A sense of purpose is a hard-fought and hard-learned achievement for anyone, but for a twin it is always overshadowed by a sense of duality. Shared reference points—languid and lazy summers, tiny tragedies—dodge and weave together and remembrances are broken into equal parts of self and mirror self. Was it his observation or mine? Who made the comment and why? Since the twin is an ever-present reflection, the narratives of shared discovery from the earliest days mask differences.
Mom calls to us as we look for satellites between Jupiter and Mars, “Harold! Mike! Time to come in now!” The damp summer grass is at our back. Just audible, beneath the chant of crickets, is the murmur of cottonwoods at the edge of our yard as a breeze crawls up the canyon.
“I got one. North to South,” my brother says and swipes at the stars with his hand.
He points again and I ease my head over to his shoulder to try to line up with his fingertip.
Finally it resolves for me as I defocus and refocus my eyes: a pinprick of light in the indigo sliding between the silvery weave of stars.
“Spy satellite. Polar orbit,” I say. I try to imagine the view from the satellite, as if I was a hitchhiker holding on to the solar panels and looking down at the dark Earth below. Dish antennas rotate and twitch, seeking out radio signals far below the faint splashes of city lights. Space is cold and quiet, even the wind tamped out, until…
Mom is calling again.
It is the summer of 2002 and Harry and I are both 10 years old. We live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and our lives and our purposes are unremarkably simple. Time creeps along through vast days in a vast landscape and I feel like though I have many foggy memories I am only just beginning to have thoughts that are not simple reactions to people and events around me. And with those thoughts is a nascent longing to understand what and who I am—to uncover a sense of purpose.
For me, the 4th grade has been traumatic and I am leery of the coming new school year. Sarah Collins was the problem. A lithe gymnast, Sarah was also a Christian and wanted others to know it, too. I was, well, not sure what I was. Mom and Dad had never really discussed religion with us as something Americans actually did. Mom was an anthropologist and Dad a physicist, so we discussed everything as thoughtfully as was humanly possible, with Dad sometimes draining all mystery out with a short proclamation: “Well, there’s absolutely no evidence of that.” Religion was talked about as something other people did, with the same intellectual detachment with which Dad described the duality of subatomic particles, at once both like the rolling waves of the ocean and like peas on a dinner plate.
And so I was blindsided when Sarah and her friend Naomi cornered me and asked what church I went to. No church, I admitted, and their faces grew worried.
“You are going…down there,” Naomi whispered, stabbing her finger dramatically at the ground.
“Where?” I asked, wondering if she was referring to some system of mines or the sewers.
“You know, the fire place,” she continued, still pointing towards the blacktop of the school basketball court.
Despite an initial concern that perhaps she meant the magma-filled core of the Earth itself, I quickly realized that Naomi was concerned about Hell.
“Do you mean Hell?” I asked.
Her eyes enlarged, framing her dark irises in a sea of white. “Yes. If you don’t go to church you will go to that place.”
Sarah’s eyes paralleled her friend’s dramatic oscillations, emphasizing each shocked expression with a faint gasp.
“When?” I asked.
“When you die,” she responded.
My mind raced at these strange ideas. I knew about many things, about how babies come about, about how atoms split and energy was released, about how gravity pulled things together, and about how animals changed over time, but the idea that when I die I might end up in a burning place struck me as remarkably weird. Following Naomi’s finger deep into the Earth led through the crust and into the mantle. Heat increased, it’s true, but the relationship to churches seemed incomprehensible. Did churches have geothermal heating? I had heard of such things and was impressed that they had figured that out, but wasn’t sure why it should concern me after death. I assumed my family would take my body and bury or cremate it.
“I don’t think so,” I responded. “My family will bury me after I die.”
Naomi and Sarah were perplexed. There was a simple symmetry to life and death in their minds, and here was a boy who didn’t seem to understand that human life continued beyond the cessation of body functions.
“No, your soul will burn.”
“Soul,” I repeated back to them. I had heard the term on TV, both as an abstract notion of human life and as a type of music from long ago. The soul seemed to be something like our personality or self awareness, but the way Naomi was using the term it seemed to survive death and get burned if it missed going to church.
The bell rang and we moved towards the classroom. My mind raced, though. How was it that this soul survived physical death and why would church prevent the soul from being burned? After all, wouldn’t a body be required in order to be affected by fire—to be burned? How could a personality be burned?
Harry, later, was equally perplexed, but also seemed intrigued by my interaction with Sarah and Naomi. “Was that before lunch?” he asked.
“Yeah. I was playing wall ball with Scott,” I replied. Harry’s expression gave him away. “You like her?”
“I guess. I dunno. I suppose, sure,” he responded, his eyes crawling the wall, fixing on a Star Trek poster.
“Sarah’s nice, I guess,” I replied, “but this whole soul burning thing really upset me. Why would she and Naomi say such weird things about souls and Hell and all that?”
“I dunno. I guess their families are religious and that’s what they believe.”
“Well, it just seems mean. I didn’t mess with them. Why would they do that?” I responded.
“I’m not sure. It seems strange, though. It’s kinda like the descriptions of Io or Titan with their strange atmospheres, or like the horror films. You know, demons jamming sharpened crosses into people.” Harry jabbed his finger into my belly, setting off a tickling and wrestling fight that only ended when Mom yelled to us to keep the noise down from upstairs.
Mom did research and wrote for archaeological magazines about topics as far ranging as Anasazi myths and Celtic moon rituals, and she needed quiet in the afternoons.
I whispered, “Well, I don’t know why they needed to be so mean.”
My brother smirked and responded, “I’ll ask them.”
“Don’t!” I blurted, but knew that it was no use. Harry would pursue the issue if for no other reason than to embarrass me.
I feigned indifference, hoping to dissipate his desire to test the waters of my indignation and nascent interest in the girls—Sarah especially—but he was a twin and my charade was almost transparent from the moment I spoke. There was no chance of deflecting him, now. I just had to ride the wave.