed. Lots of blood, apparently, and his daughter found him but couldn’t remember the emergency number, the way you sometimes forget things when you’re in a panic. He bled to death in her arms, or maybe in one arm; she was using the other to hold the phone up to her ear. I walk over to the store in my flipflops and basketball gear that’s at least ten years old—I’ve reached the age where you start trying not to care about what you’re wearing, like tourists or old people, because your desire for convenience begins to eclipse your vanity.
Out on the street the sun bounces off the hastily whitewashed buildings and the empty store windows with naked mannequins and discount percentages on the glass. Others have been covered with black plastic or have mattresses propped up in front of them. The heat is stifling. You can feel your mouth and windpipe getting hot as you breathe.
On the store counter there’s a flyer for ‘haCOWna matata,’ a workshop where people can learn how to massage their cows, though it’s unclear to me whether that’s supposed to make the meat more tender or if it’s for the animal’s benefit—of course it could be both. The girl behind the counter greets me, and I wonder whether she is the owner’s daughter, and whether she sees her father’s blood again, every day at work, cradles him in her arms again. Of course that’s needlessly dramatic of me. I ask for a tank for a hermit crab, and I expected her to laugh, because who would keep a hermit crab as a pet—you can’t even cuddle them, not really, though I suppose you could decorate their shell with waterproof markers and glitter—but she doesn’t even meet my eyes. She stares straight ahead, her gaze settling on my basketball jersey. She takes me to the right aisle, points at a few tanks and asks me how much room I have. ‘We’ll make room,’ I say. I can’t stop thinking about it, the pulverized skull in her hands, how she may have accidentally pushed her fingers into his brain. Softer than jello after the fall against the counter. His prefrontal cortex reduced to a bubbling deepwater lake. The ridges that housed his memories becoming craters in the shape of her fingertips.
The girl says there are a lot of different options, and there are a number of things I need to take into consideration, such as exposure to daylight, temperature and noise, and I nod as she lists them. Maybe it would be better to take the crab to a shelter after all—are there shelters for these creatures? She stops talking and looks straight into my eyes for a moment—hers are grape-green, and I think I’m seeing a sadness in them that probably isn’t even there, that I’m projecting into her eyes because I believe I know what happened here. Her fingers sinking into the ravine in his cranium, the smashed bone sliding aside. What I imagine that sounds like, a bubbling or gurgling noise. I suppress a shiver.
The grape girl has stopped talking. ‘Yeah, sounds good,’ I say, but I don’t know if that’s the right response, because she looks doubtful. I point at a large glass tank and say, ‘This one, I guess?’ and she starts telling me about delivery times, because this is just a display model. How urgent is it, she asks, and I say, ‘Very,’ and explain the situation. Scenarios pertaining to the near future are largely generated by the prefrontal cortex of the brain; the gurgling noise coming from the deepwater lake of the man’s smashed skull, then, was the extinguishing of all the plans he still had—from the shipment of apricot clownfish that he was still expecting to the seaside vacation with his family.
The girl explains that they will do their best to deliver as quickly as possible and that they’re happy to take the crab off my hands as soon as they have room in one of their own tanks, that they’re short-staffed right now, and I nod; I’m about to say something else, but I get distracted because I can already picture the hermit crab in the tank, in his palace of glass, surrounded by large sea shells, those fake fossils, and air bubbles rising up from the sand, and then there are his little eyes, he’s barely moving, he might as well be chained down—he’s just sitting there, motionless. It might seem sad, but he wouldn’t be any better off in the wild, I realize, because he would have long been fished out of the sea to become some child’s plaything, tossed around in the air, or a teenager would rip him out of his shell to humiliate him, or a fisherman would kill him to eat his meat and sell his precious shell in a curiosity shop. Maybe we could become friends, the crab and me. Although of course we never know with animals whether they are with us for our personalities—a horrendously narcissistic notion—or because we’re the ones who feed them.
