[Fiction] Mother Again
The first time Ericka Wills, mother of two and failed singer and dreamer, heard the word rematriation was during a heated San Francisco school board meeting. It was the first meeting of the school year, and an angry public commenter called in to sing—literally sing—a demand that White Americans give back their land and “rematriate themselves.” As history books would later note, the essential point of the comment was lost when the school board proceeded to spend two hours debating whether they should use the word “repatriate” or “rematriate” when discussing a motion to set up a committee to explore the issue. Nonetheless, the wheels were set in motion when the conversation was picked up by Fox News and then Twitter thanks to a slow news week, and quickly went viral.
Ericka didn’t follow those media developments, which she would later find embarrassing. She wasn’t on Twitter and, music teacher that she was, she’d mostly been captivated by the fact that the public commenter had such a resonant alto—and the item she’d called about was continued to the next meeting (keeping funding for music programs). It was the tune that haunted her and blew the word into her mind. Zoom was surprisingly good at picking up upper harmonics, and she liked to put on headphones when her school PTA sent out emergency notices about disappearing school funding and tune into podcasts in foreign languages to listen to the voices wash over her as she made dinner for her three kids. It was far better than her kids’ repetitive Minecraft music or the digital snake-rattle of her husband’s constant Slack alerts; also, she liked to feel like she was improving her language skills, even if she wasn’t.
She’d later remember the smell of the burnt fish she’d made that night—she would insist it was fish, though it may have been chicken nuggets. Ericka hated cooking and domestic responsibilities in general, too.
Things did progress, though.
Within weeks, The Atlantic had written an article, The New Yorker was working on a major, illustrated series, and even Travel & Leisure had published a much-shared article on, “Top 10 Luxury Experiences for Repatriation.” The hot question: Was it a permanent vacation, was it radically anti-racist, or was it genocide; but, like, in a good way?
Ericka, who had shut down her Twitter account in 2021 in favor of more time on YouTube and then Instagram reels of singers she was jealous of, managed to miss all that during her stolen phone moments. Instead, it wormed her way back into her life in a more authentic manner. She, like so many women her age and area code, loved to fly around Red Fin at night after the kids were finally asleep, looking at 4BR, 3B $5M+ properties that they’d never be able to afford. Like a personal real estate opera. That was how she noticed a tiny uptick in properties in certain parts of the city. It made her wonder if it was a sforzando or the beginning of a long and unprecedented crescendo—and so rematriation officially reentered her life.
Then, in a much-vaunted podcast that whipped around moderately progressive white social media feeds in early October, NPR asked: Was it okay to be defensive about the prospect of European-American population reduction in the process of rematriation, all things considered?
This, Ericka found increasingly present. Some friends had gotten into a massive fight on the issue on their neighborhood Facebook mom group—a client had responded to another mom’s comment with a derisive crying laughing face emoji—and had tagged her in the thread in expectation of backup, sending her into a minor panic. She didn’t even want to be in the Facebook group but had been forced to be when she was looking for a babysitting swap after baby two was born. Ericka had no idea what the right position was. When she thought about it, all she could think was that she was from Schaumberg, Illinois; was she supposed to move back there, where it snowed?
Nonetheless, Ericka reluctantly shut herself in the unloved and barely functional second bathroom of her family’s sagging Mission neighborhood house after dinner on a sharp, blue May Wednesday evening to listen to the debate. She didn’t like feeling so uncertain about the right political views, and it was good to take her mind off her imploding singing lesson business; the pandemic had been brutal to her already fragile career (and mental health—having kids should not be a spontaneous decision, it turned out).
“… experts to debate this question of whether it is the only ethical imperative available to European-Americans to move back to their overseas ancestral homelands …”
The bathroom resonated on a G#, Ericka noticed, not for the first time, and the G made her think of Germany; not that she was German—or was she? She’d gotten a C in German diction in college. She hummed lightly up and down the core elements of the scale to confirm the pitch and closed her eyes to feel the tiny pulse vibrations. Overseas was a good word for a pure drone, she noticed.
“… furthermore, does accelerating climate change and the unwillingness of this administration to act with urgency create an upside to willing rematriation for European Americans? …”
Ericka paused her humming and listened more carefully, snagged on that bright word, climate, as she stared at her dry, ringed tub. The drought in California had been so bad that year that they’d already had a few weeks of invasive water restrictions, leaving the neighborhood notably on edge and food shockingly scarce. The wildfires were expected to be catastrophic, and they hadn’t even started. It was hard to wrap her head around as a child of the abundant ‘80s shopping mall.
Her cat, Isildur, scratched at the door, thumping the wood with his paw, and she sighed and cracked it open just long enough to let him in, then quickly eased it closed again, straining to listen. At least he wasn’t dragging in a rat, or worse. And more importantly, that her kids hadn’t noticed where she hiding.
“… Our line is now open. Call in and tell us: if you’re a White American, will you be rematriating?”
“Isildur, sit!” Ericka sighed, feeling no clearer about what to write on Facebook.
The cat was waving his butt in her face as he circled in her lap. She was uncomfortably perched on the chipped toilet. But he was also purring, which was a plus. Ericka sighed, nuzzled his brown head with her knuckles, and sat back against the cold porcelain, mollified by the rippling pulse of his vibrations. Isildur was a street cat who’d wandered over to her while she was high and singing to a violently entrancing sunset at Kezar stadium. The day she’d also met her husband, Gray.
So, no, Ericka didn’t feel any clearer about what she thought of rematriation as the podcast began to wind down with a series of long-winded callers. But she appreciated the rare quiet time with Isildur’s roiling purr, even if it now sometimes made her eyes prickle with something sharp. Ericka tuned the podcast voices out and focused on the cat and the calendar for the next day. “If we moved, you’d be too scary for the cute little European rats, wouldn’t you?”
Isildur dug his claws into her legs in response.
In response, Isildur bit her finger.
When he’d first come home with from Kezar stadium, he had declared himself her husband, Gray’s, cat, and now he belonged to no one—pointedly so.
Ericka turned up the volume on her phone and tried not to take it personally. Lord knows she already had plenty of babies; she wasn’t sure how she’d ended up with so many babies. She’d liked the idea of being a mother, in theory.
She was going to turn on the bath and maybe slip into some illegal water, but the voice of a new caller resonated in the small tile room, and Erika found herself distracted by the overtones of the woman’s mezzo-soprano. It wove through the words and carried them across the air, layering into Ericka’s tired brain like music in a grocery store, and her shoulders automatically relaxed. Her eyes turned away from the dirty tub and to the ash-grimed window.
“Maybe you’re shaking your head right now thinking it’s impossible. But ask yourself, can you really be happy in this country anymore?”
As predicted, she shook her head. Ericka stared at her cat, remembering the feeling of that golden day on the stadium track and imagined leaving. “That’s insane. I love this city too much.”
A drop of drool formed at the corner of Isildur’s graying mouth as he settled into her head rubs. Gray didn’t believe that Isildur had found Ericka and instead claimed that he had found him curled up in a patch of grass just outside Kezar Stadium bike path, and had been unable to resist the kitten’s tiny mews.
That had been back in 2007, another lifetime ago, and Ericka had been too high to rely on her memory, so she always let it go. Though, of course, not in her mind.
Ericka eyed the tiny window next to the sink again, noting the layer of permanent black and red grime on the open sill—the new permanent. Times had certainly changed in the 15 years since. Ericka had given up on her solo singing career altogether, was down to one student in her anemic music business (hence the need to get this Facebook post perfect), and the school district had eventually cut her part-time teaching job, along with the entirety of the music program. In fact, school on the whole was down to just four days a week in person now, and Ericka had never been more tired and less inclined to do more than hum; she had Irish triplets in kindergarten, first, and second grades. (Was that OK to say?)
Then again, was a chord a chord without three notes? That’s what she always told the people who knew her from her earlier days as a rising star. The people who had long since eclipsed her. She’d recently begun to think about starting a YouTube channel just to, you know, build her own audience again; people did that now, right? Maybe make some money?
Ericka knew she shouldn’t complain. Other people had it much worse. But sometime in the last three years—when? how?—it had become tacit that things were never going to get better again. People were abandoning the public schools even more rapidly than before, but Ericka and Gray couldn’t afford private school. So, that was one of the many uncomfortable series of realities extending her time on Red Fin these days. What, was she going to homeschool her kids forever? Live locked in their house whenever the smoke lit up the sky (more often than anyone expected now)? Would she have to get a regular job, too, not that anyone would want to hire her with a music degree? She and Grey were hemorrhaging money.
The whine of the white noise of the tiny bathroom grew louder in her ears. It was no longer a G-sharp, was it? Or was it? That couldn’t be possible; she had to be losing her mind. She closed her eyes and a familiar heaviness fell back onto her.
The voice persisted. “Can you honestly say you’re doing the best for the future of humanity by staying?”
It felt good to be still, Ericka realized. To stop listening to the vibrations in the world and shut down completely. When had she become this tired, this listless? Their garage was littered with an embarrassing number of Amazon boxes and GrubHub bags. She’d caught her kindergartener playing with Isildur’s emergency litter the other day. It was too depressing to even complain about on the one group text she kept going with her former friends.
Would moving let her be the woman she wanted to be again? Or the singer? She was a terrible mother. And so dramatic, right? Total soprano.
The podcast ended and the white noise of the bathroom hummed back at her in noncommittal static along with Isildur’s snores.
And then it faded.
Gray found her two hours later and woke her up long enough to help him find his missing computer dongle and then stagger together into their unmade bed.
Erika never did comment on the contentious mom group thread, settling for putting bright red hearts on her client’s posts, past and present. The topic, nonetheless, had most certainly wormed its way into her brain; she began to feel feverish. She settled into a pattern of liking a lot of Instagram posts on the topic and occasionally wading incautiously into heated discussions on her other, citywide San Francisco Facebook moms group with long, circular rants. Maybe the podcast had a point, she thought over and over as she sat with her children at their tiny table, trying—and failing—to get them to watch their Zoom classes on their overloaded wi-fi signal. She’d already lost her voice from screaming that morning at breakfast. Was that so bad to say? It was something that people really did need to talk about.
Besides, it felt good to feel like she was thinking about her future seriously again. Much better than the endless rejection she was getting in her new, desperate job hunt (no, no one wanted singers to breathe all over them, thanks, even if they were understaffed). Still, in truth, when she did her nightly Red Fin search after she’d put the kids down for the second—and third—times, Erika never expanded the search parameters any further than coastal Maine or, if she was feeling wild and particularly bitter, Miami; it was where she had sung her last major role, to huge acclaim. It had been Dido in Dido & Aeneas, a dramatic role that suited her blazing and hypnotic soprano. Her once blazing soprano.
She created a YouTube channel but left it fallow as the weeks dragged on. It was a better place to dream than do.
