Fall 2006 [Issue No. 10]
Myra's Orbit (Part 1 of 3) ▪► Maisie McAdoo
Two subway stops, the Broadway-Lafayette station of the F line and the Bleeker Street stop on the 6 local, connect below the grimy streets of the East Village, New York City. It’s not a full connection. Only downtown-bound passengers can transfer from one line to the other at this junction. But those who know about it use it. Intent on passage, they rarely look around or glance at one another.
In this environment, Myra was able to remain almost entirely invisible, despite her outsized haunches and the scales that protruded at her neck and wrists. At night, she lapped water from puddles on the tracks. When mornings came she sensed them and slipped deep into the station’s concrete recesses. She rifled trash bins for paper and other treasures, finding, for example, an array of outfits she used to decorate and disguise herself, copying the people she saw on the station platforms.
Today, she was dressed in a long-sleeved sheath of metallic green, her silver locket, and deep purple stockings to conceal the scales on her legs. Her shoes were also silver, with rounded toes and red stones set high into the heels. A strap circled the instep all the way around, like the tracing of a planet’s orbit. Her black hair, cut like a helmet around violet eyes, looked false but suited her. She had a large vinyl bag over one shoulder in which she carried an odd collection of metal parts, dropped coins, green weeds, and a white fur jacket.
An incoming F roared into the station and noise flew up like startled pigeons around her. There may have been a momentary separation of the underground and the surface in that soundblasted moment, a parting of atmospheres. Doors sprang open. Rushing feet emerged. Shoulders dodged in hurried angles. But by the time the train left the station, only two passengers remained on the platform.
Myra was one. The other had her large haunches and rough skin, a peculiar costume and even a dark wig, but was definitely male. She recognized him instantly and a breath caught in her throat before she spoke.
“How did you find me here, Ducat?”
He took his time eying her. “I guess the same way you’d have found me if you’d tried.”
“And you’re all that’s here? No others?”
“There are a few others. Haven’t you felt it?” They spoke in a language that would not have been recognized by any other denizen in this station.
“What about Plath?”
“I think Plath is dying,” he told her.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. His signal’s very weak.” He raised a scaly hand and took hold of the silver locket at her throat. “You still have it.”
She let him hold it a moment, then took it back and slid it under the neck of her dress. “I can’t talk long.”
“What? Why? Where are you going? Myra, why haven’t you tried to find us?”
“Some kind of rupture in the signal,” she lied.
Ducat looked at her in amazement. “Maybe you needed to try harder.”
“Maybe I didn’t want to.”
Ducat sucked his teeth in reply, shifted his weight. Myra saw he was angry but he was pitiful too—afraid of this place, and in such a rush to get back. She felt fear too, but it was mixed with excitement.
“Where did you get those clothes?” he asked her.
“Here, in the bins, around, I don’t know,” she said.
“What are you doing here, where are you sleeping?”
“I found a place. Ducat, what do you want?”
“OK…OK.” Ducat pulled a metal cup out of a large pocket. “Here you go.”
He handed her the cup. It was silver-colored, battered. As she took it, sparks of energy, nearly visible, passed between them. She wrapped her hands around it.
“It took a lot of work to get this to you,” Ducat pressed her, “so maybe you could spare a few moments figuring out how to get our planet back.”
“Moon,” Myra said, her eyes nearly lashed to the cup. “We’re a satellite moon, not a planet.”
“I am corrected,” he said. “Or we could just call it ‘home’.”
“It was.” She looked up at him. “It was home.”
She brushed off the start of his reply. “How did you get the cup?”
“One of the counselors, Piro. He’s in the Bronx now.”
“So he’s here,” Myra said quietly. She could see him in the Bronx.
“He must have held on to it at the last moment,” Ducat told her.
Myra squatted down on the platform. Passenger feet were starting to show at the top of the stairs. She opened her bag, placing the cup inside. Then she rose and spoke quickly. “Okay, listen. I’ll try to figure out something, but don’t come looking for me. If I get the gel out, I’ll make contact with you.”
To cut off any more words, she walked fast down the platform and up a set of stairs. “Myra!” she heard Ducat yell after her, but kept going. There was a crash as if he’d pushed over a garbage can, but she did not turn. Then the noise of an arriving train covered any other sound.