We stand still in the hallway, looking up. ‘It’s coming from the air duct,’ you whisper. I recognize the tapping. Of course. He must have crawled up to the roof and into the air duct by pushing the grate aside, or maybe the grate wasn’t on there right. It doesn’t really matter how the crab ended up there. We go into our apartment. I go up to the roof and put a plate of food and a bowl of water near the place where he probably crawled into the air duct. Maybe he’ll come out soon, or maybe he prefers sitting in the dark by himself. That’s the trouble with animals: you never know what it is they want.
The winters here have become greener and greener with the years; the summers turned yellow, then orange, then red, unbearable. It started with little things. Suddenly we could go outside without a coat in December and swim in the sea in February. Then we started getting mosquitos all year round and we barely heard birdsong anymore—no flocks of pigeons in the town square, no seagulls circling the tower cranes. Then we saw busloads full of people beginning to move away from here as the local public transit became increasingly sparse: the town buses went from running every fifteen minutes to every hour to once a day to hardly ever.
After the first few heatwaves the drivers taped off all the windows with aluminum foil. They left a small strip of the front window exposed; they taped off their cabins on the inside. To buy a ticket you had to scan your fingerprint on a small device. I still rode the bus back then. The air conditioning sounded like the sea and the wind at the same time. In the dark the other passengers were like black rocks on the shoreline and the bus creaked and swayed like a wooden ship. You could see the list of bus stops on the LED screens, which still gave off a little light, but apart from that you were riding blind.
After a while the screens went dark too, and the buses couldn’t make it up the hills anymore because their air conditioning had to work too hard. Around the same time cracks started appearing in the roads and we were hit with strict water rationing; we started seeing a big storm every spring, monsoon-like rains in the fall, winters without snow and then even without real cold. Most of the streetlights stopped working ages ago. It’s been years since anyone used their attic for anything other than storage. Now we do everything on foot or on what’s left of the train service; we scurry around after dark, fearful and nocturnal. A crew used to go around handing out bottled water to old people in the summer, but when after a while no one answered the door anymore, they’d cross that house off their list and move on. Either the people had left or they’d become maggot food. A little later on, when the streets remained empty, other teams would show up and break down the doors of the houses where no one had answered on the last three visits to see if anyone was still there.
You did that work too for a while. You saw them in your dreams every night, white bodies, like store mannequins, their cheeks dried up into a crispy husk that you could stick your fingers straight through. Like newspaper. They looked at you with big fish eyes. ‘They know,’ you’d say when you came home, ‘they know what happened. All the old residents. That they got left behind by their families when they headed north.’ You saw snakes writhing inside their bodies, between their ribs, hundreds of white snakes with their little forked tongues. You didn’t want to do that work anymore so they had you work the phones instead, out of the community center: endless lists of phone numbers, names and ages. Most of the people who still answered the phone were little old ladies. They talked about people you didn’t know—René from the bakery, Lisette from the corner—who’d probably left years ago.
Sometimes you still hear the dial tone when it’s quiet and you’ll hum along (beeeep…beeeep…); sometimes you hear the busy signal (beeeeeeeep). Most people have already migrated north—to Sweden, Norway and Finland—but more still will follow. The richest have moved to Iceland and Greenland; sometimes we’ll post videos on the group chat that are making the rounds online of lush, verdant landscapes over on the islands, newly planted forests, jungles even, with brightly colored parrots, waterfalls that produce permanent rainbows and fat, sickly sweet flowers. Artificially irrigated and shot through with manmade rivers, dikes and dams. Ultimately only the poorest will be left here, back home. Many of those who’ve stayed have recurring fever dreams about a white desert.
All night long the crab taps against the pipes inside the air duct. It’s like he’s trying to tell me something, but I don’t know what. I try to write some copy for an app that allows its users to hire regular people to complete simple tasks, like recording video messages or watering their plants. Meanwhile, you watch something on Netflix, a show about a wealthy family in Greenland—Pioneers: International Heroes. A few times I even hear his legs tapping against the porcelain of the toilet bowl. Maybe he can also travel through the plumbing. Sometimes he comes scuttling past in the corridor but each time, when I get to the door, he’s gone. He could come crashing down from the ceiling any moment, I’m sure of it. He’s impossible to find and yet everywhere at the same time. We’re not even sure anymore if it really is a hermit crab—after all, as far as I know they don’t have teleportation skills.
