By the time I returned, Ellie and I had been sharing the joke about Oisín’s return from Tír na nÓg for so long that it wasn’t really a joke anymore. I had expected it to be the first thing I thought of on the day I set foot back on Earth, but of course it wasn’t. I did think of Einstein’s twins, though, when I saw Ellie. At some stage over the years, I had somehow come to associate Oisín with that idea of twins ageing at different rates when one of them is in space. While I may not have remembered Oisín’s disintegration at the moment of my own, Einstein’s twins were like twin demons sitting one on each of my shoulders when at last I saw Ellie in the flesh after over a decade of pixels.
I’d like to think that our Oisín joke in itself shows that I really did always mean to return. That, and the fact that I did my best to keep up with what was happening on Earth; most of the time, anyway. I had Internet – something nobody could have dreamed of when I was doing my training, but things were changing so quickly around then. By the time I was ready to leave, they insisted it would be almost like home, with proper gravity, Internet, perpetually freshened air… I was an investment, after all, one whose sanity and health they needed to maintain. So, apart from those few periods when it all stopped making any sense, I watched television, listened to the radio, pottered around the Web. Ellie told me which television series I should be following, which films were trending, who the emerging musicians of the moment were; I observed how the actors we had liked when I’d left grew older and moved into different roles, and how musical fads swung from one increasingly unvarying sound to another.
Of course, I always listened to Ellie’s radio programme, without fail. People often assume that twin sisters only have a single brain between them, but in fact when we were young we didn’t like the same things. Once I left Earth, however, the only real compass I had was her taste, and that had always been far more plugged into the Zeitgeist than mine. So, even if I wasn’t keen on a musician or series she talked about on her programme or advised me to investigate, I made myself listen or watch until I could persuade myself that I was hooked. Whether or not I really liked what she recommended, it was worth making the effort, just to share it with her. Like that craze for Bollywood sitcoms a few years ago, for example; I’ll never understand why those suddenly took off, but I spent so many Earth evenings dancing – or trying to dance – to the routines along with Ellie and the children that the fact that the episodes were endless, preposterous and indistinguishable turned out to be an advantage.
In any case, whether or not I liked her sitcoms or films or whatever, she wouldn’t let me away with not watching, since we synchronised our viewing and kept Skype on the whole time, because she said that it made it almost as if I was with them in her sitting room. She even scolded me if I didn’t dance with her and the children, saying I had to maintain some few ounces of muscle.
It wasn’t really like being with them all in her sitting room, but I never said that to her – nor to myself, for that matter.
I think it was around three months after I’d left Earth that I realised I had to make a few rules for myself. I stuck to them, too; Ellie always said I had an obsessive streak. No doubt that’s true, but it’s all that kept me in the region of sanity for the thirteen years I was away, or almost thirteen. I’m not hedging because of the bad luck associated with the number; it was just that at a certain stage I couldn’t bear to count anymore, so I started rounding time off.
Anyway, my rules were about things people on Earth don’t – didn’t – even think about. Other people simply sneaked them in during work or filled up empty time with them; I ticked them off a list every day for well over a decade. Every day, I wrote to at least five people, talked to one person other than Ellie (anyone counted, and thirty seconds was as valid as an hour), and spent at least half an hour on various social media. I even took online courses, twenty-nine of them in total, mainly art courses in the latter years. Ellie thought that hilarious, given how boring I’d found art when we were younger, but even so she seemed to understand how important art had become for me. There was just so little to look at up there: the lack of subtlety of it, the meagre palette of colours. I remember reading a comic once when I was a kid, about a planet with four moons, and I’d wondered what such a night would look like in real life. Now I’ve spent eleven years under three revolving moons, and this is what it’s like: like living in an almost black-and-white world, feeling yourself transforming into a fungus because it’s never really day and never really night, and nothing ever looks new or fresh or crisp. Of course, it was very exciting at the beginning. I sent back loads of photos, that was part of my work too; but after a while, all I wanted to see was our single self-sufficient moon, beautiful because it is in itself beautiful, but also because it will invariably be succeeded by the sun.