Then, on the tenth anniversary of her last show in Dido, which was in late November of that year, she did join a few ex-pat Facebook groups online for England, Italy, and the Netherlands; she still wasn’t entirely clear where her family was from, but those were the easiest groups to join when you were a little too tipsy to read the group entry requirements closely. The forums turned out to be wonderful distractions during the four days the kids were at school and she was supposed to be job hunting and cleaning the house on an increasingly shrinking budget. She’d always hoped that becoming a singer would mean lots of international travel. If only she could break into that market. If only.
So went Ericka’s last year in the United States of America.
It was a year later when people began leaving San Francisco and other coastal cities in significant numbers, leaving Ericka even further behind.
Over the summer, there had been a number of massive protests in various deep blue cities around the country in support of the idea (it wasn’t clear exactly what/who they were protesting, but still), which had once again lit up Fox News and Facebook, evoking a massive white red state backlash. That was par for the course, though, and Ericka hardly blinked; she still hadn’t been able to find a job—or even get an interview—and the few affordable summer camp options for her kids were rapidly closing shop. Not that the ones that did have openings tend to stay open on a consistent schedule. She was forced to sign them up for mom camp, and everyone was miserable.
When Ericka did pull herself out of her funk and managed to corral her kids to the nicer playground, she noticed that her mom friends had started talking about rematriation like it was pretty much inevitable now. These women joked—but not really—about their summer vacation in Switzerland being a dry run while standing in front of the slides. Ericka managed to laugh along with them, briefly imagining herself in Switzerland, too. Why not? But she, Gray, and the kids didn’t go any further than a trip to a beach in Marin that summer, for lack of liquid assets and the fact that the mega-drought and water restrictions had forced so many museums and parks to close, kids especially unwelcome. It was the longest summer she’d ever lived, and she began to hate her friends enough to stop going to the playgrounds after a while. She started to debate with herself about the music at her funeral.
And then in September, hellfires replaced the repetitive depression.
NPR week one: Hell-like wildfires drop the Bay Area into an endless series of red sun days and the East Coast blitzed with catastrophic hurricanes and floods.
NPR week two: School suspended indefinitely, pandemic restrictions reinstated out of an abundance of caution. All playgrounds and public parks closed.
NPR week three: Rumors surging in multiple state capitals that the November election also canceled, indefinitely. State of emergency tightened. White House on lockdown.
NPR month two: A white militia group tried to take over the capitol building in Sacramento. With the lack of access given to media thanks to the pandemic restrictions, no one is quite certain if they’ve succeeded.
NPR month three: Are we really a democracy anymore? A dirge sounds across the country. Mass shootings and suicides spike.
Ericka, like everyone else, felt like life was over. She bought herself a new pair of extra-strength noise-canceling headphones and even revived her Twitter account to doom scroll and cry. Her house fell apart. She didn’t even say anything when her youngest ate Isildur’s dry cat food for breakfast on a red sun Thursday. In protest, Isildur clawed the sofa and dragged in a live rat. It bit her middle daughter, Blue, who began to pee on every and anything.
The word was all over her head and Instagram and Facebook now, with pictures of white friends hopping planes to move to chateaus in France, and explosive fights on Twitter about whether temporary rematriation was ethical. (There was also another set who were moving into climate-sealed bunkers, but that may as well have been a coffin, to Ericka’s panicked mind.) A few activists who had rematriated to Europe were outed for having merely rented out their homes when they left, instead of selling or, better yet, donating their property to the local Native American nation. Ericka stabbed at the like button on the scathing takedowns of these assholes, no longer remotely sorry about posting her hot takes on Facebook.
She wanted out.
But she literally could not go outside. The sound of the endless red sun days outside—the muffled heat and ash—and screaming in their small house became unbearable. Blue peed on the piano keys, unable to forget or forgive the trauma of the rat. And the money kept draining out. Gray, the CTO of a promising but ultimately stillborn startup, started locking himself in their car in the garage to have enough quiet to do his work, though there was no air purifier on the bottom level of their house. He quickly developed a hacking cough in addition to a look of haunted panic; they had stopped buying health insurance.
Her oldest, Willa, started sucking her thumb again, but with aggression. She bit her thumb and chewed it like a trapped fox.
So yes, in any previous year, the idea of fleeing to the land of cafes and Nutella when things got tough would have seemed politically and morally repugnant—they’d stuck it out all two years of the pandemic lockdowns, like the good people they were. Now, though, it was like there was a constant low drone in the air, urging Ericka to go, go, go, purify your pain with a pain au chocolat.
Wasn’t it her responsibility as a mother?
Finally, after an exceptionally bleak day in which the school district casually emailed that it was unlikely that school would be reopening in person again that year at all, Ericka finally brought up the idea with her husband, Gray, in bed. He was working on his laptop, which Ericka loathed, for so many reasons. Gray’s tech startup, which they’d put all of their savings into, sold soil futures. Now he was having trouble raising funding, and they were a month away from going broke. No, not even. 28 days. She didn’t like to contemplate what that would mean, and had been careful not to add to his stress, even as her resentment built and created permanent structures in her heart. They all needed him to succeed. That was the practical reality; she still hadn’t started posting content on YouTube. (What was there to post that anyone would want to watch?)
Ericka had married Gray back in 2009 because he had the most delicious, creamy bass voice—other stuff, too, but yeah, mostly that. Now she didn’t like the hum of the laptop interfering with the way his rumble resonated in their paper-thin, white and blue bedroom; though, to be fair, that may also have been the unrelenting thump of their neighbor’s evening clogging group next door. He’d married her because she didn’t mind that he tended to lose themselves in their passions, and had once been in a band. He’d heard her singing in Kezar stadium that day when Isildur had appeared out of the sun glitter and had been unable to stop worshipping his “unreal golden San Francisco goddess.” Or so he said. He didn’t particularly like classical music and often suggested that she start a band.
Isildur jumped on Ericka’s chest, with a thud and settled in to lick himself. Ericka’s hand automatically went to his head to rub. It was shaking. What would happen if his company went broke? Seriously, what would happen? Ericka had grown up 20 years in the last two.
“Have you thought about this whole rematriation thing, Gray?”
Gray coughed and then cleared his throat and shut his laptop, though not all the way. “Yeah, Mark Zuckerberg just rematriated, to Germany. I think the whole company is going to move, too.”
Ericka paused, momentarily distracted from her goal. This is why she’d been a music major. “But his wife is Asian, and he’s Jewish.”
“Right. Anyway, do you know how hard it is to find good programmers in Iceland? Or funders.” Gray stared out their filthy window at a tree and reached down out of habit to fiddle with the overworked air purifier. It tended to wobble on the clogging nights.
Ericka had no idea why he was talking about Iceland. Though she’d heard some really interesting music from that country recently. Still: snow. She took a deep breath and tried to steady herself. She couldn’t fuck this up. Gray shut down if she got too emotional. “I thought your people were Northern European. Like, you know, mine.”
Ericka and Gray had done the whole 23&Me thing back in the early, idealistic days of the 2000s, when Ericka still had a career and a popular MySpace page full of herself singing. As far as she could remember, according to the DNA sequencing company, Ericka was 98% “Northern European” and 2% “Other.” Gray was more or less the same, plus a little Native American, which seemed inaccurate even to Ericka’s decidedly unscientific brain.
“Are they?” Gray had a terrible memory, which Ericka had never been able to reconcile with his career success. “The Danish government has been pursuing us to move there in return for investment. Not that I’m suggesting we go. I know you hate that weather. Does that count?”
Ericka tried to keep her voice calm at this revelation. Really, really tried. He wasn’t going to tell her that they had an out? That they could have left already? That she could sing again? She wanted to scream. Instead, she forced herself to remember Willa’s bloody fingers and accusing looks and take another deep breath and play the long game. Gray was the type of man who immediately rejected ideas from other people. “Oh, does it snow there?”
“Maybe?” Gray flipped open his laptop again and typed a few words into the search bar over a cough run. “Nope, my bad. No, not much. Just a little. Sometimes.”
“Sometimes.” Ericka closed her eyes, stilled her shaking hands, scarred from all the scrubbing she’d had to do thanks to Blue’s pee protest, and tried to picture what she knew about Danish music. She felt like she might hyperventilate. Truly pass out. “There’s a really famous choir there that I like.”
Gray was still typing. He tended to get excited about research and his own thought process. “Huh, and pigs.”
“Pigs? We’re vegetarians.” Ericka’s voice got painfully high and tight. “Gray, do you want to move—to rematriate, whatever? I know you can’t keep working in the car. And the funding.” A small part of Ericka felt queasy about calling her desire to get the hell out of the US rematriation. Her motives were purely selfish. That said, if it quacked like a duck ….
Isildur cracked an eye out of sleep.
Gray didn’t seem to hear the last part of what she said. Or maybe he did? She held her breath and sang her most pious song in her head.
“Yeah, pigs. That’s why the Danish government wants my company. They want us to do a pig health futures market, too. Climate change tech and all that.” He gestured at the window, caked with black ash. “It’s good money and their talent pool is ok, but I thought, you know.” Gray trailed off, looking at her nervously. Some of his most negative habits came from his inherent awkwardness and concern about doing the wrong thing.
Ericka’s heart leaped, melting slightly. “That I didn’t want to go?” It was true that Ericka had insisted that they stay in San Francisco during the pandemic lockdowns when Gray suggested they move to Reno to get the kids back in school. Her pulse beat wildly. “Yeah, but do you think maybe it’s the right thing to do now? If it doesn’t snow and they like to sing. They’re happy there, too, right? Weren’t there some books about that?”
Gray was slow to reply, still looking slightly panicked about having to make a decision. “Statistically, yes. They bike a lot.” Gray was a staunch bike commuter and had wept when they bought a car a few years ago after the city stopped running most train and bus services (pandemic then budget) and the three kids became too big to all fit on their cargo bike. By his own admission, he’d recently started getting fat and drinking a lot of beer. He stunk up the room when he slept.
Ericka tried not to betray how desperate she was for him to agree, but her voice felt like it was being squeezed through a cocktail straw. “So, let’s do it, Gray. Let’s rematriate. Take the offer. The kids and I are totally behind you on this.”
Gray paused for a long moment to stare out the window and cough. The cough was so bad, and only getting worse, not that they could afford to have him go to the doctor; certainly not in 28 days—they wouldn’t even be able to make rent. “Well, I would need to get a new bike, in the motherland. And the kids, too.” He reached his hand for Isildur’s sleeping mountain of fur, who hissed and bit him. “But what are we going to do about the cat?”
The investors agreed to a kick infusion of cash. So the family sold their house and was on their way to Copenhagen, Denmark—land of pigs, pastries, and white summer and winter light Nordic vibrations—by Thanksgiving. They had to drug Isildur to get him in his crate.
Right before they left, Ericka braved the smoke to go to Kezar Stadium to watch the sun set through the arch. She stood still in the middle of the grassy football field, just like before, but now thick with red air, and remembered the way the golden light once hit the sandstone and transformed the arch at the western edge of the track ringing the field into a blazing portal. Maybe she hadn’t been that high that day, after all? It was perfect here. She took off her headphones and listened for the chord of the California sun that no longer was. She felt it and drank it as deeply as she could.