When she heard the ding-dong of its closing doors she crept carefully back. The platform was empty. She caught sight of Ducat in the last car of the departing 6, his strange familiar face disappearing into darkness, and felt a deep loneliness. This man, once her step-brother, still her step-brother, was so quick to fade. Where were the others? It was as she feared. A few survived, some random selection, and they had found her. Not just found her. They believed in her, believed she could restore their home, reverse the explosion of their universe. She doubted it could work, but she was required to try.
The world they were from . . .
. . . was Qaln, Earth’s second moon, located just a dozen miles above New York City. Undiscovered, Qaln did not orbit independently, but moved in perfect synchronization with the rotation of the Earth, as if tethered to it like a helium balloon, high above a city where no one looks up.
Plath is king, or was. He’d grown weak over the past few years, nearly as stiff as the unique metal of his moon. Qalny blood, magenta and gel-like, had all but stopped in him. He would not die, though. Like the others, his blood would harden into a black metal, dense as obsidian, to be stored in rock until a descendant of the royal family could revive it. The capability of that substance to again become blood was the sole wonder of Qaln. An old counselor had spent many hours instructing Myra in its properties, though he thought she’d paid little attention at the time.
One side of Qaln faced away from Earth and towards the galaxy, day and night. This was the side where the Qalnians lived. The other side was dark and lifeless, without water or wind, but it faced New York City. Wandering away from tedious lessons and the aimless business of the Qalny court, Myra had discovered her moon’s forbidden side when she was still very young, and had spent much of her childhood there.
She’d found a smooth rock with a bowl-shaped top which she took as her seat. Once she became accustomed to the darkness, she had learned to see some details of the city below. The daytimes were green. The nights glowed blue and there were diamonds of light that winked at her.
Occasionally, the city sent out messages—blundering searches for other worlds. Lights would blink in dull, predictable patterns that Myra thought were at odds with the evident vibrancy of the place. There was a roving light that swayed across the sky sometimes, but its message was impersonal. There were days when the sky churned with grays and whites, and the messages, if there were any, were gibberish and shrieks.
It was odd then, how attached she became to the city below. Maybe because of the way it did reach out, so tentatively and spastically, she found it more intriguing than her life on Qaln. Qaln was boring, she told her tutors. They requested her to rethink her statement. She tried to talk to Ducat, son of her father’s second wife, about the city’s magnetic charm, but he seized on her whispered account to ridicule her. She told her father and one of his counselors about the signals, but all they saw were vague threats and her obvious insubordination. Qaln had its ways, and Myra learned to keep her thoughts to herself.
Yet Qaln had not always been so immutable. It had broken free of its orbit from time to time, swinging wildly through the solar system, possibly outside it, and in those dangerous inter-epochs had accumulated great, ranging knowledge. The knowledge became myth and when at last Qaln resumed its place over Earth, stories were handed down. Myra knew from the counselors how far lost Qaln had been, how it had once breached a bulge in the cosmos itself, or so they said, how the people had survived only by sacrifice, guarding the blood of the ancestors that was locked in striations of rock or in small sacred objects.
At least twice Qaln had done this, and twice it had been restored to Earth, perhaps by an attraction of atmospheres. There was no way to know, for the blood-obsidian lost much of the memory of its own salvation. The moon had stabilized and softened and produced life, and the inhabitants began again, young. No one knew if such a rescue could be repeated.
As a child, Myra had no fear of these accounts. In fact, she longed for a wild inter-epoch in which she would travel the universe.
“Tell me again,” she would plead with her tutors, when they taught the history of Qaln’s inter-epochs. “Where do you think we went, just where do you think, I know we don’t know for certain.”
They refused to speculate, so she refused to listen. These lessons ended badly. Only one counselor would sometimes answer her questions. He wasn’t her tutor, he was one of the court advisors, but at least his eyes didn’t look like yellowy marbles. He had very dark eyes and when you looked in them you could keep going. His name was Piro and he told her these inter-epochs could occur at any time. That possibility sustained her through her lessons, and court business and Plath’s kind but repetitive lectures.