The music was important too. Thanks to Ellie, it was the one area where I can honestly say I came back more up-to-date than most people who have never left; and because I associated her with music – because of her radio programme, and because she’s been such a music nut ever since I can remember – whenever we couldn’t talk and I missed her, I put on some music, and then it was a little less hard. We used to play songs to each other; I worked hard to find music she might not know, to surprise her, but we had our old favourites, too. Our other major reference, apart from Oisín, couldn’t have been more obvious, even though I’d never actually heard “Space Oddity” until she played it to me, a few weeks before I left, when I was still in training. Countless times we played it to each other during those strange nights, for sometimes I couldn’t sleep for thinking that there was real daylight where she was. She never asked what my nights looked like, not even at the beginning, when it really was a joke and the excitement of watching stars scudding past me was fresh. Later, if she heard the despair when I talked about the endless night, Ellie would just put on “Space Oddity” again, and that extravagant, fragile voice, tinny-sounding inside my own tin can, was both unnerving and comforting.
Through music, I always had her with me; and in every other way, she kept me with her. I know it was too much; I know it’s why Martin left her. I don’t wonder at him, and I did hate myself for feeling relieved when he left. Even though, at the time, I agreed with her that he was an unfeeling, selfish coward, I knew very well that no man could put up for any longer than he did with the constant virtual presence of a famous, famously mad, sister-in-law. I could never say it to Ellie, but our demands were too great; I couldn’t fool myself though. I heard all the things he had said about me, about her, about the two of us, before he walked out, and all of them were true. Ellie’s been more faithful to me than she has been even to herself. It’s no wonder he left.
So, the music made my own loneliness a little less sour; I don’t know if it was the same for her. Even so, sometimes all I wanted to listen to was rain, because it never rained up there, of course. There are still old recordings of rain on YouTube. I don’t know who posted them up, but thank goodness they did, since it hardly ever rains anywhere now. When I was up there, sometimes I listened to rain recordings for hours. Back in the day, you’d have thought an Irish person would be delighted to be somewhere it never rained.
Not so strange, then, maybe, that the colour I missed most was green. I suppose that seems contradictory; why else had I gone all that way, only to bring greenness to that dusty place? And I did, I worked hard at it. It was what I’d always dreamed of doing, after all. Dad used to joke that I’d grow beans on the moon one day – moonbeans! he would shout, delighted with himself. It’s a pity he never knew how close he came to the truth.
Most people thought I was mad to sacrifice everything for a dream of establishing plant life on another planet. It’s taken me a long time to realise how right they were. My obsessiveness again: eleven years of coaxing, bullying, forcing things to grow out of that nasty dust.
We’d developed all sorts of techniques by the time I left, ways to splice compounds to release the molecules necessary to create breathable air and nutrients. We chose that particular planet because its atmosphere and crust held some paltry bit of water, even though it had to be harvested and detoxified. We’d figured out that there was just enough light from those three ugly moons to grow a certain number of carefully selected plants. I had a 3D printer – state of the art when I went up, a laughing-stock now, although I couldn’t have survived without it. One of its most important functions was to print bubbles to contain pockets of atmosphere so that I could grow things. I say things because I can’t bring myself to call them plants; they were sprouting blisters, pustules that oozed out of the ground, nothing like the plants on Earth. They were never properly green, just repulsively pasty, or else mottled like bruises whose origins you don’t want to imagine. The other colours were no better, and the shapes of them were something I didn’t look at too hard when I was tired.
But that was my great project: to start small and gradually build up a massive bubble that I could live in with my plants, my monstrous babies, with my breathing enabling theirs and vice versa. The perfect combination: autonomy, sustenance, development, all the buzzwords. And it did work, in its way.
I always had enough fuel to take me home, but they never really believed I’d return. Until recently, I was convinced they just thought I’d die out there. It was what I thought myself, after all, how I’d thought I wanted to go. Of course, I knew the risks, they’d been quite up-front about those. They even got me a fancy lawyer before I left, so that I could will away the crazy amounts of money they were paying me. Despite everything, I hadn’t really realised how hard it would be to spend money from inside a tin can. Even Amazon doesn’t deliver to that particular address, imagine! I did get a thrill out of buying presents for other people, especially at the beginning, when the system asked for my address – another joke that’s worn a bit thin.