They arrived in Copenhagen right in time for the cold rain and endless dark.
They arrived in Copenhagen on J-Day. It was 4 pm, completely dark and raining, and Ericka thought she might be hallucinating from inside the back of the exceptionally clean cab gliding up Nørrebrogade. It was already exotic in Denmark compared to San Francisco, with the beautiful and abundant rain that had doused them after they’d landed. She ran her finger down the foreign window, trying to feel closer to the unfamiliar moisture, so welcome after the endless drought. And then winced. Something odd had happened to her ears on the plane ride from the displacing static that always accompanied any plane ride. She assumed it would clear once they landed, but the rain was making it impossible to hear anything else.
Even Gray’s normally resonant voice sounded muddy to her from the front of the cab. “Shhhh! Good kitty. Just a little bit further, little beast. You’re in the motherland now,” Gray was in the passenger seat of the taxi, cooing at Isildur in his cage.
Unlike Willa (a family name that, somewhat to their horror, turned out to accurately describe their willful eldest), Blue (also unfortunately prescient), and Monty (named more hopefully after Ericka’s favorite composer), Isildur had been an absolute angel on the plane. The children had refused to sleep on the plane and had only just now finally conked out 10 minutes ago.
Ericka gripped the arm around Monty and his car seat a little tighter as yet another drunken-looked mob ran down the street, screaming and laughing. None of them were wearing face or smoke masks either, which was jarring after life in San Francisco.
“Excuse me,” she whispered to the cab driver. “I mean, unskuld. Warum es det?” In the last couple of months, Ericka had devoted all her time beyond packing, cleaning, and convincing her traumatized children to move to learning the narrow, melodic sound of the Danish language, though she had a tendency to mix it up with German phrases from Brahms and occasional Spanish words.
“We are very happy people today,” the cab driver replied without taking his eyes off the road—or emitting any emotion whatsoever. Was he angry at them about the cat? “You arrived in time for some very lovely weather, yes?”
Ericka was going on hour 32 of being awake thanks to some issues with leaving the house and then Blue’s non-stop tears on the plane; her five-year-old hadn’t liked the color of the airplane seats and had repeatedly threatened to pee unless Ericka sang to her. “Yes, uh, very hyggeligt,” she replied carefully. “Is there, uh, a protest going on today?” She tilted her head, hoping to empty the static out of her ear.
A crowd of men was rocking a car stopped at the intersection across from them. Was this an environmental protest? Anarchist? Ericka almost felt nostalgic for the San Francisco of her youth. She glanced around at the rest of the street, hungry.
“A protest of ordinary beer, yes. It is J-Day! This means they bring out the Jul øl. The, uh, how do you say? Christmas—”
Something lit up in Ericka’s brain. “—Beer?”
“Yes, very good. It is very exciting to us here because we love the son of God so much.”
“Right.” Ericka couldn’t decide if she was dreaming this conversation. Surely her ears would adjust soon.
The cab driver didn’t notice. “I will also be getting drunk later this evening, though I hope not to pass out. It has been on my calendar for quite a long time.” He glanced at Ericka in the rearview mirror and pressed down on the accelerator as the light turned yellow and then green. “We are very happy here.” The cab driver smiled.
Ericka blinked rapidly to lubricate her delirious eyeballs and glanced at the passenger seat at Gray, who had fallen asleep against the window; much to her annoyance, he’d ignored the children’s screaming and slept on the plane, too. Ericka scrunched up her face and shook her head to try to clear her ears and mind again. It was raining. Her hearing would return in time. She was out. Safe. That was all that was important.
Something that sounded like Eurovision was bursting out of one of the bars on Nørrebrogade. Ericka giggled and put her cheek to the cool window. “Welcome to the motherland indeed.”
“Ah, you are Danish then.”
Ericka squirmed. She’d gotten comfortable telling her friends back home that they were rematriating to Denmark (after all, it was certainly “Northern European”), though it felt different claiming this to an actual Danish person. She’d looked up some of the national foods to prepare for the move and winced when she realized that it had a lot to do with fish, which she categorically loathed. They’d eaten a lot of pizza and hot dogs in Schaumberg; her parents worked in title insurance.
Isildur made a low death growl as the driver swung them onto a quiet side street and yelped; Ericka felt her skin goosebump from the sound, and then the static return. “Our cat is named Isildur,” she blurted in apology, apropos of nothing.
The driver frowned at Isildur and put the car in park in front of their new home, a six-story apartment building of gray stone and a massive green door. It was a beautiful building, though their apartment was only a two-bedroom; it was all that had been available on such short notice on their budget and thanks to the cat. The clearly angry cat. It was much smaller than their rental back home.
No, not home anymore, she reminded herself.
The driver turned to Ericka and away from Isildur and drooling Gray. “Yes, I know this name, Isildur.” He said it like he was cursing a demon. “The human man who went to the mountain but could not destroy the ring. I find I do not like cats.”
Ericka had no idea what to say to that.
Thankfully, Blue woke up just then with a scream, and all the tiny orcs woke up.
Five minutes later, the whole family was awake or at least out of the car and mostly inside the giant green door, and Ericka stared at the stairs that would lead them to their new sixth-floor apartment in despair; how was there no elevator? Ericka desperately hummed a lullaby, trying to calm Blue in her arms and build up her resolve to begin the climb. Just one more climb, and then they could finally rest.
“The green is sad, mommmm!” Blue wailed in her high little voice. She also hadn’t taken to the front door.
Meanwhile, Gray struggled to pay the cab bill with an angry and barely-awake Willa draped on one shoulder and Monty squirming to lie flat again on the other in the pouring rain. And then gathering their luggage and hustling into the small vestibule without the other kids waking up or forgetting his bag with his laptop or the one with the iPads for the kids and and … He really was a great father.
So, both of them could be excused from forgetting all about Isildur in his cage in the front seat. Really, it was completely forgivable, Ericka reminded herself later.
But before they could begin the final climb up to their sixth-floor apartment, the driver burst through the green door and called out to them, looking less than delighted. He was holding Isildur’s cage and frowning. There was a strong smell of cat pee coming from the plastic and metal box.
The driver handed the cage to Ericka a little more forcefully than she thought appropriate; they’d given him an enormous tip, after all, even though she was pretty sure tipping wasn’t a thing in Denmark. “Be sure he eats the herring.” And then the driver had turned around and let the green door slam behind him.
Ericka couldn’t help it. She laughed, which just set Blue off even more. What could she do at this point? They’d done it! They’d moved to a new country. This is where they lived now, pissy cat and all. Her kids would understand what she’d done for them soon enough.
They were safe. Safe! Maybe they’d even done the ethical thing, leaving the bloodied US to heal at long last. Maybe the woman on NPR had a point.
Ericka sang a little louder, oblivious of the neighbors she was waking. They’d get through whatever the darkness of the winter brought. How bad could it be?
That winter, 5,000 other American families moved to Scandinavia from the liberal coasts under the guise of tech talent acquisition/rematriation.
She was right.
By next spring, the static had cleared and Ericka felt like they were finally getting in the hang of things. Energetic Monty adored his outdoor pre-school, willful Willa was soaking in Danish at her folkskole like a little kanelsnegle pastry and even mercurial Blue had found a couple of playgrounds with color schemes that didn’t make her cry. They’d been to Tivoli amusement park downtown more times than she cared to admit, which had been pricey, but Gray and his other key team leaders from The Lemonade Climate (she’d always hated the name, but found she could look past it now) were ensconced in a nice office in the quaint downtown, with plenty of good bike parking, catered lunch and beer Fridays and a workday that ended at 4 pm like a religious rite. And the sun had finally come out again; this had not always felt like a given. It was a weaker sun than San Francisco and certainly compared to that glorious first day at Kezar, but it didn’t promise death.
Ericka was okay. They were all okay, and that’s all that mattered.
The only one who wasn’t was Isildur.
The cat refused to leave the underside of the couch. It made no sense. Ericka had been able to confirm with her own eyes, on more than one occasion, that there were plenty of juicy mice to be eaten in the old apartment buildings of Copenhagen. There was no reason for Isildur to refuse to even use the litter box they’d set out for him in the bathroom; instead, the area around the couch smelled terrible.
She felt more than a little ridiculous yelling, “Why can’t you adapt?!” at the cat. But really.
Not that it was the top thing on her mind these slightly warmer spring days.
Ericka had gleefully deleted her LinkedIn profile the morning before they’d left San Francisco, and had every intention of making the rounds of various professional choirs as soon as her voice was ready to see if she could get hired. She finally had time to practice! She’d been around the block enough to know not to audition before she was in good vocal shape; that Hamilton song kept going through her head about not throwing away your shot whenever she thought about doing otherwise, and realistically, her low notes just weren’t there yet.
But she was on it like she hadn’t been in years. She was going to be a singer again! She was going to be herself. Mostly. There wasn’t much room in their apartment to practice at full voice, so ever since the holidays, she’d been skipping down to the basement during the day and evening to get her voice back into shape. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the room were dreadful, so she wasn’t sure what to make of her progress. She felt so much happier in general, yet nothing felt right yet when she sang. Her high notes were higher than ever, but it was like she was constitutionally unable to sing below middle C. Completely unacceptable for a Dido, as her mother reminded her during an uncomfortable spring break visit. That would be the last she’d see of her or the rest of her censorious family, Ericka decided. Rematriation had its perks.
She kept trying to sing anyways, high on her memory of what it felt like to be the old her. She was free!
There were so many Americans trying to move into Denmark and Scandinavia and Europe in general that the Danish parliament began looking at legislation to further tighten immigration rules. Ericka had no idea, since she couldn’t read the language.
Life had become clean air and kids wild with glee about fredagsslik and playgrounds full of free tricycles. Ericka occasionally liked to walk around at night and howl at the moon (though never too much lest she damage her voice).
By the following October, however, as much as she loved the cobblestone streets, old buildings, and clean, orderly streets full of bikes in their new home, Ericka often found herself sitting on their couch during the long dark afternoons, a familiar panic setting in. It wasn’t just the acoustics of the basement. Nothing sounded right, no matter how much she practiced. Not like in Schaumberg, or Miami, or San Francisco, before the world forced her to stop practicing.
She’d tried to get Gray to hear, but he just smiled and told her it sounded “nice.” And she hadn’t made any other friends, despite halting attempts at the kids’ schools.
Left alone, worrying thoughts started to invade her brain: Had the smoke messed up her voice like it had Gray’s bass, which was now noticeably less resonant, post-cough?
Then the unhinged thoughts. Did she rely on sunshine to sing? Or a particular kind or amount of sunshine? The laser sun of California? What would happen if she quintupled her intake of Vitamin D? Could you accidentally kill yourself that way? Should they move back to the U.S.—maybe find a new place to live? Were there any good options over there anymore? Was it even safe to fly?
She knew these were irrational ideas, but there they were. Just as they sometimes had been when she was a kid, so alien to her parents with her compulsive need to create. Nothing else was.