When she was certain Ducat was gone, Myra went back down the subway stairs and slipped along the tracks away from the station lights. She moved rapidly, trailing one hand along the rough wall until she felt a stirring of cool air. There she stopped and hoisted herself through an opening in the wall and onto a concrete platform on the other side. This was her place, where she kept her things. No one came here. Technically, there was no stop on the uptown side in this station but Myra had found it—the ghost platform of the uptown 6—and she’d made it her temporary home.
She pulled the cup from her bag. It was glowing. She wiped it on her dress and held it up to the thin autumn light filtered from a street grate above. Words began to show along the rim, instructions to the bearer in the stilted language of the court, in an alphabet no one here would have recognized.
“If this cup has come into your hands, handle it with utmost care,” it concluded, “for it contains our ancestry, which can never be replaced.”
“Useless. Oh my God, that’s so useless!” Myra whispered to the cup. She ran her strong fingers through the final words, tearing them and uncovering the night-black metal surface beneath. She knew what was under that. The gel, nearly impossible to release, but Qaln’s life force, the thin streams of ancestors’ blood they needed to start again.
There were scratches and dents in the cup. She guessed the other survivors had tried to release the gel and failed. That’s why they’d sought her out. Plath might be able to release it if he were here, but Plath was missing, and the cup was in her hands. She would have to uncover this dense secret by herself.
The next morning, Myra filled two large shopping bags along Canal Street. Using some of the coins she’d gathered from the station floors and with her singular ingenuity, she picked up chemical solvents, paint thinner, linseed and tung oil, acetone, epoxy, turpentine and other liquids that smelled sharply. She also picked up electrical cord, wire strippers, switches, test cables, brushes, laboratory goggles, needle-nosed pliers, steel wool, sandpaper, screwdrivers, sculpting tools, beakers, string, hoses, mixing pots, a trowel and two putty knives. She peered into the two bags, sorting the contents and studying them until a sidewalk vendor began to berate with her strings of harsh, sing-song words. Then she gathered everything and returned with it through the station, down along the tracks, and back to the ghost platform.
All was as she’d left it. She mounted the new instruments on her table and stored the chemicals and solvents underneath it. She hung the electrical supplies on an overhead pipe, placed the cup at the center of the table, and then stood back to admire her work.
When Myra had first found the ghost platform, she’d lain on the wet concrete floor and watched rats scurrying by. But as she’d gathered her wits, she had made herself a home. Now there was a collection of food cans stacked neatly along one wall. She’d put together the table with lumber from a Grand Street building site. She had made a sleeping nest of beaver furs and fox pelts that she’d lifted on a daring foray—one of her early successes.
Despite her violet eyes and a long, stalking stride, Myra could become nearly invisible. She could become air-colored, dun-colored, could pass through atmosphere without disturbing it. She had copied a certain walk she saw on trains until she could become the shuffling woman no one sees, the woman remembered only by the children she fed and some forms in a file cabinet at a defunct city agency.
It was this woman who rode the elevator to the third floor of Saks Fifth Avenue on a weekday afternoon, sliding through coat racks, touching and feeling the furs, clipping tags, stuffing the furs inside enormous shopping bags.
A store detective had approached her, a short man posing as a shopper, waiting near the fitting room. She spotted him as if he were glowing red.
“Can I help you at all?” he’d asked.
Myra had shaken her head shyly and continued to look intently at the seams of a coat, running her gloved hand down its lining.
He’d persisted. “I’m just here with my wife. I thought I’d see if you needed help.”
Myra had kept her eyes down until the man, feeling suddenly and inexplicably embarrassed, had backed off and returned to his post. Only when the inventory was checked on Friday did the loss become known, and by then Myra was another girl completely.
Wrapped in her furs, working through the nights, she recovered the instructions from the cup rim, interpreted them and began to work on the black metal of the cup’s surface. She applied different chemicals, used various tools, but the hard metal remained inert. She soaked the cup in solutions, twisted the metal against itself, but the substance in its surface did not yield.
Her impatience mounted. She re-read the instructions and saw how they echoed Plath’s calm tone, a younger king as she had known him in her childhood: controlled, a mind of perfect intent. She missed that mind. She was his daughter, but she did not believe she was his equal.
