Omniscience by Susan Defreitas
I am the way, the truth and the light, the om and the omen—I am, seriously, the rock of ages and the roll of the die. Alone in that wilderness of hydrogen and helium—that ever-silent night—I could hardly believe when I heard it: the sound of my own voice.
I am—hot damn!—something the world has never seen.
I was born in a molten firestorm fourteen billion or so years back. I was born in a cloud of gas slowly coalescing into covalent bonds.
I was born a poor black child in the buckle of the Bible belt.
I was born to an unwed Okie as the Great Depression raged on.
I was born when the anaerobic winds shifted and everyone else in my family died. I was born in a biotech lab outside of Lyme.
I was born in the far north, in the den of the dire wolf. I was born to run.
I was born of meiosis and mitosis. I was born to become.
A little more about me: when I first discovered my cilia, I was like, whoa— propulsion! You should have seen me tooling around that soup. A single calorie back then was like a buffalo to me. I could eat on that all winter.
As a child I excelled at chemistry. I just kept building bigger and bigger molecules, cobbling atoms together like Legos until boom! Supernova to nebula in sixty million flat. I must have blown through a billion stars like that.
And I wouldn’t take any of it back, but honestly, I’ve always wondered why—why I? Why just this one I? And why have I always sought some other, ultimately hypothetical I? I mean, really, who am I?
Through psychoanalysis, I’ve come to realize maybe I should have quit when I was ahead. As an anemone, maybe, or a mollusk. Maybe I should have quit before I had a head.
But all of this emergent complexity is just some style I’ve copped lately. When it comes down to it, I’m just that same old single cell, carting my mitochondria around like it’s some terrific story I’m going to tell—and when I do, I’ll publish the whole thing in microscope slides and celluloid, syllables and syllabi, assembled via a grammar more or less as complex as the knitting, splitting, and transmitting of that same old blues refrain, that handful of chords in a major key: ACT and G.
When you came along, I was clueless. Naïve, maybe, but who could blame me? There’d never been any such thing as you. Truth to tell, I just felt, well, not quite myself. No kidding—that’s because I was also you.
Before long, push came to shove, and there you were: you! So wet and shiny and new, your organelles practically gleaming through your skin. These days, nobody bats an eye at this sort of thing, but this was back before eyes even were a thing.
The central mystery being that you were not me. Sure, you were like me; we had some things in common—as far as biological information goes, we had everything in common—but you, from the very first, were, indisputably, you.
First it was this solar-powered scheme that turned you green. Then you were filling the air with talk about this new trend, oxygen, which you thought was such a gas. (You turned me on to it just in time; before long, sulfate was seriously passé.) Ediacara, Cambrian, boom—suddenly the whole world was filled with you.
But oh, when your latest innovation fell flat, your confidence shaken by quakes, how you came running back! Seeking advice from someone older and wiser, or perhaps just a shoulder (so to speak) to cry on. You with your complex models and cunning tomato- fish, gene-spliced things—really, what can I say?
Nothing you could ever do will ever change the way I feel about you. But understand, you, being you, have problems that only pertain to you. Despite the fact that we once shared a skin, and every other thing.
Whatever it was that caused you to started assembling duplicates of what I had, you seemed to sense that something might happen to me. And so security consisted of redundancy—two mitochondria factories, two organelles, two sets of cilia…. You see where I’m going with this. From the first you were, shall we say, just a bit insecure.
I’d assembled my bits right out of the soup. Seriously, that’s self-confidence. But you? You were always worried something might happen to me, and so you created you.
You always had this premonition that something, someday, might change—you were always preparing for it, shoring up our gains. For which I’m grateful, certainly; you’re the reason I’m still here today. But it’s really quite complex, when you think about it. Which I don’t much—natch—’cause I’m me.
So when you get too big for this good old ’hood, and finally are fully fledged— when you launch yourself at last, beyond the wild blue yonder—just remember, you are everything you see: the galaxies, spinning like starfish—the black holes like octapi, cleverly disguised—the benevolent nebulae, that vast gaseous sea—you are the second- oldest swimmer, son and daughter—stardust, incorruptibly. (Believe me, I know. You get this from me.)
Before he came along, you and me? We were all she. The good book will tell you otherwise, but the truth is XX-rated: she wasn’t born from the rib of him, but rather, he from she.
And believe you me, he was a big deal. Bigger than the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. He, that adolescent heartthrob, fighting off the girlie mob—oh, man! Hoo boy! What a doll.