The administration of the partial country that now had possession of Washington D.C. had, inexplicably, begun making noises about invading the UK, presumably by air. Ericka had done her best to tune out any news from home—she still thought of it as home—but the little she’d picked up suggested that the white nationalist movement somehow now considered the UK as their rightful land. Something about a new school history curriculum bolstered by a blockbuster movie starring The Rock that Ericka had never seen. It made no sense, just like what was happening to her voice.
Yet here they were.
Ericka had definitely noticed an uptick in concern in playground conversation—well, what she could pick out with her rudimentary Danish—about what to make of all the new immigrant applications and the pending invasion of the UK. There was robust support in the Western Alliance (as the American west coast was now called) and the free and blue Northeast for the plan because the people in power hoped it would mean a larger exodus of white people from the former United States. So the politics were awkward for American and European leftists; was white rematriation a commitment to racial justice or a potential invasion?
She wasn’t even sure if she was getting the question right. Her brain bucked at any analysis.
Immigration had nonetheless become even more impossible in Denmark abruptly after the first tweet from the D.C. government about plans to reclaim the UK. Existing immigrants were instructed that they were now required to be fully employed within the next six months, or be considered for removal or military service on the Russian front. Ericka had been sitting at a cafe eating a slice of drømmekage after dropping the kids off at school on the Christiania bike when she got that email, and she’d choked until the cinnamon had burned her throat.
It was the old feeling. The panic. The slow slide into the next worse thing.
That was how Ericka ended up naked on the pale wood floor in front of an east-facing window in her apartment’s cluttered living room at 10 am on a Friday in May, doing her best to ignore the cool air and breathe in sunshine and the deep vibrations of a garbage truck outside. Ironically, the relative lack of car and truck traffic in the city, which was so otherwise pleasant, made it harder to find the deep noises she needed to ground her own low notes.
“Be a whale, Ericka. Find the lowest vibration and breathe it into your skin.” She needed to get herself together and find a singing job, no matter how odd the path there was. Her body had to acclimate fully. Though as Gray pointed out, things were going so well with The Lemonade Climate that it was hard to imagine that the government meant them in that message. They’d been invited.
Could that be true? She desperately wished she had friends to discuss this with. But all she had was Gray and the cat; she’d let the rest of her friendships trail off after the move, and their family had never been close. Her mother had alienated a number of their neighbors in their building courtyard by uprooting and redoing the little patch of garden next to the swing set.
Ericka lifted her chin to the window. “You just need to accept the vibrations and the sun. Accept the light onto your skin—this light—and give your body permission to acclimate. This is your home now.”
Her horribly white skin. She’d never been paler and drier in her life after the long winter and cool, rainy summer. Ericka pushed the thought away and tried to remember the feeling of being submerged in the harbor water that surrounded Copenhagen. She’d tried ice bathing in January. It had taken an hour in the sauna immediately after to stop shaking from the cold. But it had been transformative; she’d felt like a real Dane for the first time.
She breathed in again and hummed a low note, letting it rumble in her chest for a long note. Letting it seep into every part of her shoulders and neck and head and belly and toes. She was vibrating and imagining the sun piercing through the Kezar Stadium arch on that magical day. It was glowing under her skin and then gathering in her sternum. More and more intense. It was going to break through. It was going to pierce her breastbone and blaze into the world with glorious gilded heat made of centuries of utopian hope. It was her. It was right there. This was going to work.
“And into song,” she breathed and whispered.
But when she opened her mouth to sing her strongest low B-flat, it rang hollow. It had no depth or resonance—and it wasn’t the acoustics of the room. She’d lost her gift.
Isildur howled and then hissed from his bunker under the couch, and the stench of cat pee slowly wafted across the room.
Ericka tried to raise the problem with Gray that night as they sat on the couch drinking and admiring their 10 new candles, though it took a while to get his attention. Gray had insisted they embrace the hygge lifestyle to the max, though it meant he’d had to get reading glasses to counteract the constant dim evening light. It had been kind of fun and had brought them closer after the move, especially with Gray now home in time to do more chores. The kids were in bed, and Ericka had felt sick to her stomach all throughout dinner, bath time, and tuck-in time. Blue had refused to let go of her when she’d bent over and attempted to kiss her goodnight.
“Hvordan siger man remate på-på-på dansk mor?” she’d lisped in her tiny wode-like voice, urgent with hot arms around Ericka’s neck. They had just been reading a Moomin book, and it took Ericka a moment to switch gears, mentally translate the words into both Danish and little kid and understand she was asking how to say rematriation in Danish. This was happening more and more often as the kids got used to speaking Danish all day at school. Ericka tried not to be jealous of their easy adaptation, but it hit hard that night.
“I’m not sure, sweet pea. Uh, can we just call it re-mor?” Mor was the Danish word for mom, which was one of the few words Ericka knew in her bones now.
Blue stared at her. “Igen?” Again. “Mor igen?”
Ericka paused. Mother again. It sounded like a season or a cycle of mothering seasons. A new festival to celebrate with a new beer. M-day?
“Ewigkeit,” Ericka sang lightly and extracted herself from her daughter. Eternity. Her own Danish was still decidedly sung German, and she felt depressed looking at Blue’s skeptical face.
They also knew she was no better than Isildur.
Ericka put her hand on Gray’s laptop cover and pressed down. (His interpretation of hygge had some notable inconsistencies.) “I’ve lost my low notes, Gray.”
He glanced up in confusion. “Is that a bad thing? Aren’t you a soprano?”
“Of course it’s a bad thing! I had the low notes when we lived in San Francisco, and now I don’t? Where did they go?!”
Gray was a very literal person. “Well, there’s less of me and, though I don’t mean this in any sort of appraising or negative way, less of you. All of us.” It was true. They’d all lost a fair amount of weight over the last half-year thanks to all the biking, walking, stairs, and horrific rugbrød. “So maybe, uh, maybe that’s what you metabolized? Or maybe you’re growing different vibrations, on a new frequency. Did you know that pigs have a surprisingly rich repertoire of language frequencies?”
Ericka grabbed the lighter stick out of Gray’s hoodie pocket and eyed the candles for any sign of low flame. “I’m not a pig, Gray.”
“But maybe it means that you’re adapting. Like the rest of us.” Except Isildur. Or Ericka. “Weren’t you just telling me that you noticed that the kids’ voices were changing, too? That reminds me,” Gray added.
Ericka tuned out the rest of what he said, though not intentionally. It was a thing that tended to happen. He was right that the kids’ voices were changing. Danish was a narrower and more melodic language, and their voices were now slightly higher from speaking the tongue. They were quieter, too, like the sound of a bike wheel instead of an SUV tire. Even Willa.
Gray continued to speak to her, and she knew she should listen, but all she could hear was her husband’s evenly cycling bass waves. They’d gotten narrower, too, and less resonant after the coughing and change of home. He’d never had the most expressive voice, but now it was a bit flatter. Maybe slightly metallic. Too much pig blood?
Ericka tuned in again to hear Gray’s smile come out in words. “And I haven’t even shouted at a driver in over six months!” Ericka tried to smile. She really did. He was so happy in their new home. Even the smallest things were proof that everything was right with their life now for Gray. It was sort of charming, though Ericka knew for a fact that he still detested black licorice and secretly spit it out every time a new Danish colleague gave it to them as a treat. It really was admirable. He was adapting in his own way.
Ericka could be this positive, perhaps. Maybe she’d been spending too much time with Isildur. Maybe it was time to get serious about auditioning even without her low notes; get her confidence back. The immigration policy clock was ticking, no matter Gray’s optimism, and it was true that her high notes remained bright like falling stars. Maybe humans weren’t supposed to have such a wide range of sound. Maybe it was childbirth or age. Or the hard water. The idea relaxed her.
Ericka let Gray talk at her in a wash of cycling, flat bass as she put her hands on the arm and back of the couch and hummed in her middle range to test out her new resolve. She pictured the whip of the wind off the harbor during this past black December and the howl of train wheels that rolled into the central station on time. She pictured the photos Gray liked to share with her of lonely, flat pig farms in the rural areas of the arid green country. A squealing pig. The hum of the enormous Maersk cargo ships on the even open sea. Her tone intensified and dipped, low and lower.
Isildur hissed under the couch and bit her ankle until she stopped.
That fall, Tesla and Ford debuted electric trucks with built-in weapons systems in the former U.S., which quickly sold out. Secret negotiations between Downing Street and the white nationalist government in the White House turned their sights to Northern Ireland.
None of it touched Ericka, caught up in her own changing sound.
The results of her efforts to adapt were mixed.
Ericka’s initial auditions went well, but not well enough to land a paying job. Instead, she made it onto a list of backups and was told to get to know the music community by joining some choirs. Also, that her voice was too loud.
“You must understand we are a Danish country, and prefer Danish sounds. Have you tried the herring? It is very good for the voice,” said one of the more candid opera directors. “Much more agility.”
She did try the herring that night after wiping up her tears. It was horrible, and even Isildur refused to eat the fish. He was rapidly losing weight now, ominous for a cat.
Thankfully, by late November, Ericka did impress the director of a very small professional chamber chorus enough to land a part-time role as their lower soprano. It was one of the groups Ericka most admired, so she was over the moon despite it not being true solo work. Plus, the pay was surprisingly good—for music—and she no longer had to fear deportation.
Ericka giddily bought hot chocolate mix and pebernødder that night and danced around the apartment, delighting her kids with made-up songs about the upcoming Jul season. J-Day, their one-year anniversary, was just around the corner! Even Isildur peeked his head out and was willing to be lured out to try a bite of the Jif peanut butter jar and Ritz crackers her mom continued to insist on sending along with notes about the prospect of Ericka finally joining the family company, though at entry level to begin.
“Look, mor! Isildur ikke et et spøgelse!” Monty sounded genuinely shocked.
Ericka had no idea what he was saying, and just hugged him tighter and danced on while Gray typed quickly into his phone translator and laughed. “No, Monty, there’s no way he’s a ghost anymore. Cats are too smart to die.” Gray managed to be jolly even when contrary.
It was a wonderful night.
In rehearsals, Ericka held back tears as the group inhaled the cool church air and blew it back out into the stone. The notes rang clear and high, the basses held the foundations firm and Ericka had never been happier to blend into the stark high middle. She’d been trained to be a soloist, the showstopper at her final class final at Oberlin, despite being on half scholarship, so she shouldn’t have been happy. But she didn’t miss soaring over an orchestra as much as she expected, not when she could rub her voice against such incredible musicians at long last and forget herself entirely.
It was almost dangerous.
Afterward, she stood on the sidewalk, holding her hands to the freezing metal of her beat-up bicycle, convinced she would never stop ringing and find her way back into her life. Should she want to come back from something so wonderful?
