A Working Theory of Stellar Collapse by Sam Miller Khaikin

Sam Miller Khaikin is a writer from San Francisco, CA. She recently finished her MFA in fiction at Columbia, where she was also a teaching fellow. She is currently at work on a novel.

3rd place, 2016 Raymond Carver Contest


Mwela has a lot of theories. He tells you about them each night after dinner, after the fish fryers have cooled and the last of the ugali is scraped from the tabletops, after the singed faux flowers have been replaced with ash trays and the servers, smoothing the creases from their maroon bar vests, slide an extra O on the board and officially transform the ship’s “dining salon” into its “dining saloon.” But by then, Mwela has already been drunk for some time.

You should not stare so much at your cell phone, he says. That is how the Chinese know your thoughts. How do you think they got so powerful? It’s the copper wiring.

He wags the sweaty neck of a beer bottle for emphasis when he talks, which he does often. You’ve never seen both his hands empty. Which would be, whatever, what do you care, except that he’s also in the military. Military police, he reminds you. His smile beams like wet bone from a dark wound.

His role on the ship seems perfunctory. He is to guard the cargo it exchanges up and down Lake Tanganyika: packages of maize and cement, baskets of salt-dried fish from the local fisherman, and several dozen Congolese refugees being forcibly repatriated at Uvira, the ship’s northernmost stop. It was not listed when you bought your ticket, you learn, because Uvira is not part of the usual route.

Not for regular passengers, Mwela says. Too tricky tricky.

Ticketed passengers go only as far as Kigoma, the westernmost Tanzanian railhead. Your documents indicate that you too are to disembark there, though you don’t intend to. You plan to ride the boat forever.

You’ve been telling Mwela about your doctoral work on stellar evolution, that you came to Africa to see the stars — research, you say, which you will apply to your thesis work back home. But this, like everything else, is something like a lie: convenient, irrelevant, true only should you decide to make it so.

There was no reason for you to come to Africa; the idea simply popped into your head and lingered there like a bad smell. It was something to think about, a means to make feeling where there was none. Things were happening back at home, unspooling like the light from distant stars. Stars providing news of their death long after they’d ceased to burn. It had been the third time you were passed over for a fellowship at the IAS, and you were experiencing a sort of stellar collapse of your own, flittering bits of your disintegration into the dark.

The slight from the IAS had been the most recent in a slackening line of disappointments — untenured, only a few publications to your name, none of them groundbreaking. But it was more than that, somehow. This latest rejection confirmed something, pricked a hole in a deep and tenuous part of your self-conception: Your failure wasn’t merely one of intellect, but of personality. You’d simply daubed at the future with the irresolute force of a reed against a bow, pliant beneath its weight. Every deviation, every spark of curiosity became instead a halfhearted obsession, all-consuming and brief.

But this was for the best probably. You’d been thinking of switching tracks, moving away from the physics of star death and into a new field entirely. You are just as fascinated by the constellation of electrical impulses that give rise to human thought, to their poorly understood fragility and plasticity. And you want to know more about certain kinds of brain trauma. You are considering a switch to neuroscience.

There were little things, of course, little signs that your position was untenable, that your center would not hold. You stopped writing on the lines of your notebook. You ate only with your left hand. You marched the streets of Berkeley in a yellow sweatshirt carrying a bottle of mouthwash. And, one day, you took that yellow sweatshirt and got in a yellow cab and flew to Lusaka, a sometime place with a yellow-sounding name.

The destination wasn’t entirely random, of course; you’ve been thinking about Corinne a lot lately, or at least more than usual. More than a decade has passed since she made this trip, since she died. But grief, like storm water, tends to flow through its old channels.

When you arrived in Lusaka, you wandered alone through the bus terminal, shouting at strangers with words they either didn’t know or couldn’t hear, and climbed aboard a northbound bus. You remained there for 17 hours, limbs pressed into a neat ball, unfurling only briefly when one of the goats strapped to the roof gnawed his way to freedom. That was just before Mpulungu, where you got off the bus and got on the boat. That was two weeks ago, if you had to guess.

