Pale Things

Sean Hogan

Untitled Document

The climes, they are a-changing. Ancient ice is melting. Robert Frost finally has his answer: The world will end in fire—a fever to burn away an infection. But familiar doomsday scenarios—“Starvation! Extreme weather!”—are optimistic. Earth isn’t fucking around. Siberia’s melting permafrost has deadly secrets: Anthrax-infected corpses have thawed and infected people. Smallpox-infected corpses are sleeping deeper in the permafrost, ready to wake up. In North America, the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri is spreading to freshwater ponds and lakes that were too cold a few decades ago. North America’s ticks are also spreading, and they’re bringing Lyme Disease with them. And mosquitos—

            But wait! Maybe you don’t believe in climate change. Let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about Missouri. You believe in Missouri, right? Let’s talk about the ground beneath our feet. Let’s talk about the New Madrid Seismic Zone in southeastern Missouri. On December 16, 1811, in the middle of the night, an earthquake in Missouri rang church bells in Washington D.C. and sent Ohioans running from their homes. Fortunately, there wasn’t much damage because there wasn’t much to damage; the earthquake scattered cattle and startled homesteaders. But now we have fragile cities full of fragile people. When—not “If”—the New Madrid Seismic Zone wakes up, thousands of Midwesterners will die and millions will be displaced. But Midwesterners are lucky. The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a 600-mile convergence of oceanic tectonic plates and the North American Plate, stretching from northern Vancouver Island to northern California. When—again, not “If”—the Cascadia Subduction Zone wakes up, the Pacific Northwest will be destroyed. The earthquakes will kill thousands. The tsunamis will kill tens of thousands. The aftermath—disease, starvation, chaos—will kill thousands more. Oregon and Washington will be abandoned. Neighboring states will be overwhelmed with refugees. California’s economy—the United States’ largest economy and the sixth-largest in the world—will collapse. And the Cascadia Subduction Zone could wake up any time; it could wake up before you finish reading this sentence.

            Let’s leave the ground. The sky is safer. The birds aren’t afraid. The clouds are soft. But the blue sky is a lie. The night sky is the truth: Earth is an azurite marble spinning around the Solar System, spinning around the Milky Way, spinning around the Universe. Earth is the Solar System’s black sheep. Every other planet is dead, but Earth is alive. The Solar System wants to kill Earth. The Solar System tried 65 million years ago. The Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event killed three-quarters of all life on Earth. The Solar System’s weapon was an asteroid that formed the 110-mile-wide Chicxulub Crater in Mexico. The asteroid’s impact had the energy of 10 billion Hiroshima atomic bombs and triggered global earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and mega-tsunamis. But life survived. Mammals inherited the wasteland. And after millions of years of evolution, Earth returned to normal. But the Solar System will try again. The near-Earth asteroid Apophis (named after an ancient Egyptian chaos deity) was, until recently, an impact threat. Fortunately, Apophis will miss Earth. Unfortunately, the Solar System has millions of asteroids large enough to threaten Earth. And astronomers have only identified a few thousand near-Earth asteroids. The next planet-killer could be traveling toward us undetected.

            The Milky Way, like the Solar System, is dead. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has discovered 1,284 exoplanets: planets outside of our Solar System. Some exoplanets look promising; the Milky Way is full of “Maybe” planets, say planetary astronomers. But there are no signs of life. Only Earth is alive. Earth is alone. “Where is everybody?” asked physicist Enrico Fermi. Because Earth shouldn’t be alone. There are billions of Sun-like stars and more than 100 billion planets in the Milky Way, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe. But our Universe is a cold, dead Universe. Maybe that’s Fermi’s answer: “Dead.” Because the Universe, like our Solar System, is a killer. But the Universe doesn’t use asteroids. The Universe uses stars. When a collapsing star goes supernova, or when a neutron star merges with a black hole or another neutron star, a resultant gamma-ray burst streams across the Universe, releasing more energy in a few seconds than the Sun will release in its 10-billion-year lifespan. Gamma-ray bursts are rare events, and all known gamma-ray bursts have originated outside of the Milky Way. But 450 million years ago, a gamma-ray burst may have originated 6,000 lightyears away from Earth in a nearby arm of the Milky Way. And 443 million years ago, almost all life on Earth (~85%) became extinct. Evidence implicates a gamma-ray burst, but the evidence isn’t unambiguous. Maybe a gamma-ray burst never irradiated Earth. Maybe one never will. Maybe. That’s okay. The Universe also has rogue black holes. 