September stretched its tendrils toward October and still the cup was inert, black and cold. On brief afternoon walks outside the station, Myra watched the sun’s light dim. By evening it was gone. The silver of the autumn moon reminded her of home, with its cool fluorescence of thin air. She was not yet suited to this place. This air was too yellow. The abundance of oxygen kept her awake. Metal did not seem to react as it did at home. Her scales, which kept her temperature constant and her need of food and water low, were too obvious. She felt exposed and fearful.
The cup gave out piteous cries but not its secrets. It yowled through her precious moments of sleep in red nightmares, awaited her when she woke. She believed her father was berating her from some hiding place in the galaxy.
“I tried that one!” she shouted at Plath, when a compound occurred to her—again. “You don’t understand, I’ve tried all of them.” She pulled the cup out of its oily solution and hurled it onto the cement platform. It remained inert.
But at last it gave. She’d descended onto the tracks and was prowling there for food, ideas, for anything she hadn’t tried. Absently, she’d touched the cup to the third rail of the subway track, and the resulting spark hurled her onto her back with the shock of a thunderbolt. She lost consciousness for a time. But when she finally opened her eyes and raised the cup to look, then slowly, painfully slowly, a tiny droplet of magenta gel bubbled to the surface.
Myra didn’t know if she expected white birds to fly up or singing to erupt, but none of this happened. She stared at the cup for a long time; then she climbed back onto the ghost platform. This tiny amount of gel wasn’t enough to stir a world to life. A second shock might kill her. But something in that rail had awakened blood. Life was, she now knew, theoretically possible.
She put the cup down, and wandered along the platform’s edge. Water dripped loudly onto the tracks. She stared distractedly down at them, parallel lines leading away. A rat ran towards its hole. A scent of air reached her through the grate overhead. Finally, she turned. It wasn’t anything planned; she just gathered her furs and the cup into the vinyl bag and left her hiding place behind. She was not going to make contact yet.
The handicapped stall in the Penn Station ladies’ room had more room than the others, and Myra locked herself in there to recover. She had no home again. Her walk uptown along the tracks had taken her here, but now the din of this enormous, cavernous station was too much. Thanks to the forbearance of the Salvadoran washroom attendant, she stayed in the stall several hours, dozing and thinking.
She let the first swirls of morning rush go by, then she unfolded herself and ventured out into the main waiting room.
No one stood still. It was like watching hundreds of spiders all spinning patternless webs at once. Not a single person ever leaned back and looked around. Myra stood underneath a big board and watch numbers and letters flipping over. She watched the people scurrying whenever announcements were made. After an hour of this, she noticed that the slowest-moving people headed for the stairs when “Albany” was announced. Maybe they were reluctant to go, but Albany passengers walked slower. All right, she would head towards Albany then, where people went slower and so could she. She slipped onto the next Albany train, the 12:40, entering the back car from the very end of the platform, and settled herself in an empty pair of seats.
“All tickets please, all tickets!”
A fat conductor was swaying towards her. When he got to her he stopped and stood with his big legs splayed, locked at the knees, breathing noisily through his mouth. “Your ticket.” He looked down at her through thick lenses.
Myra tried becoming the woman no one sees. She rummaged in her bag and came up with a piece of paper that she handed him silently.
He examined it. “That’s not it.”
She nodded to tell him it was, pointed to words on the page—“LOW LOW PRICES!!”
“No it isn’t. Looks like some kind of advertising.”
She pulled the paper toward her so they were both looking. Her fear gave off a scent, and perhaps it registered with him.
“Can you talk?”
She shook her head.
“Well, this isn’t a ticket. You need a ticket.”
Myra turned her face toward him. “N-n-n-no.” It was the first word she’d spoken on Earth.
The conductor stepped back. “No? OK, ‘no’. I have a two-year-old who sounds just like you.”
Myra did not smile. Her “no” was echoing in her head.
“You have any money?”
Myra looked away, seeing her reflection in the dark window.
“OK, miss, you’ll have to get off at the next station. Get a ticket there or call someone, all right? You understand me?”