I wasn’t even supposed to be from Zambia, Mwela tells you, gesturing with the empty bottle. I was supposed to be South African. My family only came north because of the Mfecane.

When was that? you ask.

I don’t know, he slurs. The 1800s maybe.

Mwela has a theory about the Congolese too, that getting caught in Zambia is somehow part of a more elaborate plan of theirs. The way he sees it, they had traveled overland from the DRC down to Zambia, picking up shadow jobs in the copper mines to attract the attention of the police, knowing they would be deported upriver. That way, when they escape, they can get to the other side of the lake, he says. The Tanzania side. He pauses, waiting for you to soak in the brilliance of it.

The Congolese were an odd bunch. One wore a faux sports jersey with feminine darting and a cinched waist. Another kept fish bones in his hat. When you asked to take their picture, a man with long fingernails and a lazy eye extended his Bible like a plate of hors d’oeuvres and struck an admonishing pose, arranging his face in a harsh and preacherly contortion. It was hard to tell how well they knew one another.

You’ve come to be friendly with one of them, Dennis, a quiet man with a quiet name. You suspect that this is not his real name, or at least not his only name, and that he is just trying to be polite. You found him after breakfast one morning in a quiet corner, shaded by a line of laundry strung between the flue funnel and signal mast. When you approached, he was whittling a piece of old Styrofoam into uniform cubes, his face round and smooth as a river stone.

Morning, Dennis.

Good morning, Miss America, he warbled, eyes fixed on the bits of foam. He calls you Miss America because you are the only American on the boat. Given your appearance, he either has a keen sense of irony or is unfamiliar with the pageant.

You ask him what it is he intends to do with all his buoyant new cubes.

I am making dice, he said. Do you know how to play?

You told him you do not, which is true. You know about probability, about the likelihood with which two six-sided dice might sum to eight or eleven, but nothing of the rules governing why one should roll them.

Shame, he said. I was hoping you might teach me.

I think for sure tomorrow, you will see, Mwela says, curling the brim of his floppy hat. I think for sure tomorrow someone will try to escape.

When you announce that you’re headed to bed, he lays the rifle he’s been fiddling with on the table and adjusts his uniform, a khaki green getup suited for someone taller. It was not issued by the military police, but by the Zambian army; it belonged to his older brother. His mother would not let him join the army. She wanted him to stay close.

You think about his mother, wonder what kinds of clothes she dressed him in on his way to school, whether she’d wanted him to become a doctor or farmer or astronaut, whether she hardly noticed how he was growing, grown, and gone.

.  .  .

Africa is full of superlatives. Lake Tanganyika is the longest freshwater lake in the world and nearly the deepest, descending close to 5,000 feet and holding one-fifth of the world’s freshwater in its basin. This is ancient water, interred in the deep, some of it uncirculated for tens of thousands of years. Fossil water, it’s called, robbed of oxygen, entombed by pressure, by density.

And the ship you are on, the ship skimming this lake’s surface, is the world’s oldest running passenger vessel, a former German warship built several maps ago in the region’s history. Scuttled by the British and raised again by the Tanganyikans (or were they Tanzanians yet?), it now transports cargo, human and otherwise, up and down the eponymous lake. A wet tear in the earth, rent from Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the birthplace of humanity itself.

The boat was featured in a movie once, something old and wistful where they had that affected way of speaking. Corinne would have remembered the name. (She was always making you watch old films despite your protestations; secretly, you wound up enjoying them.) The movie starred Katherine Hepburn, whom someone once said you resembled. You were flattered until you realized what they had meant was that you were stubborn, difficult to work with, and dressed a little more masculine than was appropriate.

But even here, superlatives are relative. From the moment it was created, the earth has been trying to pull itself apart.

