Many Waters

Madeleine L'Engle

Square Fish

ONE
Virtual particles
and virtual unicorns
A sudden snow shower put an end to hockey practice.
“We can’t even see the puck,” Sandy Murry shouted across the wind. “Let’s go home.” He skated over to the side of the frozen pond, sitting on an already snow-covered rock to take off his skates.
There were calls of agreement from the other skaters. Dennys, Sandy’s twin brother, followed him, snow gathering in his lashes, so that he had to blink in order to see the rock. “Why do we have to live in the highest, coldest, windiest spot in the state?”
Hoots of laughter and shouted goodbyes came from the other boys. “Where else would you want to live?” Dennys was asked.
Snow was sliding icily down the inside of his collar. “Bali. Fiji. Someplace warm.”
One of the boys knotted his skate laces and slung his skates around his neck. “Would you really? With all those tourists?”
“Yeah, and jet-setters crowding the beach.”
“And beautiful people.”
“And litterbugs.”
One by one the other boys drifted off, leaving the twins. “I thought you liked winter,” Sandy said.
“By mid-March, I’m getting tired of it.”
“But you wouldn’t really want to go to some tourists’ paradise, would you?”
“Oh, probably not. Maybe I would have, in the olden days, before the population explosion. I’m famished. Race you home.”
By the time they reached their house, an old white farmhouse about a mile from the village, the snow was beginning to let up, though the wind was still strong. They went in through the garage, past their mother’s lab. Pulling off their windbreakers, they threw them at hooks, and burst into the kitchen.
“Where’s everybody?” Sandy called.
Dennys pointed to a piece of paper held by magnets to the refrigerator door. They both went up to it, to read:
DEAR TWINS, AM OFF TO TOWN WITH MEG AND CHARLES WALLACE FOR OUR DENTAL CHECKUPS. YOUR TURN IS NEXT WEEK. DON’T THINK YOU CAN GET OUT OF IT. YOU’VE BOTH GROWN SO MUCH THIS YEAR THAT IT IS ESSENTIAL YOU HAVE YOUR TEETH CHECKED.
LOVE, MOTHER
Sandy bared his teeth ferociously. “We’ve never had a cavity.”
Dennys made a similar grimace. “But we have grown. We’re just under six feet.”
“Bet if we were measured today we’d be over.”
Dennys opened the door to the refrigerator. There was half a chicken in an earthenware dish, with a sign:
VERBOTEN. THIS IS FOR DINNER.
Sandy pulled out the meat keeper. “Ham all right?”
“Sure. With cheese.”
“And mustard.”
“And sliced olives.”
“And ketchup.”
“And pickles.”
“No tomatoes here. Bet you Meg made herself a BLT.”
“There’s lots of liverwurst. Mother likes that.”
“Yuck.”
“It’s okay with cream cheese and onion.”
They put their various ingredients on the kitchen counter and cut thick slices of bread fresh from the oven. Dennys peered in to sniff apples slowly baking. Sandy looked over to the kitchen table, where Meg had spread out her books and papers. “She’s taken more than her fair share of the table.”
“She’s in college,” Dennys defended. “We don’t have as much homework as she does.”
“Yeah, and I’d hate that long commute every day.”
“She likes to drive. And at least she gets home early.” Dennys plunked his own books down on the big table.
Sandy stood looking at one of Meg’s open notebooks. “Hey, listen to this. Do you suppose we’ll have this kind of junk when we’re in college? It seems quite evident that there was definite prebiotic existence of protein ancestors of polymers, and that therefore the primary beings were not a-amino acids. I suppose she knows what she’s writing about. I haven’t the foggiest.”
Dennys flipped back a page. “Look at her title. The Million Doller question: the chicken or the egg, amino acids or their polymers. She may be a mathematical genius, but she still can’t spell.”
“You mean, you know what she’s writing about?” Sandy demanded.
“I have a pretty good idea. It’s the kind of thing Mother and Dad argue about at dinner—polymers, virtual particles, quasars, all that stuff.”
Sandy looked at his twin. “You mean, you listen?”
“Sure. Why not? You never know when a little useless knowledge is going to come in handy. Hey, what’s this book? It’s about bubonic plague. I’m the one who wants to be a doctor.”
Sandy glanced over. “It’s history, not medicine, stupe.”
“Hey, why are lawyers never bitten by snakes?” Dennys asked.
“I don’t know. And don’t care.”
“Well, you’re the one who wants to be the lawyer. Come on. Why do lawyers never get bitten by snakes?”
“I give up. Why do lawyers never get bitten by snakes?”
“Professional courtesy.”
Sandy groaned. “Very funny. Ha. Ha.”
Dennys slathered mustard over a thick slice of ham. “When I think about the amount of schooling still ahead of us, I almost lose my appetite.”
“Almost.”
“Well, not quite.”
Sandy opened the refrigerator door, looking for something else to pile on his sandwich. “We seem to eat more than the rest of the family put together. Charles Wallace eats like a bird. Well, judging by the amount we spend on bird feed, birds are terrible gluttons. But you know what I mean.”
“At least he’s settling down in school, and the other kids aren’t picking on him the way they used to.”
“He still doesn’t look more than six, but half the time I think he knows more than we do. We’re certainly the ordinary, run-of-the-mill ones in the family.”
“The family can do with some ordinary, run-of-the-mill people. And we’re not exactly dumb. If I’m going to be a doctor and you’re going to be a lawyer, we’ve got to be bright enough for all that education. I’m thirsty.”