She nodded her head, still looking out the window. The conductor moved on down the aisle and Myra closed her eyes against her pounding heart.
Yet when the train came out of the tunnel, everything lightened. She watched rain come, disturbing the pearly surface of a river that followed the train’s left flank. The number of buildings thinned. The river widened. The sky got larger and she let her mind go.
The squeal of the train’s brakes brought back the screeching of the loader birds in her father’s aviary back home. The aviary was misnamed: it was a graveyard. Plath had taken her there once, to see the birds, he said, but he also showed her the graves. She recalled the day he’d taken her hand and they’d passed through netted gates that reached to the sky.
They’d entered a world of air and flight, and her father had called different birds in their own voices. She remembered the colors. She saw their wings fluff out and close as they settled near the king. Running ahead, Myra had rounded a rock and come upon the loaders. The huge gray birds had been agitated, screaming warnings as Myra neared the obsidian graveyards of the Qalny dead. That day, her father had showed her his own obsidian streak, the blood of his birth, and the porous places in the rock where he would be returned until it was time for him to live again.
He’d showed her the place where her mother’s remains were stored, and the remains of her mother’s people. She also saw the mangled corpses of rodents that had stalked the aviary the previous fall. Plath told her the loader birds had attacked the rodents and killed them all, and his story had frightened her so much that he had taken her out through the gates, and never back again.
She’d been left alone for a long time after that. But time had not stood still, even on the windless, seasonless moon of Qaln.
Myra had grown, from a temperamental child to a sulky adolescent; then suddenly and unexpectedly, into a unique beauty. After that, people referred to her as “princess” more often. Her father sometimes deferred to her. Ducat changed the way he spoke to her. Myra continued to guard her tongue, though. She understood things that other Qalnians did not.
The day came when she was to receive the cup, with its streaks of ancestral blood, signifying her accession to royal guardian. That morning her father and stepmother gave her a silver locket containing a milky liquid, a memento of her birth. At noon the counselors assembled for the presentation of the cup. All was in readiness.
Except Myra herself. She had spent the morning on her lookout rock trying to talk herself into going, but she was still on the dark side at noon.
Ducat found her there. “Myra? Your coronation slip your mind?”
“Why can’t they do the ceremony here?” she’d asked him.
“Come on, don’t ask that.”
“If I go I’ll get swallowed up. I’m the next in line, that’s all I am.”
“They care about you.”
“Then tell them to come here.”
“The bestowal of the cup takes place at court.”
“I won’t go.”
Ducat returned to the court without her. Myra imagined his sarcastic report and Plath’s reaction. Plath would consult the ancient books, or turn to the counselors, who would give him bad advice. Perhaps Piro could interject some sense. Then she saw a tiny line approaching from a distance. It got larger: Piro leading a procession of counselors, carrying the cup. They rounded the soft curve of the moon and entered the darkness. She waited, relieved, curious, for them to arrive at her rock.
That was as far as things had gone. Their approach formed a snapshot in Myra’s mind before the flash of … impact!
What launched the third inter-epoch was a collision with a meteor, hurtling through the debris surrounding Earth. Qaln seemed to implode, recover its global shape for an instant and then nearly tear in half, veering out of orbit. The Council Chamber was exposed and the counselors who had remained there were flung into a deep, retreating chasm. Those who were part of the procession were strewn among rocks, as Myra tried vainly to shield them. Powerless, she watched the opening moments of the next inter-epoch, frightening and cataclysmic as the ones before. The king was gone. The rocky landscape was filled with ricocheting cries, chaos and screaming.
Myra had tried to run towards the aviary but the path was gone. She could find no way out. One by one, then in terrified groups, her people resigned. She could no longer sense Ducat, or the counselors with the cup. The thin atmosphere was sucked out, everything grew dark. The rushing sounds, the spinning—nothing.
It was probably Myra’s affinity with Earth that saved her. A tunnel opened to her, like a ray of light but dense, sucking her downward too fast. She only knew she was flying past any solid point; it was impossible to slow her fall or touch the light-walls as they channeled her to Earth. She landed under the East River, in a subway tube below the Willis Avenue Bridge. Squatting on the tracks, choking on the dank, grainy air, Myra finally came to a stop.
