The stream behind Alice’s house fed into a river that led to the ocean. Besides men and women out hiking, and children skipping school, she sometimes saw deer, birds, and stray cats along its banks. She was afraid of cats. Cats had been gods to the ancient Egyptians, a death-struck people. The section of stream that divided her property ran down current from Mandrake Woods. Beneath Mandrake Woods lay a sea of natural gas. This sea was either confined and in need of release or contained and best left alone. Whether it was confined or contained depended on whether humans had as many rights as they had obligations in the human era, the Anthropocene, now underway.
The week before, a man named Carl had come to Alice’s house and told her about a town hall meeting to discuss gas drilling at Mandrake. A company had made a bid on the land. If she valued the stream, he said, she had to protest the drilling, because it would poison Mandrake’s substrata and kill off fish, algae, amphibians, birds, and other creatures that used its waterways. Carl had bad posture but strong, cloudless teeth. In his left hand he held an impact report drawn up by biologists who took no money from energy companies and cared only for science. He wore blue canvas sneakers with a slight elevation at the heel.
After Carl left, a woman stopped by and said that the company asking to drill beneath Mandrake Woods would in fact use safe, ecologically sound methods, and that it would restore the area to its original condition afterward. If anything, the water and wildlife would be in better shape. This woman had been a year ahead of Alice in high school. Her name was Didi then, but now it was Celeste, and her long, blond hair had been dyed red and shaped into a playful bob with curls framing her ears. More to the point: natural gas emitted thirty percent less carbon dioxide than oil, a statistic the impact report failed to mention. With the world’s energy needs growing daily, the report’s authors were foolishly advising that the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Alice’s father had started building this house before she was born, but it was still unfinished when she left for college, so she’d grown up in a leafy neighborhood in the nearby town of Kent. She’d returned to live in this remote house for the first time four months ago, as an adult upon the suspension of her marriage. There were unwired rooms and unhung doors, the paint was flaky, the sump tank cracked, and the chimney a ziggurat home to squirrels and bats. Otherwise it was in good condition. Her mother, who also hated cats, being allergic to them (or allergic to the glycoprotein in cat saliva), had suggested that she water the dirt path beside the stream so that people would find it muddy and quit using it. Privacy was important for a woman living alone.
Alice’s husband, Marouf, would have thought watering the path a terrible idea, and worried about someone breaking their ankle—or worse. Hikers were generally unprepared for the procession from one world into the next, unlike the ancient Egyptians, who—from closely studying death and from revering cats—had learned a great deal about the Underworld, which they called Duat.
As a girl, Alice had played hide-and-seek in Mandrake Woods and knew all of its secret spots. One day she went home after a game and found her mother wiping slurred mascara from her eyes. “Your father,” her mother said, “isn’t a bad man. We need to remember that.”
The suspension of Alice’s marriage had happened suddenly. One day she and Marouf were spicing lamb cubes and making potato salad together, and the next she was packing her bags to drive 125 miles back to the unfinished house near Kent. According to the ancients, people were a combination of ka, spirit, and ba, body. For the former to begin its journey through Duat it first had to discard the latter. That was the easy part. Alice took painkillers for her back because years earlier a group of drunken men driving to a bait shop had run a red light and smashed into her car. She’d met Marouf in the hospital, where she was fitted with a lumbar brace and he worked as a registered nurse. He said to her while she waited for a cab beneath the hospital awning, in controlled pain, during a downpour, “I hate rain. It makes me think of mold and decay. Is that weird?” But there was nothing weird about this, for Marouf’s ancestors were from Egypt, where the embalming process had been perfected long before by wrapping corpses so tightly that moisture couldn’t seep through the linen layers glued fast by liquid resin. She gave him her phone number even though he didn’t ask for it.
Kent was not doing well. The decline of the steel industry had created a sinkhole that took many businesses in the area down with it. The literature Celeste left with Alice promised that natural gas drilling would bring back the town’s financial health. In addition to creating jobs, the company would pay local landowners to run conveyance pipes over their properties, and it would contribute taxes to the county and state. Wealth would ripple out across the calm surface of the community.
Alice’s father once said to her mother, “We can’t afford to finish the extra rooms, but let’s install the well and at least use the part of the house that’s already done.” Her mother had stood up from the cheap plastic table that filled the kitchen and raised her voice. “As if it’s a mystery why we can’t afford it! As if it’s an accident that the money goes to a college trust fund in a town in North Carolina where you had a conference! I saw the boy’s report card that woman sent. You won’t need to save much.” When her parents argued, Alice would escape in her mind to an underground cave and float along a shallow river in a wide-bottomed, wooden boat where it was silent but for the sound of water dripping from the cave’s ceiling, as soothing as a mother’s heartbeat.