You feel the relativity of superlatives each night on the ship. For example, “first class,” which means you have a private room with a bed. Two of them, in fact, rickety metal things vaulted above the floor. You learn why the first time you use the small sink in the corner and the water drains into the basin and through a nub of plastic pipe, which has been cut several inches above the floor, simultaneously washing your feet along with your hands. You don’t mind. You no longer know the feeling of surprise.

You were supposed to have a roommate on the boat — a scuba instructor from Indiana, with whom you shared a dirt floor at the guesthouse in Mpulungu. She said she specialized in deepwater dives and traveled the world teaching rich tourists how to breathe. Apparently, none of these rich tourists thought to tell her about Tanzania’s visa requirements.

And so now again you are alone. You are happy about this at first, then a little sad, then happy again, rolling back and forth between the two until you reach a flat place in between, a stolid equilibrium of numbness and indifference.

You are very lucky, the customs agent told you when he stamped your passport. Last week, the boat did not come.

.  .  .

In the morning, you clamber down from the metal bunk and push your way onto the deck and everything is blue. There is a thin blue-black line where the world curves, rising off the water like dark heat. This color is merely a wavelength, a point along the spectrum of all the other not-blues.

The deck is alive with people, with the urgency of movement. A school of canoes have gathered beside the ship, which has stopped in the middle of the lake. The boats are brittle things, wood parched and cracking like old walnut shells, hollowed out rather than put together.

A tangle of limbs and demands swat and gesture from the lip of the deck, hoisting up packages and a vaguely unclean smell. A deck-mounted crane lifts a sagging net from the cargo hold and plonks it into the lake, unloosing a tangle of desirable flotsam: jerry cans of petrol, plastic furniture, new pairs of shoes.

Canoes knock about in the water. Some are longboats with outrigger motors, others are humble kayaks scraped from storm-felled trees. Wider boats beamed with wooden planks ferry passengers, though transport is not free — the painted signs make this clear. There is no dock, no obvious point from which to disembark. The lowest deck on the ship is about ten feet above the water, where bodies dangle from the modest guardrails. The men commanding the dugout ferries bob up and down as they point and shout at different things. You can’t decode how it all works, what it all means. You are not fluent in this form of commerce. You see Feminine Darts and Preacher Face in the thick of it, leaning over the rails, catcalling a woman who does her best not to notice. She shifts the large plastic bucket on her head and shields her face from view; eventually, the men move on. If this is how Mwela suspects the refugees will escape, they don’t seem terribly eager to do so.

Mwela isn’t all wrong. The Congolese could easily leave boat if they wanted to. It wouldn’t be hard. You wondered if they stayed because they had no money, no way to pay for transport on the dugout ferries. So one day you left your coin purse in their usual hangout spot behind the cargo hold, just to see if anyone would take it. An informal test of Mwela’s hypothesis. You’d filled it with about $10 worth of cash in several currencies and an expired student ID card.

Someone did take it, of course — this is no fairy tale. But no one left the boat.

.  .  .

You eat lunch in the dining salon, where you eat breakfast and dinner, where the same food is served at every meal: fried river fish, limp stewed greens, ugali. You have eaten this every day since you arrived. You don’t mind. You like fish. You have come to tolerate ugali, a maize-based staple worked into a mortar and served in heavy discs. Given the bathroom facilities on the ship, you are rather glad for its occlusive effects.

Mwela pulls out a chair and sets down his beer beside yours. It’s not that you and he are friends, per se. You do your best to be alone. But you are easy to spot, and Mwela is always at the bar.

What are you writing? he asks, craning over your notebook.

Nothing. A letter, sort of.

Oh? To your boyfriend?

A friend. A girl I went to college with.

Ah! This is nice I think. Where is she now?

She’s dead.

His face hardens, turns serious.

Tell me about this girl, he says.