She did in time, aware of the people waiting for her back home. It was late and quiet when she rode home in the evenings, and one night she threw her hands up in the air with a whoop of joy, remembering a particularly perfect moment of sound. It bounced and flared across the buildings and she went faster to chase the vibration, making a last-minute left off busy Nørrebrogade onto quiet Kapelvej and then a right into silence. She pumped her legs up and down, gulping the air along the long path in the Assistens Kirkegård cemetery until her lungs burned, laughing wildly with joy.
And then listening to the inevitable flip side.
There was the hush. The wind stilled and it looked like it might snow soon, which she improbably found she didn’t mind right then. Impatient for more, Ericka tried to find the pitch of the cemetery, where people liked to picnic in the summer. She listened for the street light, but it stayed quiet. She hummed, trying to coax it out, propelling herself faster and faster in the chase. There were no people now, and she blazed through the rows of dead, her humming more intense, her note slipping lower until it merged with a sound wave. There. She bent low over her handlebars to listen to the lowest edge. To anyone passing by, it would look like she was listening to her bag and hot tea bottle in her front basket. But it wasn’t that. It was a new sound, one she hadn’t been able to hear before. The rustle of a wheel, the spin of the concrete, the friction of rubber. It was slippery metal. The country was silver metal, spinning, just like home. Except it was a metallic sound that was new to her ears. Nothing like the roar of the streets at home in San Francisco; the hellfire and gold.
She bent lower.
She wobbled and gasped, but she didn’t fall. Ericka laughed and sat back up. Nope, she wasn’t going to fall. She slowed her pedals and squeezed her brake lever, adjusting her speed into the sound, chasing the vibration of her new country: A piercing harmonic over the susurration of circles, the greenery around her happy in its cycle of death.
It was incredible. She couldn’t have this moment alone. She whipped out her phone and hit video record, finally sure of what to put into her zombie YouTube channel, talking quickly.
She stayed out an extra hour that night, just riding around by herself, recording herself rambling about vibrations, enjoying the first fall of snow, and looking forward to her own Jul beer when she got home late that evening; she found she was happy.
She’d find a way to learn the language, build up her YouTube channel to share her joy, save Isildur from himself, and maybe make a herring taco. They could have the best of both worlds, surely. Adapting didn’t mean giving yourself up entirely.
War had ignited on two continents and more people were dying from gun and traffic violence (now combined) in the former U.S. per month than in all of the previous wars combined. The president launched a missile at San Francisco and it landed in Fresno.
Ericka’s joy morphed into something like quiet madness as the constant darkness turned into inescapable white light over the next half year, and the news of the world crept over the borders into this new flip side.
The lights and coziness of the holidays—the songs at home with the kids and at special events they packed into in Tivoli—were the first thing to go silent. The choir gigs scaled back, and rehearsals grew more infrequent, Ericka had more free time on her hand and started recording more YouTube videos of singing in outdoor spaces around the city and talking about vibrations; why not? The first one from that happy night in December had gotten a couple of hundred views and only a few death threats. Not bad for a woman.
She and Gray dusted off the blackout curtains again and hung them in anticipation of the summer light. They started going to bonfires in the forest outside the city and impaling dough on a stick to bake in the fire. Anything to stave off the shadows. (Though never open discussion of what was happening. Ericka didn’t want to speak it into the world and cut off all attempts by Gray to discuss politics.)
And then one late May day Ericka woke to the sound of teen voices screaming out their bedroom window, followed by Monty and Blue’s own howls of terror. As Gray slept on, snoring in that now permanent digital-sounding way he now had—like he’d been auto-tuned, Ericka finally realized with a shudder—Ericka lurched out of bed, ran down the hall to grab her children and yank open the curtains, and did a double take at their bedroom window. Why was there a trolley bus of teenagers blasting music and drinking beer in weird sailor hats rolling slowly down their street? Why did they look like evil spirits?
“Mor, are we død?” Blue wailed, her mouth right on Ericka’s ear as they both stared out the window. Ericka was doing her best not to stagger under the combined weight of her children and dream. Her kids were growing so fast. The inverse of the cat.
“Valkyries!” Monty shrieked, launching himself deeper into Ericka’s body.
She took a moment to steady herself from the momentum and overall creepiness effect of her youngest’s comment. Her mind was still stuck somewhere in a dream about a roiling ocean and silent wind jumping out of a YouTube video, and it struck something in her she didn’t want to touch.
“No, we aren’t dead and those aren’t valkyries.” In truth, Ericka was a little concerned about all the Norse mythology the kids were learning at their school; Willa had had a screaming meltdown a month ago when Ericka refused to agree that fairies existed and that she might be one of them. But that was neither here nor there at the moment.
Ericka willed herself to take a deep breath and ignore the feeling of violence lurking at the edge of the warm morning. “It’s just a bunch of teenagers having fun. A little summer fever.”
“Sommerfeber,” Blue echoed, nodding, but refusing to loosen her grip on Ericka’s neck.
“The fairies come out on Sankt Hans Aften,” Willa warned from her tiny bed in the other corner of the small room. The two younger kids shared a bunk bed and Willa liked to lord that over them from her self-appointed throne.
“Sankt Hans Aften,” Blue screeched, now trembling in earnest.
“Sankt Hans,” Monty screeched back, thrashing his head. “Burn the valkyries!”
Willa was not to be outdone. “No, stupid! We burn witches!” Willa screamed and burst into tears, bright red from fury. “The valkyries are good!”
Ericka didn’t understand a word they were saying, of course, and was forced to stand there and listen to her children scream their deepest terrors in a language she would never know.
The rest of the morning descended into a maelstrom of screaming chaos. No one noticed when Isildur slipped out from under the couch and made a beeline for the open window—and then jumped. After all, what was the sound of one cat barely surviving a 20-foot drop when the real darkness of the world was rising? What did he know?
By Sankt Hans Aften—the solstice—in late June and with the UK’s blessing, the former United States invaded Northern Ireland.
“Repatriates,” they called their army, which set off a torrent of conversations on the Western Alliance Public Radio about the dangerous war of semantics afoot. Not that there wasn’t huge demand from the American west coast to move to the promised land if it became available. The fires that year were all-consuming, and water was privatized and increasingly hard to get. There was even widespread political pressure in Washington State to begin talks with the former state of Alaska and Russia about some sort of immigration program for willing white re-settlers, not that it was a universally popular idea.
With aviation no longer viable or safe thanks to climate change and political violence, Ford had set up heavily guarded depots claiming to retrofit their gun trucks to survive the watery Bering Strait crossing—for an astronomical fee. People were literally gunning each other down to get in line first, though it wasn’t clear the truckboats were even clearing the pass; no one heard from them again except through the mouths of various church and political prophets.
Out of an abundance of caution, Canada gave up policing the northern border; they reinstated the shelter-in-place order instead, ended free movement for everyone unwilling to brave arrest, and prepared to wait it out or die.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, all of Ericka’s spring and summer choir concerts featured songs either by Danish composers (certainly not Russian) or Irish ones, and Ericka began to see shadows in the constant, unbearable light; something she began trying to capture in her videos, though it hurt her eyes. There was an inherent murderousness of the unchecked sun and a change in the vibrations of the city during these months.
It began to creep out in the open. Danes had always been inclined to wave their national flag at every possible occasion, but now people were sewing them into their clothes and taping them to their bikes with clear tape—absolute Danish violence. Nonetheless, Ericka and Gray silently bought an absurd number, just in case. Ericka felt dangerously exposed when she had to stand silent at the end of her June concert because the crowd had burst into a spontaneous rendition of the Danish national anthem, and she didn’t yet know the words.
In good news, though, The Lemonade Climate was getting lots of flattering international press. Gray was invited to give a presentation in Brussels. Whenever they talked in bed before sleep, he continued to insist that it seemed unlikely something that popular would get kicked out of the country, even if Ericka didn’t have a job.
“They need us, babe. We’re the future.”
That evening, Ericka tried to hold onto that promise as she and her family stood around the towering flames of the Sankt Hans Aften bonfire in their neighborhood, taking in the extraordinary level of drunkenness around them. She was used to the Danish obsession with heavy drinking by now and generally paid no attention. What else was there to do in the darkness? The birth of St. John the Baptist hardly called for more, even if his name sounded cool in Danish. Plus, Ericka had traditionally been more of an ecstasy or CBD person if she was going to get fucked up, so felt like she had no right to judge. This burning party, though, felt unhinged. Dangerously unhinged.
“Mor, I’m going to touch the fire and say hi to the fairies and look for Isildur,” Willa said, except in Danish.
Isildur had now been missing for two weeks, and the kids were growing skeptical of Gray’s claim that he’d gone on a “cat vacation, to return the ring to the volcano.” (The kids had insisted on hearing the story of his namesake more times than she could count.) Blue had begun to cry every time she looked at the couch.
Ericka muddled through Willa’s words and realized what she was saying. She grabbed the girl’s hand tighter and pulled her back. “No way, Jose.” Ericka inhaled a little too deeply and the scent of sulfur sent her back to the last few years in San Francisco. She had to close her eyes from the wave of fear it sent through her body; maybe the success of Gray’s company would outweigh patriotism, maybe not. “We need to stick together. Daddy is taking the train to Brussels tomorrow to give his big speech. Don’t you want to spend time with Daddy? Besides, I’m sure Isildur will be home waiting for us later.”
An entirely reckless promise, but Ericka was increasingly willing to do anything to preserve the little world they’d set up. The tilt of the world also meant she was gathering quite a following on YouTube who turned to her for musical hope; she’d begun weaving Norse mythology into her videos to make them more sacerdotal. Slightly told herself that it was just another opera and focused on appreciating the money.
Gray, oblivious, had turned his back on Ericka and was practicing his speech on a bunch of rusty bicycles lined up against the side of an apartment building. His voice bounced off the wall and back to her ears in all its glaring, unwelcome English. “It’s time to say goodbye to space exploration and embrace digital space exploration!”
Even Ericka had begun to hear his English—her English—as grating. “Gray, has anyone ever told you that you sound digital? Like, you could be a perfect digital wave.” She didn’t mean it as a compliment. She, too, was feeling the darkness rise up inside of her in front of the flames.
Gray turned around, flustered and clearly peeved to be interrupted. “Thank you?”
“Mor, are we going to move to Internet?” Monty, but in Danish.
“No way, Jose!” Ericka said just as Gray said, “maybe, champ!” Ericka stared at her husband in unfiltered anger. Did he always have to shoot her down?
They left soon after Monty tried to drink someone’s discarded beer.
They found Isildur curled up on their building’s front step (right in the middle of the top step) when they returned that night, and all was forgotten. Or at least buried. The cat was back! Isildur had actually returned. She had spoken the right prophecy (and held the scary one back), and it had come true. Ericka felt a little magical.
Maybe she could make things happen just by thinking about them? Maybe there were deeper vibrations she hadn’t yet found, she considered. Better ones she could unleash, too. Maybe she could weave it into a song and heal her home. Maybe they could go home again, if they wanted.
But it was Gray who spoke the spell—and it wasn’t of healing.