Actually, it was worse than assuming I’d die. I only realised it after I’d returned. What they actually thought was that I’d love it so much that I’d never want to come back.
When we were teenagers, I used to drive Ellie mad wanting to know what people thought of me and what they had said to her about me. It wasn’t being odd that bothered me then, it was the multiple ways people had of interpreting my oddness. Now, I know. I know why they chose me. I know what all the psychology tests and the self-sufficiency trials and all the rest of it were about. The physical stuff was barely necessary in comparison. They wanted to know whether I was enough of an oddity not only to make a life for myself in a plastic bubble, but to want not to live any other way.
If you’d told me that on the day I got the call telling me I’d been chosen, I’d have been proud. That’s the worst thing, really – how clueless I was. Which only goes to show that there’s nothing particularly shocking about what they considered me to be, since I thought the very same thing about myself. Ellie was the only one with a modicum of sense. The only person in the world I had, and I didn’t even listen to her telling me what I should have been telling myself.
Well, it’s too late for all that now. Anyway, it’s not as if they tried to force me to stay out there. I always had enough fuel to come back; I always had the choice. So I suppose I shouldn’t be bitter about it. Bitterness: that’s something I missed. There are things you expect to miss, and that you don’t. Sex, for example; you’d think you’d go mad missing sex, but actually you get used to it, surprisingly quickly. One reason is that after speeding through the cosmos for a while, your body starts to feel like a shapeless glob, randomly put together. You can do all the exercises you want, your lungs are breathing air you’ve already breathed a million times, your flesh is pushing against an atmosphere that just won’t quite push back the way you need it to. You get these weird build-ups of gas in your intestines, and there can’t be that many people who feel horny when they’re swollen up with endless quantities of trapped fart.
There was a short period, after nearly a year of feeling increasingly like an amoeba, just after I’d finally arrived and was moving around again in an almost normal way, keeping busy, getting used to manoeuvring my way through a planetary gravity again. I started to get these weird teenaged fantasies about alien men appearing out of nowhere, giants with extra fingers and eyes all over their bodies, that sort of malarkey. Dying for me, they were, their bit of hot stuff all the way from Earth. In the absence of randy aliens, I found some pretty weird porn on the Internet, some of it veering off into very disturbing territory. It only occurred to me a long time later that it was a sign of how things were changing on Earth, but I didn’t make the connection just then.
Anyway, I got over that disappointingly quickly, and now there’s no point thinking about it, even if they do manage to dig out all the tumours. That was supposed to be one of the other great strides in progress – they’d developed all sorts of ways to protect me from the radiation, but of course none of it had been tested at real intensity over thirteen years. And I suppose that, if I’m truthful, after a while I stopped being careful. It was like putting on sun cream when you’re trapped on a desert island with no possibility of escape. Even if you had any left, would you bother after a few years?
The stuff I did miss most wasn’t very original. I used to fantasise about certain tastes – whatever you do, everything you eat out there tastes basically either like soggy paper, or like sickly sweet soggy paper. I used to dream about certain smells, even after I stopped noticing the odours that surrounded me. Survival I suppose – no wind to blow anything away, and like I mentioned, a lot of gas building up, and no way to wash properly either. I didn’t even realise how much I stank until I got back and saw people’s reactions, but then they didn’t realise how strange they smelled to me, either. And of course, colours, and above all that lush vivid unending green you only see on our little island. The only colour I don’t think you can truly reproduce on a computer screen, and certainly not in an alien botanical garden.
Well. I got back and, like Oisín, I expected to find all the things I’d missed just as I’d imagined them, even though I should have known better. Like I said, Ellie had me watching television, not just popular series, but documentaries too, things she figured would keep me informed about the way things were going. She used to try to get me to talk about the news too, but I was lazy about watching it – it came to seem so remote from anything to do with me. More fool me, if I really thought I would be coming back. In retrospective, maybe Ellie was the only person who really believed from the beginning that I’d be back some day. I watched the other stuff, though, except during those few periods when I sort of lost the will to do anything.