And so you do. You tell him how you’d tried to convince Corinne to go abroad during the spring semester like you, like everyone else. You tell him how Corinne refused. She didn’t like to see the days grow shorter. And you, a California girl, had never embraced the cold as Corinne had. She was from New England. You had different understandings of the term “spring.”

You tell him how you’d planned to surprise her when she got back, that instead of flying directly to Europe for your semester abroad, you’d bought a flight back to campus so you could spend a few weeks together. You explain how perfectly you’d planned it with the housing office, that you would live in the dorms while she was away in the fall, and she would take over your room in the spring. Some details you leave out, like how you’d moved the bed next to the window where she liked it, how cold it was lying there alone. How you’d secretly slept on her toile quilt all semester and diligently washed and folded it back on her bed. How you tried and tried to catch some trace of her on it after she was gone, but smelled only cheap detergent.

You tell him your favorite story, the story of how you met, how you can’t believe it was nearly fifteen years ago that you were sitting in the common room, hungover, eating Ethiopian food from partitioned Styrofoam when this girl walks in, prim and proper, pink polo, perfect hair. You had heard people like this existed, seen them in movies, but had never met one in real life. You had your suspicions. She walked over to the couch and sat right next to you, as if you’d been friends since forever, as if you’d already told her this story. She tore off a piece of injera bread and dunked it into your tibs.

Is this Cosmos? she asked.

Thorry? you said, mouth full of food.

Cosmos, she repeated, the Carl Sagan documentary. From the ‘70s?

You swallowed. You looked at the TV, at the deep-space glow it cast on her face.

Sometimes, when you tell this story, the television is showing The Shawshank Redemption. Sometimes it’s trashy reality TV. Sometimes, the television is off or there is none at all. The truth is you can’t remember. You are no good at remembering detail and sequence, at tethering cause to effect. The truth is you’re no good at stories.

What you understand are equations, the mathematical representation of reality. Equations don’t tell stories. They simply exist, encompassing the totality of what they describe. You too are like this, and this is your problem: You want to be everything all the time. In your head, stories don’t begin and end; they exist at once, the sum of all pasts and futures together. You maintain a quantum theory of narrative, of memory, a spectrum of every possibility, in which the past is as indefinite as the future. How do you tell the story of a point in space? A coordinate on a plane? How do you begin when all you can see is the end?

What was her name, this friend of yours? Mwela asks.

Corinne, you tell him. It’s French.

Mwela raises his beer in her honor, embraces yours with a hollow clank. You are grateful when he spots Dennis and his Congolese friends trying to enter the dining salon before their designated hours. Grateful for his sense of purpose and grateful he does not ask you how she died. Because the truth is you did not come here for research — you understand that now. You came here because of her. This is the last thing she saw: the shores of Kigoma, fleetingly, from the deck of an old German cargo ship.

It had been raining and the ramp was slick. She slipped. Her head met the railing first, then the lip of the ramp. The deckhand who fished her from the water stayed with her through the ride to the medevac station. What you know about after that is hazier — that her injuries were severe, that she had to be put into a coma when she finally reached the hospital in Nairobi, that they struggled to stop the hemorrhaging. And from there, you know simply that they let her go.

.  .  .

That night you think about it, sliding your foot along the bedframe’s cool metal lip and counting cracks in the ceiling. You think about both of you, about the ease of possibility, your lives waiting to be sucked down to the rind. A tragedy, of course, but none so insidious as the one that followed — that in her absence, we were all still here left to live out our lives and watch the future fall away. You were left behind to watch yourself fail. And that, more than anything, is what you wanted: to go back there, back to that place where everything was still possible. A head injury of your own. With some cranial trauma, maybe, it could be possible. Like a turn at a new-whittled die, the possible outcomes were discrete: either (1) you die or (2) you live, and if you live. Then you either (2.1) become less than what you are (simple, like a child); (2.2) become more than what you are (a savant, endowed with new gifts and insights). Or, possibly, (2.3) you remain the same, stagnant, unchanged.