The following week, some TikTok influencers happened to be touring the EU meeting hall where Gray was giving his speech. They captured the key phrases and breathed them viral on the one remaining global commons that people actually enjoyed, and the spell of chaos was unleashed. “Forget outer space! Digital space is the only true space built by white Americans. If we’re looking for a natural home, the Internet is the only answer now.”
It was an intoxicating message for too many: “Repatriate to the Internet!” It exploded across TikTok, followed by Instagram and Twitter. It even got picked up in some parts of Facebook. And suddenly, for white Americans, lost in the contradictions of their politics, digital space exploration was now the logical extension of rematriation. It had accidentally become the anti-repatriation movement, the ethical answer to white nationalism, and the inconvenient truth of the foundation of the country.
Ericka watched it all go down in horror.
“What if life really was TikTok?!” For a generation of kids who had grown up shut inside and on screens, it seemed utterly reasonable.
“Are they out of their minds?” Ericka whispered to herself that first day that it made headlines. “This isn’t Minecraft.”
But by day two, it wasn’t just the younger generation. For a generation of older liberal preppers—as the repatriation movement had become to call them—who had found their faith during the early years of the virus, this felt like a strike of thunder from up high.
All because of Gray’s abstraction. He arrived back from Brussels glowing with uncomfortable confusion over his sudden popularity.
“This can’t be the solution,” Ericka screamed at him that night when he lit candles and seemed to think it was time to sit on the couch and read a book as if nothing had happened. “You have to set them straight!”
Gray looked at her in confusion. “I have been. They misunderstood my point. Didn’t you see my thread? Though, you know, I have to admit that they have a point.” Gray had acquired millions of followers almost overnight and was somewhere between giddy and paralyzed. He was deep, deep into that ocean. He was inextricably linked to the water; saying no only validated the existence of yes, and he didn’t have any other tools of persuasion after a lifetime of binary thinking.
White Americans couldn’t continue to claim indigenous land, the Twitter responses he showed her screamed. And they had no right to take over Northern Ireland; a message that the Irish were already giving in person, somewhat effectively.
“It is at least logically consistent,” Gray mused, tapping into a different part of his phone and frowning. “Also, oh, I’ve been invited to London as a speaker.”
“You? To who?” Ericka was too shocked by the turn of events to remember to approach him sideways. He was not supposed to be the performer of the two of them.
Gray bristled and read the message he’d just received from his secretary in a wooden monotone. Apparently, a new movement led by Harry and Megan Markle—a truly odd turn of events—was leading demonstrations in London and elsewhere to demand all British support of the invasion end immediately, and they wanted Gray to be their speaker at an event.
“Megan Markle?” Ericka muttered back in confusion. “They hate her.”
Gray looked at her, worried. “Should I go? I mean, I could tell them again they’re wrong and that I meant, like, when we’re dead. Not you know, killing yourself to live in the Internet clearly.” Gray was staring at Ericka for direction. He’d been worrying his hair so much that it now stood straight up in the air.
Ericka softened, though she also marveled at the fact that he hadn’t thought about how his message would be twisted, and got up to close the blackout curtains from the unrelenting light. The demonic light of the Sankt Hans Aften bonfire crept into the back of her head.
“Well, is it safe?” Ericka had been initially pleased that The Lemonade Climate was getting more business and funding offers as of late, but was far more worried about the similar uptick in death threats. Especially after what he’d said in Brussels. Would they get kicked out of Denmark if he was killed? “Do you think they’ll want to hear anything about how nice it is to live in the actual world?”
Gray’s response was predictable and immediate, like he hadn’t been asking her advice a second ago. “Is it, though? If you’re not in Denmark? I can’t prove anything.” Gray was sort of right, if depressingly unchanged. No other country would have the American white left, except Russia and a few autocracies in dissolving South America. Digital space, on the other hand, was apparently the anti-racist solution and biologically safe solution for many; like diving into our own dead skin pool. The pearly gates for people who rejected religion.
Ericka glanced down to the hall from the living room to be sure the kids were asleep feeling enormously weary. The kids’ bedroom door was closed but there was the unmistakable imprint of claw marks on the lower third of the white-painted wood. Ericka sighed, remembering the cat pee stain she still needed to scrub near the door in the kitchen. “Well, Isildur would certainly be happier living on the Internet.”
Gray glanced up swiftly from his laptop and stared at her for a long moment as if she was indeed his golden god. “The cat. Yes, he would. My wife, the genius. I’m going to post one of your videos on my Twitter feed to show you off.”
Ericka couldn’t sleep that night.
When she woke the next morning, the beginning of the end of the good life had begun. Gray was going to London and unfortunately/fortunately, millions of people clicked on the link Gray posted to Ericka’s latest YouTube video, and she became slightly famous, too. It was strange to actually be making real money from her videos, but thanks to Gray, part of Twitter was ready to worship at the altar of rematriation to digital space and an overlapping part was also ready to devour Ericka’s ramblings about white people’s vibrations with generations of built-up hunger. They’d tapped into something far deeper than themselves.
The constant ping of notifications on her YouTube account almost distracted her from her worry about Gray and the cat. The kids were fine, the cat was still alive, and they were safe in Denmark, but Ericka had never been more hungry to soothe herself. And it showed in her videos, resonating with millions and millions of people feeling the same way.
There was one video in particular that became especially well-known. Ericka was sitting in their building’s courtyard, singing a Danish lullaby next to Monty as he napped in the shade on some May grass. Her other kids were playing with friends from their building, off-camera, and the sound of happy children’s voices (in Danish) punctuated her sentences like lollipops and rainbows. The whole thing could have been a commercial for fabric softener, or maybe a prescription drug with sexual side effects:
“On a snowy night last December, I finally realized that every watershed has its unique vibrations that rise out of the land.” She half speaks, half sings, and hums. “Language is a way of pinging with those vibrations—or not. Some languages hook into and flow with the chord of a place, others smother and stamp out with dissonance.” A fluffy cloud blows across the sky behind her, casting a shadow on her for just a moment. “Some people move in those vibrations and flow into the land with their language, happy in the chord, while others fight against the vibrations. That’s why we’re tired all the time.” Monty snores, and the camera captures Ericka smiling at the sound, the sunlight hitting her face just so—more dazzling than the most artful opera stage lighting. “You don’t have to be tired all the time. Lære sproget.” Learn the language. “Be happy.” Ericka closes her eyes and digs her hands into the grass, throwing her head up in what looks like rapture, but is actually a wave of sadness for herself and the cat that Gray had started to eye with uncomfortably intense interest; she’s seen his Google search history for cats as human proxies for experiments on consciousness transfer. “If you listen carefully enough, you can hear a person’s vibrations. You can hear if they’re adapting.” And scene.
It had been an ordinary Saturday when she’d filmed the piece.
Ericka had largely felt invisible in Denmark up to that point, in a mostly good way. So it was shocking to see her video covered on the front page of Jyllands Posten on Monday with the headline, “Learn The Language!” She was even more surprised when she received an e-mail from the immigration office on Tuesday asking her to come in for a meeting. When she got that message, while getting the kids ready to go to school, Ericka panicked, unable to return to the conversation she’d been having with her children about the importance of clean underwear. It was too much—this on top of her constant need to protect the cat. Isildur hadn’t returned to his hovel underneath the couch, but Monty and Blue had just discovered that his fur was starting to fall out in patches. It had been a big blow to her effort to keep him alive. It was the fall again, and the kids were growing cold to their cat after the hysterical joy of his return. She was his only protection now, and it was making her brittle and tense. Gray had stayed in London an extra week.
“I love him, but it’s his own fault he’s sick.” Willa declared from the other side of the living room as Ericka stared at her phone, but in Danish. Willa didn’t even try to pet him. She’d begun talking about getting a rabbit instead. “By the way, I’m going to ride my bike to school by myself next week, mor.”
Monty giggled and mimed biking fast and crashing. “Isildur wants to live on the Internet with fa! I will build him a funeral pyre in Minecraft!” More explosions. Monty was a terror on his bike.
It was only Blue who stayed silent. She was staring at Ericka’s ashen face looming over the message on her phone and rocking in her seat, the only kid fully tuned into the vibrations around her. It broke Ericka’s heart to see how much she felt; she couldn’t protect her child. “Not again, mor. Please.” She resolved to do everything she could to try. Everything.
The dreaded immigration meeting was in a fairly non-descript conference room on the third floor of the main administrative building. Ericka was surprised to see 10 people in the room when she walked in exactly at 10 am; Danes found lateness inexcusable.
“Hi, um, I’m Ericka Wills?” She repeated the sentence in both English and Danish and then Danish once more, just in case.
The room stared at her and nodded as she sat, more nervous than the opening night of her first opera role. The room was strangely devoid of any sound; not even white noise. Ericka’s skin prickled at the unnatural void.
One of the men pivoted sitting at the corner of the table turned his laptop to her and clicked on Twitter. It was Gray’s page. 2.5M followers and climbing.
“Your husband has said some interesting things: ‘Social media is ritual. Sort of a state-sanctioned religion that snuck up on us and turned our brains into weak meat signals. I didn’t mean people should be forced to move into the Internet. Only if they want to when they’re dead!’ It is quite a suggestion. You have both become very famous in our happy little country.”
The room laughed, and Ericka felt compelled to laugh, too, though she wasn’t sure exactly what they were laughing about. The sound was immediately sucked into the nothingness of the room, and Ericka started sweating. Were they going to kick them out? Where would they go? She thought of Blue’s stricken eyes.
A woman spoke, dead-faced. “The queen is very mad.”
Ericka wasn’t sure if that was a joke but the comment sent her choking on the stale air. It took all of her decades of performance training to overcome the panic. “I’m, uh, sorry? We’re very happy here. Like, really really happy. I’m so appreciative. You know we have three very small children.” Three children who were depending on Ericka. Could she count on Gray anymore?
“Yes, we are a happy country, especially for the children.” It was another woman. “We are not here to deport them or you, though we see you have not fulfilled our job requirement. That is very problematic.” It was true. Her choral work had dwindled to a trickle and she’d had no luck getting new auditions. She was a non-compliant under their legal standards.
Ericka swallowed hard and tried not to betray the depths of her relief along with her rising panic for the inevitable “but” that must be coming. Gray thought she was crazy given the success of The Lemonade Climate and what it was doing to the Danish tech industry’s reputation, but she’d become convinced they’d let him stay and kick her and the kids out, especially now that he’d turned himself into the controversial prophecy of doom. Danes loved controversy. She, on the other hand, was still languishing in Danish Level 1 classes and making a mockery of Norse culture on YouTube, and it wasn’t like it would be unprecedented. The government had just announced an increase in military guards at all border crossings because of the surge in illegal immigration attempts. “Thank you! Oh my god, tak so much!” She didn’t care that she was mangling their language. Her whole body was buzzing with a mix of elation and terror; she thought she might dissolve. “Why am I here then?”
“Ah, yes, the question.” It was the first man. “We would like to give you a job. This is you, correct?” He swiveled his laptop at her again and pressed play on the learn the language YouTube video that was making her a tidy pot of income from language learning app advertisements, even though it didn’t count toward her citizenship requirement.