            But enough about the Universe. Let’s travel back to Earth—past Earth’s crater-pocked Moon, through Earth’s thin atmosphere, down to the ground where the fragile people are. Let’s talk about those fragile people. Let’s talk about you.

            You’re dying. You’ve been dying your entire life. Each heartbeat brings you closer to death. Don’t panic. Inhale through your nose. Exhale through your mouth. Your lungs aren’t getting younger. Don’t panic. Each heartbeat could be bringing you closer to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Each heartbeat could be bringing you closer to a car crash. Don’t panic. Inhale. Exhale. Press your forefinger and middle finger to your wrist. Feel your pulse. Feel the blood rush beneath your skin like an underground river. Blind fish swim in underground rivers. What’s swimming in your red river? Inhale. Exhale. The river slows down. There’s no light inside your body. Tapeworms don’t need eyes—but sometimes their larvae get lost. Would a tapeworm in your brain feel your thoughts? Don’t panic. Inhale. Inhale the fecal particulate. How much shit is in your lungs? Exhale. Exhale the carbon dioxide. Exhale the poison. Breathing is important. Breathing is too important to fuck up. That’s why breathing, like your heartbeat, is a part of the autonomic nervous system. But now you’re breathing consciously, measuring each breath. You could choose to stop breathing. You could hold your breath. What if you could hold your heartbeat? What if you could accidentally hold your heartbeat with a thought? Would you be able to start your heart again? The river’s running faster now. You’re thinking about your heartbeat. Don’t think about your heartbeat. Think about something else. Think about pale fish swimming in the dark. Think about swimming in the dark. Don’t panic. Don’t think about the pale things beneath you. Don’t think about the pale things inside you. The river’s really rushing now. Don’t think about your heartbeat-beat-beat, your heartbeat-beat-beat. Don’t think about the things you’ve read. Don’t think about smallpox. “What do the blisters taste like?” Don’t think about earthquakes. Don’t think about heartquakes. Stress is bad for your heart. Stress is bad for stress is bad for stress is bad for stress. The Cascadia Subduction, Suction, Sucking. Sucked down into dark water to swim with pale fish. “Where is everybody?” Don’t inhale the dark water. Don’t hold your heartbeat. Sucked down. “Dead.” Hold your breath. The blood’s really rushing now.

Don’t think about the pale things. “Where is everybody?” Don’t think about the pale things

inside you. “Swimming with pale fish in the dark.” Think about drowning with pale fish

in the dark. Inhale the dark water. Don’t hold your breath. Think about the black hole

sucking, pulling, inhaling. What if you could accidentally hold your heartbeat with

a thought? What if you could hold your heartbeat with a thought? What if you

could hold dark water? What if pale fish could hold your heartbeat? What

if your heartbeat could hold a heartquake? What if you could hold your

heartbeat with a thought? “Where is everybody?” What if “Where

is everybody?” could hold your heartbeat with a thought? What

if “Where is everybody?” could “Dead.” hold your heartbeat

if your heartbeat “Where is everybody?” could hold your

heartbeat “Where is dead?” could hold your heartbeat

in a pale thing? What if a pale heartbeat could hold

a thought? What if “Where is everybody?” could

hold your heartbeat? “Where is everybody?”

could hold your heartbeat? “Dead.” What

if “Where is everybody?” could hold a

pale thing? “Where is everybody?”

What if a thought could hold

your heartbeat? “Where

is everybody?” Dead.







Sean Hogan is an environmental activist living in the Midwest with his partner and two cats. He thinks about the past and writes about the future.