In your dreams, you calculate the probabilities, the likelihood that fate might tip this way or that. But even in the logic of sleep, this scarcely matters because, of the four possible outcomes, there is only one you cannot bear to face.

.  .  .

You wake up rocking. Storms have rent the ship unmoored. Unknown oars dip toward your bow. A scraping drags across the hull. This is it, you think. This is where it ends. You have your regrets. You always took the bigger slice. Sometimes you told lies. The great mechanical beast hawks and sputters and wretches to a halt.

No, of course it isn’t the end. Of course not. This is where it begins.

When you are sufficiently awake, you throw on some clothes, splash water on your face/feet. Outside the air is dark and charred with diesel, flared in patches and seeping down the deck.

What happened? you ask.

Engine trouble, they tell you.

No one seems to be bothered. The boat has been running every day for over 100 years. This sort of thing happens frequently.

In the bar, a small party has broken out. Music tinkles from an old boom box, a lighthearted melody plucked over vigorous drums. All music here sounds like this. In all the time you’ve been in Africa, you have never heard a sad song. Tonight, the occasion warrants it: Someone has fixed the soft-serve machine. Vanilla ice cream rises in pale mountains from stale cones. People gather around the machine, lapping at frozen happiness, licking the edges to catch the melt.

You know that the second law of thermodynamics requires the increase of entropy over time. You know that the sunset over Lake Tanganyika refracts its orange light like poorly stacked Tetris blocks. You know that fire can’t help but burn, that Corinne is dead, that ash can return to neither wood nor tree, to neither bone nor flesh. You know that no matter how many universes exist, you will always wake up in the same one.

Miss America!

Dennis has found you outside, leaning over the railing. His cone is piled high and his hand is streaked with white.

You don’t like ice cream?

Everybody likes ice cream.

You must come and have some then. And we can play dice!

Beyond the portholes in the dining saloon, you see them gathered round the table, all of them, feminine shirt and fish bone hat and Bible face and Mwela, smoking and laughing and rolling Dennis’ light and soundless dice.

It is a game I made up, Dennis explains. I will teach you the rules. Very simple.

Dennis has licked the ice cream flat and palms the rest into his mouth. He reaches into his pocket and extends his hand toward you. Your coin purse, emptied of cash, your ID card intact.

Dennis swallows what’s left in his mouth. Someone found this in our cabin, he says. I believe it is yours?

You take the satchel, thank him. Wind roughs the surface of the lake. If you stare at it the right way, it hardly looks like water at all.

Why do you stay on the boat? you ask him. Why don’t you try to escape, to go to Tanzania, or back to Zambia? Why stay here?

Dennis shrugs and licks his hand. I had never been on a boat like this before, he says. I think it is a nice place.

You watch a school of fish glitter in the slow water. Dennis has gone back inside. He did not think to ask you the same question: all the better, for you do not have an answer. A few men have gathered on the portside bow, rigging finishing lines against the railing. One rolls a cigarette, spilling threads of tobacco in the water. The fish nibble at it.

The party in the dining saloon has spilled onto the deck, overflowing the stillness with its thump and shake. Everybody is dancing — the servers in their vests, Mwela in his floppy hat, the mechanics who have given up on the engine, Dennis and his new ice cream cone, the Congolese, the Zambians, the Tanzanians, the Burundians, and, eventually, the lone American. Nothing has changed. You still feel the same, feel the acidic churn of inadequacy and absence. But there is something else there too, carving out a little space for joy.

In the water below, the men stack packets of maize and cement onto the canoes until they sink low in the lake, bending the water around their mass like time around a collapsing star. And when those boats have moved along, more take their place, knocking into one another, banging against the ship’s slick and solid hull, waiting to find what they need before returning to shore. They continue long into the night and so do you, slipping your hands along the guardrail as you watch from above.