“Yes. Am I doing my taxes wrong?”
There were a few uneasy looks in the room and then some coughing. “That would be quite serious, and we must insist that you look into that if you think it is possible. But what we’re asking you to do for us is to help us find the right future Danes.”
Ericka stared at them, trying to parse the words. “Warum? Sorry, I learned some German in college as part of my music degree. I mean, hvordan, I mean—I don’t understand.” Why had she failed so badly at learning to speak the language when it most counted?
Someone cleared their throat and there was a shuffling of paper. “Yes, well, you see we have many applications to become Danish right now. A tidal wave of applications, really. People like you and your husband and children inside the country, and people outside at our refugee camps. But it is not possible to accept them all of course. So we need to know, how do you say, who is vibrating,” the woman sort of shimmied, “with the Danish culture. But, well, covertly.” The woman speaking hummed the tune from Ericka’s videos and twinkled her hands while she wiggled again. There was more throat clearing and a quiet curse. “It is a new initiative that we believe will avoid fights about the ethnic background that have become too heated and led to accusations of racism. We are not racist. So you see, we must try the unconventional. So we can be fair while preserving our culture.”
Ericka stared at them all, looking at their eyes one by one to be sure she understood, blinking. It was like the moment just before she sang her first notes at a show. The anticipation, the nerves. “So, you want me to, uh, tell you if someone’s vibrations match Denmark? Like, inform on their worthiness to live here because of how I think they sound?”
There was a collective sigh in the room; the confidence that the audience was in the hands of a competent performer. “Yes. It is the only fair way. You will begin work after you complete the paperwork. It is quite a lot. This will be very good.”
“We find your videos very amusing.” One of the less excited-looking men frowned. “It’s unfortunate that they are so popular. The Internet is not a healthy place for children, not like the quiet of the trees.”
“Lars is very old fashion,” another man explained. “He wanted to deport you.”
Ericka left the meeting 10 minutes later unable to grasp what she’d been asked to do. Not that she had a choice. She knew enough about Danish culture to understand that clearly enough. Lars would be her direct boss.
Bombs exploded across Europe and the UK that week while Gray lingered in London one more day. The actions were alleged to protest against climate change measures and a flood of illegal immigration, though no one knew for certain. It was September, but the summer heat wave had yet to break. Towns throughout Greece burned to the ground, and it wasn’t clear if the kindling blaze was started by protestors or wildfire.
That Saturday night, Ericka sat with Gray on the couch and tried to talk through what had happened. He was convinced that Ericka was misinterpreting the job offer from Lars and the team.
“Reject it if you want! You already make plenty of money on YouTube. There’s no way they’d kick out kids. Though maybe there’ll be a digital Denmark soon enough for us to move to.” It was sort of a joke, but not really. Gray’s debates on Twitter only got him more followers, and after a while, it became clear that he really did think living in the Internet was a viable retirement plan or at least an idea he wasn’t willing to give up if it meant unplugging himself from the constant stimulation, even if he wasn’t willing to admit it to Ericka now that he was home. “I have funders who want to build a prototype. I’ve been meeting some very interesting companies and nonprofits already working on the idea down in Europe. We just need a test run.” Gray’s eyes flicked down to where Isildur lay curled up under the radiator on the other side of the room.
Ericka’s frustration got the best of her. “Gray, you’re not listening to me. How am I going to handle this? I can’t say no—no, I really can’t.” She cut him off as he started to protest. “But how am I going to live with myself if I ruin people’s lives?”
Gray looked up from his phone and frowned. His eyes flicked to a patchy-looking Isildur, glowing orange in the candlelight. The cat looked like a corpse at a funeral. “Speaking of death, do you think Isildur is going to die soon? Also, did you know that there was more cat content on the Internet than anything else for a period in the 2000s?” He began quoting data, eyes alight with the hunt for self-justification. “It’s like they’re the native inhabitants. Fascinating, right?”
“Shh! Not so loud,” Ericka whispered. Her eyes flickered to the cat, too, somewhat overcome by what Gray wanted to do to their first baby and willing him to take the hint to drop it. “Of course he’s going to die, the poor little shit. He stopped eating again. Another unsuccessful immigrant,” Ericka tried to joke, ignoring the waves of high-pitched hostility and booming resignation coming off the cat. If she had to turn someone in, Isildur’s were most certainly the vibrations that said, not fit for this land.
Gray wasn’t paying attention. “Like how soon?”
Ericka turned slowly back to her husband. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” There was a long pause as he shut he glanced at the cat and began typing into his laptop with renewed passion. Ericka leaned over and was able to spy an email message with the word “trial run” and “Schrodinger’s cat” but then Gray pivoted so she couldn’t see his screen, leaving Ericka shaken. Was he really going to kill their cat? To prove his point? “Hey, do you mind taking the kids to the pool solo next weekend? I have some work I need to do.” Gray’s voice had never sounded more unnatural to Ericka’s ears.
Ericka looked hard at her husband and the way he was gripping his pinging laptop and knew that this was the end. She needed to take the cat to the vet before Saturday and get him healthy, or he’d mysteriously disappear again, both dead and not dead, an icon of digital homecoming. Gray was actually serious. It broke Ericka’s heart. There was no way she’d let Isildur turn into a ghost, and especially not a ghost in some machine. She’d kill her husband before letting him touch that cat, she realized. And she’d kill him over and over again if he ever convinced her children to commit suicide to live in the Internet. Her heart began to mourn for her marriage, for her future. For the man she had once loved.
And then it hardened.
She filled out the paperwork for her new job, joined the immigration officer union the next day, and made an appointment with the vet.
It was not good news at the vet that Friday.
“Yes, well, the cat will most likely die, long live the cat. He does not wish to live in this country, I’m afraid.” The vet was efficient and thorough in her examination, but not the most comforting.
“You can’t do anything to save him?” Ericka was glad she’d come alone. Tears leaked out of the sides of her eyes, which was apparently the wrong thing to do.
The vet looked confused but otherwise unmoved. “You want to spend money to tell your cat not to die? This is not necessary. This one will die but they live forever, like this beautiful weather.” It was raining. “It is remarkable how many of them there are, yes? They will be eating our corpses long after this island sinks from the climate.” The vet laughed, clearly believing this was the way to make Ericka feel better as she openly wept. It didn’t. She lowered her voice a bit and reached out a hand of comfort. “Have you tried giving him herring? It is very good.”
So Ericka began sitting watch over Isildur’s deteriorating body whenever Gray was home. There was nothing that would deter her, not a fire, not the need to pee, not a choir rehearsal, and not even her children’s screams from the other room; they’d picked up on the underlying tension in the house and were fighting more often. No, she’d do this job and accept the guilt, but she would not let her cat be the test run of digital purgatory.
“I’m sorry for ever posting pictures of you on the Internet,” she whispered to him as she sat watch. “You didn’t ask for that, and I won’t let him take the rest of you, too. Cats have given too much to digital space already. You will live well, and you will live whole and loved.”
Isildur had been her first love, long before she ever had kids; he was the only one who knew her as the woman at the core of the mom: the spontaneous, idealistic woman who just wanted to sing and experience beauty in the world. The woman who thought having Willa was going to be a sublime artistic experience (it wasn’t) that would only enhance her voice. The kids would understand. Some day they’d understand. Ericka hummed as hard as she could, willing the vibrations she now felt everywhere around her into the shriveled furry body radiating hostility under the couch.
But they didn’t take. She was asleep when Gray snuck the cat out to his lab and implanted a proprietary and extremely expensive pre-upload device in anticipation of his passing. She failed him.
Isildur died a week later, the day she started her new job, and thankfully, the day that Gray had a late meeting at the parliament building. A dark, rainy day in January. She and the kids found Isildur’s limp body curled up in a sliver of sunlight in the kitchen when they arrived home at 4:30 pm. The position of his still-warm paws looked an awful lot like an accusation.
Blue screamed as Monty and Willa stood in shock, half in and half out of their winter rain jackets.
“Shh! Shh, sweet pea.” Ericka smiled and blinked back tears, relieved that her baby’s ordeal was finally over. She would help him die well. “Isildur finally made it to the volcano. He gave back the ring. He’s at peace now. His work is done.”
Blue was inconsolable. “No, he didn’t!” But in Danish. “He took off the ring and it killed him! You made him take it off! You killed him! He told you he was in pain, but you didn’t listen! You’re no mother!”
The other kids picked up the fury.
“Yeah, mor, the fairies killed the cat because you didn’t leave them a gift.” Willa snarled and threw her rain boot at Ericka, trying to hide her tears.
“And the valkyries won’t take him now! You did this, bad mor!” Monty burst into tears, followed by Willa. The old wood room bounced with howls and gasps. Monty peed his pants soon after and none of the kids would stop crying.
Ericka was overcome and gave in to her own sobbing. They would understand, she reassured herself. Someday. She wasn’t a bad mom.
Gray found them 10 minutes later. He was bewildered by the chaos at first, but that rapidly morphed into something much deliriously tenser when Ericka refused to hand over Isildur’s still-warm body. Gray hadn’t even bothered to take off his raincoat. He had a cat-sized medical crate that he fished from the back of the hall closet ready to go and seemed utterly shocked by Ericka’s refusal. “I need his body, Ericka. I only have a few hours to rush it to the download lab. He doesn’t have to die. Not really. Please give me the cat now. You’ll get to have your cat back and we’ll change the world.”
Ericka’s voice was gravel. “No. He’s dead, Gray. He’s fucking dead.”
Gray looked exasperated. He spoke to Ericka like she was new to his language. “No, babe. He doesn’t need to die. That’s what I’m saying. I’m going to take him to the lab downtown, put him in a special machine, and boom. He’ll be alive again but in digital space. We’ll be able to play with him on our phones. Won’t that be fun for the kids? They’ll think you’re a golden god, too, just like me.”
Ericka gaped at Gray in horror but the words wouldn’t come. She shook her head no again. There was nothing fucking cool about a digital dead cat. She clutched Isildur’s body tighter.
Gray tried softening his voice and reaching out to stroke Isildur’s head but she flinched. “Please, please, the cat is the key, Ericka. With him, I can give everyone a new life, just like you talked about with the rematriation stuff, remember? It was all your idea, wasn’t it? You gave us all this. You saw what the future had to be.” Gray ran his fingers through his short gray and brown hair, muffling his voice momentarily. “Besides, we can’t stay in Denmark forever, right? Right? You’ve always wanted to go home.”
“No, I—“ Ericka sniffled and blinked at this new thought. “Why not?”
Gray blinked and straightened up. “We’re not Danish, Ericka, and San Francisco and the rest of the U.S.—well, who knows what’s happening over there these days? It’s—it’s so bad. But we can fix it. You, me—and Isildur.”
Ericka relaxed her grip on the cat for the moment as the reality of Gray’s words hit her in a rush of static. Would they truly never be able to go back? Her mind flashed back to that day at Kezar. Was that life truly over forever? The idea wouldn’t resolve in her mind. It was not possible to resolve.