I want to ask you what the tarot cards I drew earlier mean—the cups, the man with the staff, the tower with the bolt of lightning—but I don’t feel like talking. You turn the TV off and say you’re going to bed—you’re tired, so tired. I close my laptop, take a towel from the kitchen cabinet and push it up against the wide crack between the door and the floor—you never know, maybe that crack will inspire the hermit crab to slough off his shell and slither in underneath the door. I don’t know how nimble he might be when he’s naked. Then I follow you to the bedroom.
I’m woken in the middle of the night by the tapping. I tiptoe to the living room without waking you. The vacant tank is sitting on the table. The towel against the door has disappeared. The crab has probably made off with it. Nothing surprises me anymore. I sneak half a glass of water so you don’t have to worry about our water quota and crawl back into bed. You’re making noises, dreaming something exciting. I always have the same dream twice. The first time everything is normal—it might be a walk in the woods, a road trip, a pool party, someone coming over or a ride in a gunmetal-gray car. The second time it’s all wrong: the walk in the woods is on Utøya, the road trip is a chase, the water turns into a vortex, the person coming over is a hitman, the car locks the doors and kidnaps me. I’m walking in the same places, doing the same things, except different, out of joint, surveilled by malevolent forces. I never have a choice. They are riddles without solutions. And when I wake up in the morning, I’m left with the nagging feeling that everything is ever-so-slightly off-kilter, that I’ve been thrown into a parallel timeline and will never be able to get back. That feeling lingers all day, like a fog bank that some extraterrestrial behemoth might emerge from at any moment, or a city I’ll never be able to escape. I don’t know what or when or how, but something’s going to happen.
I pulled the helmet over my head and found myself in a kind of futuristic laboratory. Right in front of me there was another helmet hanging on the wall with bolts of lightning shooting out of it. I was surrounded by tall shelves full of jars containing embalmed creatures, some sort of alchemist’s vials with colorful substances and a large metal cauldron with liquid bubbling inside it. I heard Marco’s voice: ‘You need to take that electric helmet and put it on.’ I grabbed the virtual helmet—the gloves made it feel like I was really holding it—and pulled it over my head. Everything went white, and I woke up in a futuristic city. Cars were flying through a grayish-green sky. People were flowing in and out of buildings that were thousands of stories tall. Neon signs and luminescent plastic palm trees flickered in the streets. It was just like I was really there—I couldn’t tell the difference.
‘You need to go to the TV store. Make a left,’ Marco’s voice said. ‘Use the gloves to point to where you want to go.’ A number of different TV shows were playing on the screens in the store window. ‘You need to choose a game,’ Marco said. The TV shows were apps that you could load to dive down into the next level of unreality. ‘Go with the purple one on the left.’ I tapped on it, and the screen went purple for a moment.
The rustling of trees, the smell of turpentine and ripe berries filled my VR balaclava. Birdsong echoed through the woods. I looked around, reached for a bush and the gloves simulated leaves, a small thorn, a cluster of berries, hyperreal. A line of text hovered in the air: ‘Use the green powder to fertilize eggs. Use the red power to destroy other eggs.’ Then fluorescent clouds appeared, in hypnotic red and green, scattered throughout the forest. At the base of some trees were eggs the size of a human baby. Marco’s voice: ‘You might be starting out here in the woods, but soon you will move on to a village where you will be trading in animal hides and raw materials, a city where you will buy and sell real estate, and ultimately a space station where you will be trading cryptocurrency. And every hour you die and play on as your own children, that’s how you move down through the generations. Let me skip ahead for you.’
