Today, Lise Quintana and Kevin Sharp explore three pieces submitted for NonBinary Review Issue #17, A Wrinkle in Time: “Time Wrinkle” by Amanda Rodriguez, “Wrinkles” by America DeGraw, and “Other Mother” by Gita Ralleigh.
Time Wrinkle by Amanda Rodriguez
When I think of A Wrinkle in Time, it summons up my father’s voice. His precise cadence, his over-enunciation of the “h” sound in “wh” words so that he nearly whistled the names Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.
I was eight when my father began reading A Wrinkle in Time to us. My brother was two years younger than me, and my sister was two years older. I remember all three of us lying in the same bed, the covers pulled high, a dim bedside lamp illuminating my father’s figure as he sat in an upright wooden chair. I remember the crinkle of turning pages and the way he’d clear his throat, like a gentle growl. My small fingers played with the worn fabric of my Eggie doll, a much abused, dingy and torn Humpty-Dumpty pillow that I cherished.
Sometimes if we were lucky, our father would perch on the side of the bed. If we were even luckier, he’d curl up in bed with us, ending that bedtime story with his snores because he’d put himself to sleep.
I know he also read us A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I know this era of my father reading bedtime stories ended when he tried to read us The Five Little Peppers because none of us, not even him, could muster enthusiasm for it. It just couldn’t compete with Madeleine L’Engle’s bizarre and intricate world-building, the rarity of a girl-hero in Meg, or the children’s mission to rescue their father from a prison of his own devising. Despite these other books, my memory of A Wrinkle in Time is so vast that it seemed my father must have read it to us many times.
This moment in time has particular significance because my father had just gotten sober and moved back in with us. Three years before, my mother, my aunt, and us kids fled our Florida home in the middle of the night. I remember it was on Halloween because we hadn’t been allowed to go trick or treating, and I was seething with resentment. We were loaded up in our minivan, sitting in the driveway of our home. We were poised to make our escape and the long drive up to Boston where my grandmother lived. It was then that I had my first panic attack. My Eggie was not with us.
My brash aunt ventured back into the house, tip-toeing around wasted and passed out partygoers, maybe even my father, to retrieve my most prized possession.
This is when my story and my father’s diverge.
I left beaches, banana trees, a backyard, and my Cuban family for the cold austerity of New England. During those three years without him, I saw my first snow, met my extensive Sicilian family, got my first Walkman, rode my first trolley, and went to a live performance of the Nutcracker ballet. During those three years, we moved in with and then left an abusive stepfather, we lived in our first apartment, and we became a family with secrets.
I don’t know what my father did in those three years.
He did come visit occasionally, but we never went back to Florida.
When my father moved back in, it felt like this stray chapter from someone else’s story was over, and we could finally get back to our real story. He got the chicken pox with us. He promised us a dog that we could earn one toe at a time by doing chores. And he read us A Wrinkle in Time.
We lived with my father for three more years. Over time, he slid back into alcoholism, and my mom kicked him out. Since then, he has been in and out of my life. Unpredictable. Unreliable.
But we did have a golden age. The memory of my father reading this book to me is frozen in amber. This book about children going on a quest to find and save their father. We are always there in that sleepy bedroom with A Wrinkle in Time binding us together.
When I grew up, I learned the truth. I was reminiscing with my sister who is older and remembered more clearly than me. She broke it to me that he only read to us for a short time. Less than a year. Maybe only one season.
This idyllic time I remember stretches to fill in all the gaps of his absence. It coats over the fear and uncertainty I felt all the times he came home drunk. It spans the entirety of my childhood as the most and best time I spent with my father. To know it was less than a year, maybe only one season. My very own time wrinkle.
Wrinkles by America DeGraw
A flash of light,
A folding of fabric—
Which folds in,
Leaves behind it, nothing but space…
Mrs. Which, What, and Whatsit
Standing on their proverbial pedestals
Asking all the right questions—
Charles Wallace silently contemplates
Mysteries of the universe
While Meg realizes her true potential
Exists in more than just her mind.
Their father waiting in time unknown—
Unyielding in his faith—
Awaits his children,
Riding on wings,
Coming to save him…
Mom loved that book. She read it to me first when I was 8. I think I asked for it so often simply because she loved it. A rapturous expression came over her face as she read, dark skin lit blue by the luminous globe that I used for a nightlight.
I found it comforting to reach out and spin the globe with a fingertip when I woke in the night. Here was the ochre mass of Africa, the brown sprawl of Asia, the turquoise oceans. Even the Rockies were marked, close to where we lived.
This was what Mom would see when she went into space: a blue spinning planet, the continent of North America with a dun ridge of westerly mountains, while her little girl lay in bed, looking at the blue spinning planet, the continent of North America and so on and on and on. Thinking about it too much made my skull ache, the plates of bone grinding like the earth’s mantle.