Carl had told her about the effect on water of the hundred or so chemicals used in hydrofracturing, also called fracking, the process whereby natural gas was removed from the ground. The water became flammable. If you put a lighter beneath a running faucet it would burst into flames, like a chemistry experiment gone wrong. Carl directed her to a series of illustrative videos. That night she took extra painkillers and ate soft crackers in bed while watching clips of water on fire.
Finally she fell asleep and had a dream. The dream was set in a circus tent where Carl hung from a red rope clenched between his teeth, twirling around with his arms akimbo high above a wading pool. In a white cape, his face turned upward, he looked like a whirling dervish ascending. Celeste sat next to Alice in the audience rattling a bag of burnt popcorn, and said, “You know why he’s able to do that? Fluoride in the water. Look it up in an almanac if you don’t believe me.”
Duat resembled the land of the living in that it had mountains, rivers, trees, fields, lakes, variable weather, and islands. Without proper training you might arrive and mistake it for the world you’d left behind, and then be surprised by its insect-headed giants and flying, blade-tipped wheels. Your goal in Duat was to overcome these and other obstacles in order to reach Anubis, the god who would hold up your heart with a feather to see if its good outweighed its bad. On the basis of this you would either pass on to eternal paradise or slip back into Nu, the primordial waters from which all matter originally came. If you made it to paradise you (or your ka) would be reunited with your body and join the gods, including many cats. But if you went to Nu, your ka would dissolve into its surroundings never to be reconstituted, like a cup of water placed in the ocean.
Marouf, who after four months of marital suspension still did not fathom the why of it, had called Alice every week. If she answered she’d tell him about which animals and people had come to the stream that morning. She’d describe the markings on this deer or the dirty mouth on that boy. At last he said that if he’d done something to upset her, she should tell him. People had a right to know what they were being accused of. She said it wasn’t that simple. His actions—everyone’s actions—couldn’t be weighed properly in this world, because weight was relative here. What was heavy on land was light in the water, for example. He said that didn’t answer his question. He said it didn’t come close.
On the day before the town hall meeting, Carl and Celeste arrived at her house at the same time. They tore into each other like feral dogs. Carl straightened his shoulders and said to Alice, “This woman is lying to her own community. The drilling company’s not going to repair all the damage they do. After the gas is extracted, after our rivers and streams are polluted, they’ll disincorporate and leave.” Celeste, facing Carl in the hallway down which Alice hadn’t invited them, said, “You need to stop the scare tactics. We have a spotless track record of post-drilling cleanup. What you’re saying is libel. We’re offering the town a way forward and a chance at a happy future.” Alice told them both to leave. She didn’t like their screeching. It was inappropriate and painful to hear. She had flushed an off-red, and Carl and Celeste seemed to see her then for the first time.
The problem was simple: no one knew anymore how to behave, what to watch out for, where to turn, or when to obey and when to oppose the forces they would encounter after their bodies ended. As a result the human race had failed to maintain order, and life on earth was veering dangerously off course. Any almanac could tell you as much. Any almanac could show you that chaos was gaining the upper hand. The ancients had known better. They had thought that securing this knowledge in the library of Alexandria would protect it. They’d thought—hopefully—that their study of death had domesticated it, had rendered tame the once-wild, and that those who came afterward, the generations watching the Nile overflow its banks every summer, as well as those who sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to populate far-off lands, would benefit. Their descendants wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking death unknowable and terrifying. They wouldn’t let the subdued grow savage again.
Her parents’ final dispute went like this: Alice’s father found a dead robin on their doorstep one morning. It seemed at first that a cat had killed and left the robin there, but not finding puncture marks on its body, he figured it had flown into the door and broken its neck. With the body in such good shape, he took it to a taxidermist to have it stuffed. He couldn’t later tell Alice why. It just seemed like the right thing to do. For a small extra fee, the taxidermist mounted the bird on a petrified twig soldered to a brass base, which her father took home and placed on the living room mantel. Her mother noticed it the next day while removing pillow covers from the couch. She suffered what felt to her like a mild heart attack. The taxidermist had enlarged and lacquered the bird’s eyes so that they exploded from their sockets, and he’d puffed up its bright orange breast to give it a bloated, sexual quality. When she recovered, Alice’s mother put on dishwashing gloves and threw it away. Her father returned the next morning to the taxidermist and bought a pre-stuffed titmouse that he placed where the robin had been. His wife promptly disposed of it. This went on for several weeks, with neither Alice’s mother nor father speaking about their daily ritual of replacing and discarding stuffed birds, until finally her mother flew to her aunt’s in Santa Fe, never to return.