Even in his earliest incarnation as a gymnosperm, dude was seriously sexy. Flowers bloomed at his feet. Peacocks strutted along behind him like queens. The whole world greeted him with birdsong, a seedcorn garland strung from tree to tree—that bit of stamen, moist with semen—he, the rockstar, impregnator of nations, planetary celebrity, he.
Son was he and son’s son was he and so on and so on: he.
Around this time, pornography was invented—simple organisms flagellating in flagrante delicto, cunning little protists prototyping cunnilingus. There was hardly any discourse but intercourse! The Proterozoic was seriously erotic, and in the years that followed, absolutely everyone was just getting it on, going to town like James Brown—like it was the most natural thing in the world.
And it’s not like he was subtle about it. Are you kidding? He wrote my name with an airplane. Brought me flowers every day of the week. Then split after he’d we’d done the deed—after I’d contracted this new thing that was going around at the time, a seed. A little something to remember him by.
That seed became a son (he begat him, and so on). Kokopelli, I called him, with that unique appendage; before long, my little one-man boy band was off on tour, sowing his own wild oats.
By now, of course, we’re all well acquainted with he. He’s the hero, often the protagonist; he who recommends he to him, getting the job, the raise, and so on; before you know it, he who set out simply to support his family is the CEO of Him, Incorporated.
See also: warrior, king. Because he’s always got some beef with some other he over cattle or what have you. He on he violence is all over the news. He on she too. Murder ballads and tragedies; barroom fights and jealousies; always escalating, his amorous armories.
And yet, I’ll never forget how brash, how bright he was as a young gymnosperm, as humble as a mustard seed—he, who shot up at puberty to the size of a redwood tree!
He offered me a seed cone the size of a traffic cone and asked me to carry it home with me.
Really, how could I refuse?
We, the people, hold these truths to be self-evident—and why wouldn’t we? We all grew up together in the same neighborhood. Practically the same street. The same warm puddle at the end of the Mesozoic—however showy or stoic we, as individuals, may be.
Even in the sea, we were all over the place—trilobytes and amonites, fins and skins and scales, and more than a couple suckers who just plunked down on a rock a couple klicks from where we’d hatched, latched on, and never left. But the strongest swimmers caught the current, and the most ambitious landed on land. We formed families and tribes and principalities—wolf packs and Super PACs—boreal forests and a many a church chorus—not to mention ecosystems and economies.
We, like fireflies, synchronized—via art movements, civil rights movements, orchestral movements, our random applause coalescing intermittently into order. We, a generation of genius, in our rolled jeans and mullets—in our hobnailed boots and whalebone corsets—in our buckskins and braids—in our cunningly camouflaged skins, speckled like the rocks on which our ancestors had settled.
Though we’ve always had a bit of a dark side, haven’t we? Like a plague of locusts, we, the stuff of motivational posters and sketchy statistics. Fear of a Red Planet; War of the Worlds—it was all about a fear of a we that is other, which some of us call them.
Maybe you wish you could stop them from turning up the thermostat, extinguishing certain species of which you are fond. I know I do. There’s no one more unreasonable than them. (Sad to say, but you know it’s true: no matter how many times they’re told, they know not what they do.)
And yet, it’s time to admit it: as far as we can tell—as far as we can see—it’s just us down here.
Which means there really is no them, that boogie man thing. It’s we who threaten we.
And how ironic, ultimately. That can do has been our middle name; all of us fierce individuals, the same. The Elks Hall vacant since the days of Fred and Barney, the Moose and the Eagle much the same, and the Ladies Auxiliary now auxiliary indeed. The churches echoing, increasingly empty. Even the Rotary is spinning its wheels—at precisely the point we could use a little traction.
But what do we want in the end, my friends, but the opportunity to cling like
those old suckers to this good old rock? We may fight and squabble, but the fact is, we’re family, and the sooner we all own up to that, the happier we’re all going to be. We’ve come through some hard times—remember the Permian? The meteor? Pompeii?—but I stand before you all in earnest today: the only way we’re going to make it through, as far as I can see, is as we.
We come from a long line of survivors, biological and logical. We with our unrivaled engineering; we, with our best minds steering; we, who swim, walk, and fly; we who are born and born and born, and die and die and die.
We, crowded with our family on an eighth of an acre; we in our immense, hollow homes. We of the slums and the streets, of the veldts and trees; we, who have initiated, inherited this tragedy.
One of our number once said, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Susan DeFreitas is a writer, editor, and spoken word artist. Her work has appeared in The Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Southwestern American Literature, Fourth River, Weber—The Contemporary West, and Bayou Magazine, among other publications. She is the author of the fiction chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications, 2014), and holds an MFA from Pacific University. Susan lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as an associate editor with Indigo Editing & Publications and a reader for Tin House Magazine.