Even without watching the news, it still all happened before my eyes, when I think of it now. I just didn’t believe everything could change so quickly. Like I said, I was so far away from it all that it seemed unreal, just another film. And anyway, before I’d left, there had always been parts of the world withering into deserts, cities spreading like leprosy, desperate landscapes being ripped into colourless war-scarred shreds; it had been going on for as long as I could remember. I knew the atmosphere was nothing more than an old patchwork quilt ripped at all its seams; I was well placed to know about that, since I’d passed through it. I knew the earth’s crust really was just a crust, an old scab that was almost totally dried out and ready to flake away. But the point is, it had always been like that.
When I landed back on Earth, everything happened too fast. I knew Ellie was waiting for me and I couldn’t wait to see her; and I hadn’t really absorbed the fact that I was a global freak show. When I staggered out into a stronger gravitational pull than I was used to, the rush of journalists nearly knocked me back up into orbit.
I’ve seen the recordings of my arrival, and the embarrassment never fades. I mean, you wouldn’t expect makeup and perfectly coiffed hair, but I literally looked like something from another planet. I still do; that’s what happens when you leave. It, whatever “it” is, seeps away; you’re no longer from the place you came from, because the longer you’re away, the less of the place you remember leaving remains there. You can fool yourself all you want but it’s all just nostalgia. From the moment you leave, you step into another dimension, the other side of the mirror, and there’s no stepping back.
Anyway, I barely took in that all around was arid wasteland. I was so keen just to arrive at last, and then: all those faces. Such a strange thing, really, a face, a body, the shape of a human being. Why two eyes, one nose, arms fixed at those particular points on the body? What’s the point of two legs – in fact, what’s with all the binary shit? Amoeba thoughts – I’ve gotten used to seeing real people again, as opposed to on a screen, and yet I still feel as if I’m in the midst of an alien race, like that story by H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, about the village whose inhabitants are all descendants of sea monsters. Even now, I’m no less terrified than the narrator of that story, waiting for these strange creatures to turn on me for not being like them, and even worse: waiting for my own freakishness to devour me.
The faces, the eyes, the words, all being hurled at me. I felt as if I was drowning, and in a way I was, for the air was not the composition I was used to. I’d been breathing air composed from what we’d had thirteen years before, but since then it had filled up with all sorts of muck. I gasped, raised my face and saw the plain shading into the colour of blindness and rushing at me from behind the bobbing grotesque heads. Not a hint of the greenness there should have been, even though we were in what used to be one of the most waterlogged parts of Ireland.
In the thirteen years I was gone, it all went downhill very fast. There’s hardly any green anywhere anymore. Not enough water, not enough air, too much pollution. The only places where it’s still green are the nuclear dumpsites, where they were secretly burying poison for decades. There, things still sprout and writhe out of the ground, but they are not really green; their colour is something hideous. Certainly not that colour I dream of, that caressed the eyes and embraced the mind.
I’ve been sleeping a lot lately, ever since I started to be ill, and I dream constantly of my work, back on the planet. Sometimes it’s all drying into the rusty unforgiving ground, the plastic bubbles shrinking and collapsing in on themselves. All that’s left is debris. Litter. Well – isn’t that all humans are good for, in the end of the day?
Sometimes, though, I dream that I’m back there, and all my plants have sprouted magnificently, and I realise how much I really love the colours of them, those colours I used to find so repulsive.
Last night I dreamed I was lying in the midst of my alien paradise and it began to grow around me and then through me, penetrating my body like knives, but my flesh was slick like jelly, and it all passed right through, painlessly, until I had been absorbed into a network of strange, unimaginable green. At some stage I thought I heard Ellie crying and felt her hands upon me, but they became plant tendrils and wrapped themselves tenderly around me until my skin fell off like pollen, and then, at last, I saw: underneath was the green that I had sought. I had brought it all that way with me.
Born in Ireland, Helen currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Her short stories and flash fiction have been published in The Irish Literary Review, the Sunday Business Post, the Nivalis 2016 anthology, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Anthology 2017, the Lakeview International Journal of Literature and the Arts, and Bare Fiction Magazine.