Recently, mummies had been taken from pyramids and sent all over the world on tour, as silent, motionless performers. They were ancient Egyptian royalty deified while alive. Their bodies were small, five feet two inches at most. No one worshipped them now. The attitudes were these: How could people have thought this little man was a god? What a lot of gold around him! It’s too much, except for the scepter and the headdress. Those are impressive.
Alice knew that the example of one’s parents could be a dark prophecy, and that the unspoken in her childhood had been corrosive. But long ago a people had recognized and corrected the errors of their forefathers. Long ago there had been an awakening of the species. This Anthropocene now going on, this Age of Man with its vertigo and its fast-forward sequence and consequence, its endless forms of denial, had come about because we’d gone back to sleep. We were unconscious and dreaming of substrata and acrobatics instead of waking up again.
On the day of the town hall meeting Alice arose early and sat on her back porch while orioles scouted for grubs on the banks of the stream. When a cat came and crouched in the grass nearby, as still as a statue, she got up slowly and crept over to it. Like a puff of black smoke, the cat seemed suspended between one state of matter and another. Reaching down she half expected her hands to pass through it; instead the cat spun around and, wild from the lock of her thumbs around its front legs, scratched and bit the inside of her left forearm. She didn’t cry out, just stood up and marched with it back into the house, where she threw it in the bedroom closet.
She had not touched her shared bank account with Marouf. Their apartment was in his name. Her father had stayed with them for a week after her mother left, then gone to North Carolina, where his other child lived. She had forgiven the men who’d crashed into her with their truck. They had been drunk and the road slick and she unlucky. This other child, her half-brother, had two young sons who knew someone else as their paternal grandfather, and cats disliked water because water came from Nu, was a projection of Nu, which swelled with the addition of each newly released ka and would someday envelop paradise, the home of cats and ancients and Osiris and Isis and Ishtar and Ra.
From behind the closet door, the cat meowed angrily. Alice pressed a paper towel against the ribbons of blood on her arm. The desert around Santa Fe was among the driest places in the country, but her mother liked it, and Marouf would get over her, because although most people were distracted by the earth’s skin and no longer knew how to maintain order, the question of good and evil could still be heard if you listened closely enough. It sounded like Ba ka ba ka ba ka?
Alice’s arm throbbed dully. The cat quieted down. Pain used to be a signal for its host to attend to an injury or surrender to it. Now pain could be a fenced-off abyss, ignored. She knocked on the closet door with her good arm. The cat grew louder.
A list of Alice’s good and evil might include the following: misjudging someone at work and getting them fired, telling a friend a harmful truth, leaving her parents to carry on without the balm of her presence, turning inward and away from Marouf, quitting microbiology in college, breaking a boy’s heart in front of others in high school, keeping her eyes open while counting in Mandrake Woods, and crying like a baby, unable to see beyond what was missing.
Alice turned the closet doorknob and the cat sprang out and onto the bed. It stalked back and forth on straight legs, its tail curved up sharply. The hair on its face was singed, that on its stomach was matted down as though wet. Alice’s heart beat quickly. She’d never been alone with a cat. The sea beneath Mandrake Woods was vast and threatening. Carl and Celeste had left the day before thinking that she, and not they or the interests they represented, needed help. Ba ka ba ka ba ka? was babble to them. To most people. She hadn’t eaten anything but crackers in a long while, and on her desk lay a letter listing the back taxes owed on her property, which neither she nor her parents could pay. The cat made a guttural cry as if something was lodged in its throat. She could sell the house or sell gas conveyance rights to the drilling company. She could try for restoration.
The cat was clearly sick. It displayed the symptoms of an illness, rabies perhaps. People still died of that. Alice picked it up off the bed and went outside to the stream bank. Her house from this position looked stable, but the support beams in the back were buckling. Marouf had seen it just after they got married and said, If we were different people, I’d say we should fix the place up and live here. He was always saying things like that, always suggesting that he and she were set, immutable, ready to be preserved in amber. The sun overhead was a brilliant gold disc pushed across the sky every day by Ra, so that people could see what they were doing. But seeing hadn’t been enough. Alice made a complete revolution, surveying a landscape she’d come to know late in life. To disinfect a wound, you submerged it in water, the same substance that caused mold and decay and would eventually drown the eternal paradise of the gods. In fact you lay your whole body down in it. You could do it with a cat held tight to your chest; cats had fallen over time even further than human beings had. You closed your eyes and didn’t confuse this with a cleansing or baptism or accident of history. You’d sleepwalked to this edge and there was no escaping what lay beyond, and no use trying, and if only those you loved knew as much. If only it wasn’t too late and you could think, for just a moment, that from this pool of fire you might emerge whole again.