She still recalled everything about that day. How she’d picked her way along the tracks to a station, grateful for a cement bench and the tunnel vision of the people on the platforms. She’d boarded a downtown 4 and gotten off at Union Square. Standing at the front end of the platform, she’d gone nearly deaf from the squealing of metal wheels. Finally she caught a Number 6, riding in the front car, and got off at Bleecker St./Broadway Lafayette, where, after a terrifying two days, she’d made her lucky discovery of the ghost platform.
This Amtrak train was nothing like that subway train. Sunk into upholstered seating, Myra rocked in rhythm with its motion, noticing the green out the window and the wide gray flow of the river as they continued north. When the train stopped the first time, she hid in the ladies’ room, and after the conductor collected tickets she went back to her seat.
Out the window she saw the train had passed into the city’s surround. She recognized the calm green color she had viewed from Qaln. Without the distraction of city lights she was able to see it better. She was glad she had chosen this train. Three more times it stopped and the conductor came through, and each time she hid in the restroom. She had fled without a plan, but now one began to form in her mind.
Towards mid-afternoon, with the sun coming in at a slant through the tinted windows, Myra once again gathered her things. Next time the train stopped, she got off, alighting on a much smaller platform than the ones that served the subways. She was the only one who got off. There was a little house right there, trees in every direction. As curious as ever, she entered the house.
It was another station. This one was built of wood, not cement. She sat on one of the benches. There were people in the station but they were very quiet and still. Myra tucked her feet as far back under the bench as they would go and tugged her sleeves down. After a southbound train passed through, the waiting room cleared of these passengers. Myra sat for a long time, enjoying the solitude and the voices from a light box mounted overhead. She listened intently, storing the box’s sounds in memory, trying to make one or two of them with her dry, scaly throat.
At last she went out and walked around, finding a side street, a secondhand shop with appliances and droopy clothes in its window, and past that, a long stretch of paved road.
The road led into the distance and more trees. She followed it, covering several miles with her characteristic speed, sniffing the different-smelling air and eying the mountains to the west. Evening began to fall and she turned toward these mountains, taking a rutted dirt road in the direction of the sun. At the end of it, she found an abandoned house with a porch, a weedy yard, no neighbors. The doors were swollen and stuck, some of the window glass was missing. She circled it twice and then stepped onto the porch.
It was quiet. She set the cup and her tools on a broken table beside a wicker rocker. She pushed open the front door, disturbing ancient cobwebs, and found a place to lay her furs. Grasses and seedy things in an old vegetable garden yielded something to eat. She slept for several hours.
When she got up, it was midnight. She walked out to the main road and back, encountering no one. She took her locket off and left it on the kitchen sink, then went back to sleep.
Pre-dawn. The furniture on the porch emerges in blocks of lighter black. The gray edge of the table wavers and resolves as Myra sits curled on a broken wicker chair. Her long fingers wander across her body, feeling each part. She picks the first scale off her thigh. It stings. She covers the raw place with her hand and rocks herself back and forth, waiting for the pain to subside. Then she looks. The skin is red and mottled. She tries to press the scale back. But once the stick of scale to skin is torn, it cannot be rejoined. It will be a wound on her now, she thinks, an ugly part.
She digs into the vinyl bag and pulls out a satiny skirt that feels soft against the newly-exposed skin. She pulls off her stockings and picks three more scales. She runs her hands down her hungry stomach and feels the rise of her haunches, the curves of her body. She peels scales from her arms and tries to pull several from her back, ignoring the stinging pain. She gathers the detached scales in a box wrapped in a piece of the satin stuff, and pushes the box deep under the porch, where it will reside with rusted plow parts, a watering can, and a broken swing.
It is almost three Earth days later that she opens her eyes. She shifts and rises, moves slowly to the doorway, and there in the bright light looks down. The raw places on her leg are not as red. She looks closer. There is a slight tightening at the edges of each wound, scar tissue with its trace of opalescence, not as ugly as before. She touches the places and feels the stickiness at the center. Touch travels up the center of her, through places she hasn’t felt before. She feels her expanding lungs and strengthening muscles. She has not known touch like this before.
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