The forest changed into an urban office with a view of skyscrapers, glass giants. It smelled like Cassandra’s interior. I leaned over and saw people walking around down below. Sometimes one of them would stop and wave at me. Marco’s voice: ‘The city mirrors the ups and downs of the stock market. When Elon tweeted that Tesla’s stock prices were too high and the stock immediately plummeted ten percent, the algorithms that monitor the market saw Tesla’s shares take a nosedive, so they went ahead and sold other shares because they were expecting a general crash, which in turn triggered other algorithms that sold other shares. A cascade effect. A blood waterfall. The whole system collapsed, all because of Elon Musk. Fire rained down from the sky in the simulation. Buildings crumbled. Panic in the streets. Lives were destroyed; men were so frightened and humiliated they jumped out of their office windows on the five hundredth floor, women wailed at the prospect of their babies going hungry.’ Right now things seemed peaceful in the simulation.
‘Wait, we can go up another level.’ Suddenly I was inside a kind of fishbowl in a space station or a kind of space hotel, in a swanky loft with a view of Earth from a huge window. The smell of disinfectant. The Earth seemed to be motionless, although when I focused I could see that the clouds were moving. ‘And here you are, a brain in a jar, trading cryptocurrency and deciding who will be injected with your cryogenically frozen DNA. You have to operate the tentacles yourself. It may seem a little abstract right now, but when you’re playing the game it’s very intuitive. You can also use it as a weather app.’ It was as if I could grab the Earth and hold it in the palm of my hand. It looked so serene.
I reached out, but the gloves simulated my fingertips hitting against the glass. They also seemed to be simulating an invisible lock, a kind of button I could push. Marco started speaking again: ‘It really is a fun game. But you have to be careful, because before long you’ll want to play all the time. The rewards are really nice. First, in the woods, you can create a comfortable life for yourself, and then you can do the same for your children and grandchildren, and so on. You want to make your own blood immortal. Pass on an empire. That’s the only way to stay alive nowadays. Everyone else ends up being forgotten. If you had to choose between staying on the straight and narrow or immortality, what would you do?’ I wasn’t sure if I was still hearing Marco’s voice, or if the game was talking to me through the liquid that my brain was suspended in.
‘If you’re not careful, it will seep into every fiber of your being. Every night I dream of hedge funds, bond certificates like cushions of blood-soaked velvet, a web of green and red sparks, a room with marble walls and diamond chandeliers, gauzy curtains billowing in the breeze and a balcony with a view of palm trees lining dazzling white beaches, and down below, fuchsias like gemstones in hedges surrounding swimming pools so blue the water looks like molten sapphires, and on a nearby table, carved out of millennia-old amber with an equally ancient insect petrified inside it, there’s a carafe of wine redolent with the aroma of wild berries, and you smell rich ebony, briny oysters, walnuts and leather polish; incense, crystal-clear champagne, caviar foam, truffles, ripe mangoes, agave syrup, palm-oil baths, aloe-vera extract; you are wearing the most expensive clothes, so light you don’t even feel them on your skin, like a phantom in a white gown—yes, that’s what I want for my children. Beauty. Happiness. Power. Freedom.’ If it really was Marco talking, he’d probably learned his lines by heart in advance. Or he was reading them off paper.
I pressed the invisible button to open the lock of my brain bowl, but it turned out it wasn’t for a lock at all: a black claw grabbed the Earth and crushed it into dust. A dull flash shot out from between the claw’s fingers. All that was left then was debris floating in space. For a split second I thought that maybe this was reality: that I was a brain in a bowl containing a body in a simulation, a body still being controlled by a crab. ‘Um, that wasn’t really supposed to happen,’ Marco said, taken aback. ‘But some people like to play an evil character.’ Then Irina piped up: ‘Don’t worry, I did the same thing the first time I played. A normal person,’ she said, and I could hear her giving Marco a look, ‘would have warned you about that.’
I took off the helmet and noticed I was covered in sweat. Marco took it from me. We said goodbye, agreeing to have drinks later that evening. Then Irina waddled over to the car with me. She said she couldn’t give me a ride home, but Marco hadn’t accompanied us outside. I told her I’d take the bus, but Irina was already pushing me into the car. She pressed a kind of remote control to close the doors. Cassandra’s robot voice intoned my address and started driving. Irina waved. I wiped the sweat off my brow and said, ‘Tesla, cool down passenger.’ I tried to close my eyes and not pay attention to the road.
Translated by Emma Rault
This translation was made possible by PEN Català and Flanders Literature