She talked about the mission often. I guess she wanted to prepare me for her absence. Also for the possibility of something going wrong. She’d give me these little rules to live life by:
‘Jess,’ she’d say. ‘Don’t ever miss out on your heart’s desire just because it doesn’t suit some man. Better to change the man.’
‘Is that what you did?’ I asked her.
She smiled. ‘Your father has always been supportive.’
Or ‘Jess–don’t waste your life shopping. Kids trawling shopping malls–it’s just tragic. We don’t have many days on this earth, Jess. The only real sin is to waste them.’
And I listened to her. I scored high in maths and always dressed as an astronaut on school costume days, brown face beaming from my white spacesuit, alone among the rows of Disney princesses.
After she’d gone, I’d sit looking at the stars, waiting quietly for fragments of memory to assemble in my mind: a hushed tone she’d use to point out the constellations, how she’d wake me in the night to show something perfect she’d glimpsed through the telescope: Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, the lyrical path of a comet.
In the years since her disappearance, I have often wished she’d written stuff down so I could have held on to her. All I have is one cellophaned wedding dress ghosting the back of my closet and an empty perfume bottle that breathes jasmine if you tilt it. A stupid government medal, awarded posthumously.
And the book.
The book is special to many people. The author is dead–when Mom read it as a girl the author was already an old lady. Mom wrote her once. She kept a copy of her letter and the author’s reply tucked into her first edition, with its faded cover of gold spheres on a celestial blue background.
* * *
The story is a simple one–a story for children. A brother and sister are allowed to join an early space mission. A strange force in the region of Alpha Centauri intercepts the spacecraft: engines fail, radio cuts out and the craft accelerates at light-beating speed and crashes on an uncharted planet.
For some reason, the grown-ups are dead. The kids are unconscious but survive. When they wake, they find themselves on another planet in another galaxy, inhabited by aliens I suppose, for want of a better word. In the book they’re called Others.
Extract from Kit and Maria in the Otherworld 1
Kit and Maria woke in the Otherworld, they thought they were dead and had reached Heaven. Their father, when alive, had not been the churchgoing type and Professor Primavera was an entirely rational being as he often stated. Nevertheless, through school and so on, they had some notional idea of Heaven, where angels sang and cherubs reclined on clouds like fat, down-stuffed white cushions that never got dirty, for in Heaven, there was no such thing as dirt.
The descent of the spaceship made the children pass out cold. Maria was the first to wake. The craft lights were out and she struggled to undo her harness and pull free. At first she thought Kit was dead; his eyes were closed and a line of blood ran from his ear. When she touched his face, though, it was warm and she saw he’d scratched his earlobe during landing with the long fingernails he never did like to cut.
‘Kit,’ she whispered, then realizing there was no need to whisper, called loudly, ‘Kit! Wake up for goodness sakes. We’ve crash landed!’
‘What?’ Kit blinked, sleepily.
‘We’ve crashed Kit! C’mon, we’ve got to get out of here.’ She helped him to release his harness.
‘Where are we, M?’
‘I don’t have the least idea. It’s dark out there.’
‘Should we take a look?’ Kit’s voice wavered.
‘I guess. We’ll have to get help for the others, anyhow.’
‘Are the others OK?’
Maria was silent for a moment. ‘Let’s check outside, first.’
They moved through the dark interior by touch. The emergency panel on the door had burned through and the door, all three hundred pounds of it, was snapped right off.
Outside the terrain was red earth with a vast, distant rustling canopy of trees overhead blotting out the sky. The air was clean and cool, it shook them both awake.
A light was moving through the trees, shivering between the leaves and intensifying. Then, for the first time, they heard Arla’s song which made them both think of Heaven, for where else would you hear purest birdsong, like blackbird, lark and nightingale only more free, so full of joy that the sadness, clouding them since their father’s death thinned and vanished.
The faint, golden light, pure and clear as a high summer morning flooded them, surrounded them until, Maria was the first to say it but both of then thought it: we are in Heaven and now we will see Mother and Father at last. Almost as Maria breathed the word Heaven the song and the light began to speak.
‘No,’ it said. ‘No, no–oh you poor…. O how to explain!’
To Maria this did not seem odd; she assumed this was the voice of God or some angel or other. Kit’s eyes blinked open, startled as a newborn.
‘Come, come,’ said the song and the light, drawing them through the forest, their feet stumbling over tree roots and boulders. The flap of giant cerulean wings made them look up at a butterfly, large as a kite and as a cluster of yellow insects swarmed past the children saw they were birds, down to each tiny beak and miniature citrus feather.
They came to a clearing where the sun was setting. There was no sun to be seen, but the light became violet and smoky, the song grew deeper and a little sad, like the jazz their father used to listen to. Bright flares of golden light broke through the violet, the first song twittering high to them, ‘She, she,’ was how they understood it.