Sandy opened the cupboard above the kitchen door. Only a year before, they had been too short to reach it without climbing on a stool. “Where’s the Dutch cocoa? That’s what I want.” Sandy moved various boxes of lentils, barley, kidney beans, cans of tuna and salmon.
“Bet Mother’s got it out in the lab. Let’s go look.” Dennys sliced more ham.
Sandy put a large dill pickle in his mouth. “Let’s finish making the sandwiches first.”
“Food first. Fine.”
With sandwiches an inch or more thick in their hands, and full mouths, they went back out to the pantry and turned into the lab. In the early years of the century, when the house had been part of a working dairy farm, the lab had been used to keep milk, butter, eggs, and there was still a large churn in one corner, which now served to hold a lamp. The work counter with the stone sink functioned as well for holding lab equipment as it had for milk and eggs. There was now a formidable-looking microscope, some strange equipment only their mother understood, and an old-fashioned Bunsen burner, over which, on a homemade tripod, a black kettle was simmering.
Sandy sniffed appreciatively. “Stew.”
“I think we’re supposed to call it boeuf bourguignon.” Dennys reached up to the shelf over the sink and pulled down a square red tin. “Here’s the cocoa. Mother and Dad like it at bedtime.”
“When’s Dad coming home?” Dennys wanted to know.
“Tomorrow night, I think Mother said.”
Sandy, his mouth full, held his hands out to the wood stove. “If we had our driver’s licenses, we could go to the airport to meet him.”
“We’re good drivers already,” Dennys agreed.
Sandy stuffed another large bite of sandwich into his mouth, and left the warmth of the stove to wander to the far corner of the lab, where there was a not-quite-ordinary-looking computer. “How long has Dad had this gizmo here?”
“He put it in last week. Mother wasn’t particularly pleased.”
“Well, it is supposed to be her lab,” Sandy said.
“What’s he programming?” Dennys asked.
“He’s usually pretty good about explaining. Even though I don’t understand most of it. Tessering and red-shifting and space/time continuum and stuff.” Sandy stared at the keyboard, which had eight rather than the usual four ranks of keys. “Half of these symbols are Greek. I mean, literally Greek.”
Dennys, ramming the last of his sandwich into his mouth, peered over his twin’s shoulder. “Well, I more or less get the usual science signs. That looks like Hebrew, there, and that’s Cyrillic. I haven’t the faintest idea what these keys are for.”
Sandy looked down at the lab floor, which consisted of large slabs of stone. There was a thick rug by the sink, and another in front of the shabby leather chair and reading lamp. “I don’t know how Mother stands this place in winter.”
“She dresses like an Eskimo.” Dennys shivered, then put out one finger and tapped on the standard keys of the computer: “TAKE ME SOMEPLACE WARM.”
“Hey, I don’t think we ought to mess with that,” Sandy warned.
“What do you expect? A genie to pop up, like the one in Aladdin and the magic lamp? This is just a computer, for heaven’s sake. It can’t do anything it isn’t programmed to do.”
“Okay, then.” Sandy held his fingers over the keyboard. “A lot of people think computers are alive—I mean, really, sort of like Aladdin’s genie.” He tapped out on the standard keys: “SOMEPLACE WARM AND SPARSELY POPULATED.”
Dennys shouldered him aside, adding: “LOW HUMIDITY.”
Sandy turned away from the odd computer. “Let’s make the cocoa.”
“Sure.” Dennys picked up the red tin, which he had set down on the counter. “Since Mother’s using the Bunsen burner, we’d better go back to the kitchen to make the cocoa.”
“Okay. It’s warmer there, anyhow.”
“I could do with another sandwich. If they’ve gone all the way into town, supper’ll probably be late.”
They left the lab, closing the door behind them. “Hey.” Sandy pointed. “We didn’t see this.” There was a small note taped to the door: EXPERIMENT IN PROGRESS. PLEASE KEEP OUT.
“Uh-oh. Hope we didn’t upset anything.”
“We’d better tell Mother when she gets back.”
“Why didn’t we see that note?”
“We were busy stuffing our faces.”
Dennys crossed the hall and opened the kitchen door and was met with a blast of heat. “Hey!” He tried to step back, but Sandy was on his heels.
“Fire!” Sandy yelled. “Get the fire extinguisher!”
“Too late! We’d better get out and—” Dennys heard the kitchen door slam behind them. “We’ve got to get out—”
Sandy yelled, “I can’t find the fire extinguisher!”
“I can’t find the walls—” Dennys groped through a pervasive mist, his hands touching nothing.
Came a great sonic boom.
Then absolute silence.
Slowly the mist began to clear away, to dissipate.
“Hey!” Sandy’s changing voice cracked and soared. “What’s going on?”
Dennys’s equally cracking voice followed. “Where on earth . . . What’s happened . . .”
“What was that explosion?”
“Hey!”
They looked around to see nothing familiar. No kitchen door. No kitchen. No fireplace with its fragrant logs. No table, with its pot of brightly blooming geraniums. No ceiling strung with rows of red peppers and white garlic. No floor with the colorful, braided rugs. They were standing on sand, burning white sand. Above them, the sun was in a sky so hot that it was no longer blue but had a bronze cast. There was nothing but sand and sky from horizon to horizon.
“Is the house all right?” Sandy’s voice shook.
“I don’t think we went into the house at all . . .”
“You don’t think it was on fire?”
“No. I think we opened the door and we were here.”
“What about the mist?”
“And the sonic boom?”
“And what about Dad’s computer?”
“Uh-oh. What’re we going to do?” Dennys’s voice started out in the bass, soared, and cracked to a piercing treble.