The deep song settled them and together they sank onto a floor of small flowers that smelled like pine. Maria thought of her first school where she had been taken by her mother, pine disinfectant on the floors and glass bottles of milk brought in a crate at morning play and knew, suddenly, that the golden bird-song was trying to explain that the blue-violet smoky jazz light and song was also, in some way a mother.
‘Mother, mother, yes!’ the songs echoed in delight.
At this, Kit, who had had as much as a small boy of eight could take, put his face in his hands and burst into howling sobs.
That part makes me bawl.
So, yeah, the Others are embodied as light and sound without a physical body. Others know about the human children are because their space program is way ahead of ours. They’ve visited Earth; they’re familiar with our customs and our needs.
That weird sucking in of the spaceship, the Others explain, is a kind of shortcut in space-time. They are sad about the grown up members of the crew dying, but can’t bring them back to life. What they can do is transport the children home. They don’t need the wrecked spaceship to do this but it would be difficult for earth people to comprehend if the children appeared on their own.
The children are in no hurry. First, they explore. The animals on this planet are like ours but different. Birds are miniature, butterflies are huge, reptiles car-sized: playful chameleons with intense, shifting colors and giant tortoises with leaf green shells, who aren’t as grumpy as our old pet Heloise and let the children hitch rides on their backs.
The dark leaves of the plants are huge, stems sturdy as tree branches so the children fling themselves prone and sleep on a leaf while flocks of miniature birds flit by, the delicate fanning of giant butterfly wings cooling their faces.
When they awake, rested, Other Mother tells them, in her smoky, lady jazz singer way, that it is time to go home.
Can you blame them for not wanting to go? I mean, would you?
Eventually, after other adventures, the Others summon the children to the crystal caves that lie deep below the surface of that strange planet in preparation for their return to Earth.
Extract from Kit and Maria in the Otherworld 2
The children crawled now through twisting tunnels no higher than their shoulders. Ahead, the faint violet glow of the Other Mother’s light reflected off smooth walls that gave off a pearly sheen. They could tell they were descending into the interior of the planet; the tunnel felt warm and their ears popped like they did when the spacecraft took off from earth.
A hot wind blew through the tunnel now and Kit and Maria, hands and knees sore from crawling, felt the space open above them. They were in a cavern with pale, shining walls. Maria could see her own hand and Kit’s face as pale swimminng shapes in the blackness but little else. Nervous Kit’s breath came quick and sighing, like when he had an asthma attack back home. Immediately the Other Mother surrounded them with her warm voice and Maria, who had reached out to place her hand on his chest, felt his breathing calm.
At first Maria did not think that the Others in the cave had any color at all, then she began to see the darkness in the cave had a different property to ordinary darkness, a green, silvered sheen and when the Others spoke with emphasis, glitters of diamond flew from its centre.
The blackness, Maria saw, was more than the absence of light. It was an entity, a color that, like the deep, rumbling song surrounding them, was the thing from which this world, this universe, perhaps many universes, sprang.
The Others transport the children and spaceship home to Earth. In that fecund air, the spaceship has become overgrown with vines, moss and creepers, the grown-up crew’s flesh rotted to clean bone.
A bunch of mountaineers discover the children on Earth, high in the Andes, creeper-clad spaceship, skeletons and all, nearly five years after they first left.
And that is where the book Kit and Maria in the Otherworld ends.
* * *
What the book has to do with Mom and the disappearance of the 49th Shuttle, lost forever in fathomless space in the region of Alpha Centauri, I couldn’t tell you.
Except, Mom really loved that book. She talked about in interviews, saying it was the book that had made her want to become an astronaut. She took a copy of the book into space with her, my copy with a photo of me tucked into the flyleaf.
Why did she love it so much? If I hadn’t remembered that first edition, I might never have understood. Sometimes on her birthday, I take out the letter from 11-year-old Mom to the famous old lady author and the famous author’s reply.
This is what she wrote:
Dear Miss LeFevre
I am a great admirer of your book, Kit and Maria in the Otherworld. I would like to ask you two questions I hope you will not find impertinent.
1) It is true isn’t it? All of it. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.)
2) What happened to Kit and Maria when they got back to Earth?
Yours in anticipation
Astronaut in training
The old lady author’s reply went:
You are a very perceptive young reader, my favourite kind.
In answer to your questions:
1) A wise person whom I have no reason to doubt told me that it was indeed, all true, every word.
2) Kit became a monk and lived his life in search of that elusive thing that we call mystery or transcendence that he had so fully experienced in his time with the Others. Maria lived life on an intense and heartfelt plane, burning through life like a ‘comet with a fiery tail.’ While her span of years was few, she lived them well. In short, she died young.
My best wishes for your future career