Gray stepped closer, seeing his opening. His voice was deeper now. “It would be a whole new adventure. There’s nothing tying us here and I just closed on funding to expand The Lemonade Climate into this new venture outside Brussels. It would be so much more convenient, so much better for me, for us to move there, don’t you think? I love Denmark, but the people here don’t get my vision—or yours—not like the rest of the world. All that jantelov, no tall poppies nonsense. Besides, you wouldn’t have to do that eugenics job that you hate anymore. You could sing more, maybe start a band like you always used to talk about?” Gray looked so hopeful. “I just need the cat. Please, please baby.”
Ericka gaped at him. “It’s not eugenics!” She hadn’t exactly loved the first day of her new job out at the asylum camps near the airport, but still—was it eugenics? Is that what she was doing? Was the solution to be bodiless? She glanced down at Isildur’s fur and tightened her grip again, again refusing to let that idea resolve. Her cat felt like the sun on a bright morning at Kezar stadium, just like the first day she’d found him. “I’m not giving you my cat to murder and put in digital purgatory, Gray. He gets to die well.”
Gray slapped his hand to his face, glanced at the clock, and took a moment to gather his patience. His hands were beginning to shake and his voice went completely flat. “I’m not trying to be mean here, but objectively: you’re the one who killed him, Ericka. He was happy in San Francisco and you brought him here and killed him. That’s just the facts.” Gray flinched at the sound of his phone buzzing in his pocket but ignored it. “Uploading him into Ethical Paradise as the first real test subject is clearly the only logical next step. But I have to do it right now! Please, hand me the,” Gray glanced at the kids’ bedroom doors down the hall and lowered his voice, “fucking cat. This whole funding deal collapses if I don’t deliver right now. Do you understand what I’m saying? He’s my cat!”
Ericka laughed and choked on a sob. Her husband’s reflexive binariness had turned him into a condescending murderer. “Good! Let it all fail. It’s a horrible idea, Gray. You should have cut this all off months ago.” Isildur had come to her that day at the stadium. She wasn’t misremembering.
Gray looked astounded at her overt opinion.
A roaring drumbeat was growing in Ericka’s ears, pushing all other sounds aside. “People are going to commit suicide to live in digital hell because of you, Gray. Don’t you see what you’ve unleashed? There are literally Facebook mom groups back in the U.S. talking about which digital space to upload their kids to as soon as the freshwater runs out. Did that figure into your logical model, Gray? Huh, did it?”
Gray considered the question seriously for a moment, baffled. “Well, what else are they going to do? Watch their children starve to death? We can’t all live in Denmark.” He crossed his arms. “It’s your job to make sure of that, isn’t it?”
Ericka flinched and remembered the sound of kids crying at the otherwise calm and pleasant refugee camps today. But the drumbeat pushed out the sound. “That’s not the only option. It’s not only starvation or living on the Internet for the rest of your life. There are other options.”
Gray smiled and cleared his throat, raising his hands to grab the cat with utter confidence. “But statistically, there aren’t. Not unless you plan to murder a lot of humans to free up the dwindling natural resources and usable land, and that clearly isn’t ethical.” His voice was so grating. “Ericka, the cloud is the only logical end for humanity, and you know it. Now, it’s time to give me the cat. We need Isildur to go first and complete the test so that our kids will have a safe place to live in when it’s their turn, baby. There’s no other way.”
The drumbeat roared in Ericka’s head and split into a chorus of shouts. “Our kids?”
Gray’s voice sounded to Ericka like it was at the end of a bad FaceTime connection. “Won’t that be excellent? We’ll all be together forever. None of us will ever have to die. Isn’t that what everyone wants? You could be a mother forever—and a singer. You can be the most popular singer on the Internet but for real this time. And you never have to lose your babies, including Isildur. You can have it all. The Internet is true freedom.”
Ericka gasped and shook her head, trying to escape the chaos overwhelming her in thundering sound waves. “No. No, no, no.”
“No, you do want to die?” Gray scrunched up his face in confusion.
“No, you can’t have the cat.” The chords were getting louder. Too loud. “No!” It was too much. She was going to pass out and she would let go of Isildur and then … she shook her head. No, she would not let that happen. Isildur got to die well. It was the one thing she could give him now.
Ericka sat down on the ground, hunched over the body, and refused to move as Isildur’s soft body cooled and hardened next to her heart, and her husband cooled and hardened in the kitchen. She wouldn’t shy away from the pounding music in her head, all the low notes she’d been missing for over a year now. She would sit in the middle of it and let it wash through her, burning through all her frayed nerves and old dreams of a life of beauty. A beautiful death. This was the one thing she could do.
Gray stared at her in disbelief. He never yelled so much as stumbled into the most offensive things to say through seemingly dispassionate and objective logic, and that pivotal end to their active marriage was no exception. “I don’t understand. This is selfish, Ericka. I’m doing the right thing—people need a better option than this dying planet. There’s a larger conversation here than just your nostalgia for home. It just requires us to make a little—a little sacrifice. I would think a mother would jump at the chance to save future generations of children, not to mention her own, especially if she’s doing eugenics all day. It’s just a,” he glanced again at the doors, “a fucking cat.” He threw up his hands and turned away. They were rent, sound and melody.
Ericka just hunched over tighter until Gray finally got the message, made some angry calls to someone about raiding a cat shelter, and left, and then she held on for 30 minutes longer, deep in the howling choir.
Eventually, she got up for long enough to make dinner and eat with the kids, all of them still quietly sobbing as the candles flickered over their plates of herring. She held Isildur’s dead body in a makeshift sling around her front and hummed through the fading sounds in her head. Her ears burned with the memory of the fissure, of all the sun she used to take for granted.
Much later that night, and after the kids were cried out enough to fall asleep, Ericka finally found a nice box for Isildur to rest in until she could figure out how to dispose of him properly. It was a box she’d kept from their move from San Francisco, and she hoped that he liked being surrounded by the smells of home, however faint. She placed him in the floppy container and rubbed the cardboard and the words that spelled Kelly’s Moving Company, back and forth until her hand grew hot and tingled, empty but aching.
Then she lifted the heavy bundle into her arms, gripped it close, and wept violent tears as she sang Isildur to wherever uprooted American cats go, full voice, all the cadenzas and sparkle.
That was January, two years and a few months after their move to Copenhagen.
Time changed after Isildur left them.
By the next summer, an overheated Europe went into permanent disruption mode, and Ericka settled into her new job. Like so much of Europe, she was at war with herself. She was being paid to get lost in vibrations all day and yes, what she was doing was more or less some new form of eugenics, which was abhorrent. But she would have been a liar if she claimed she didn’t love it. And that’s what made it far, far worse. As much as she’d loathed Gray’s idea of digital purgatory, she hated herself even more for holding open the gates of hell with a song of her own invention. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was living the wrong life, or that she carried her own damnation, a mother of death, not song. No good things would come of her choices. She wondered if this was how Isildur had felt, to the extent that cats thought deeply.
Either way, she knew it was no life, and decidedly un-Danish to be so bleak. It had killed her cat. So she focused hard on the vibrations she heard from people, and did everything could to find truth in her recommendations, to be the unending light and the dark, even when it drove her mad with contradiction.
It was a matter of hooking herself onto certain roots of the chord of the place, and letting others whither (or pointedly smothering them—that was the tricky part). And then holding on. It was a practice she pursued with religious-like zeal in those months and years. She thought of Isildur often, and that became a justification, a ritual. No, she couldn’t save them all. Some people just weren’t going to thrive here. She and her children would be the exception, and it was completely unfair. But she would still make the same choices. Now, she would try to earn that right. As Lars frequently noted: More quiet trees, less Internet. All that was needed could be found within.
So she stopped making her YouTube videos, after one last one that broadcast Isildur’s funeral to a shocking number of people. (There was a spat of Internet controversy over her decision to incinerate him, and, from his new office in Brussels, Gray insisted to people that this was the Viking way. Isildur would have hissed at the idea. He lived on heat but hated fire. He’d died a San Francisco cat.) Soon after, Gray also began hinting to his followers that he’d found a way to upload Isildur’s consciousness into a new digital cat refuge, and Ericka found herself looking at her husband and not seeing the person she married.
She couldn’t unsee the new him, even on the brightest days. It was almost a relief.
The day after that year’s Sankt Hans Aften, which they barely attended, Russia launched a nuke that exploded over its own country, killing huge numbers of people, and a cloud of death drifted over Denmark from Sweden. Gray was called up to Finland to manage the business implications for the nation’s soil futures. And then countless other countries, so Ericka’s husband began to live on planes, hastening the need for his product and relieving Ericka and the kids of his increasingly manic presence. Everyone wanted to know: How do we profit from speculation and retain the market viability when invasions from Russia or other countries inevitably happened? China completely locked down borders. Japan was rocked by massive earthquakes and tsunamis that leveled Tokyo, and India began religious purges of certain regions.
On the other side of Ericka’s little country, the US finally invaded the UK, rejecting the land offered in Northern Ireland altogether.
It was war everywhere and everyone at the immigration office wondered whether Denmark would be targeted next. It was hard not to. Ericka, feeling even more uncertain without the protection of Gray’s company, felt a rising panic and accelerated her work to learn and fully embody the Danish language while plugging away at her horrible job—there was a flood of new applications and a flood of new military patrols around her little bubble of safety. She did her best to will safety into her life again. She chose to only hear Danish. She chose to only speak Danish, to embody Danish, to fit her voice into the Danish sounds. She poured herself into service for her adopted country.
Still, her vibrations were more or less the same as Isildur’s right before he passed, the darkness of the full sun. It was only her children that kept her from committing suicide. She would give them her own good death, which wasn’t now.
Then the storm passed. War cooled and borders settled, some hot, some iron cold. Denmark remained untouched, Ericka got the kids a bunny and life went on. Floods, heat, food drought, school drop off, work, school pick up, Saturdays in playgrounds. It was a world of stoically happy isolation and smaller feelings. Ericka learned to live in the darkness—and even learned to speak passable Danish.
Gray was one of the few people to leave the country on a regular basis and travel around the globe at that point; he’d made a deal to retire from active management of The Lemonade Climate and work full-time on an ethical digital rematriation space. “Someone is going to do it, and I feel like it’s my obligation to make sure it’s done ethically,” he’d tell Willa during his weekly FaceTime call from the Brussels office. Then the kids stopped picking up his calls.
“He sounds like colorless death, mor,” Blue explained. “I’m scared of living in a cable.”
“I will always make sure there is color in your life, regnbue,” Ericka found herself saying to her impossibly sensitive child. “I am the sun when there is rain for you.” She realized it was true, and it loosened something deep inside her. It was so much better than those YouTube performances she used to make.
Ericka and Gray stopped talking even about logistics, and it was not so bad when he finally bought an apartment in Brussels and they split their bank accounts. The much harder moment was when the kids moved out, one by one when they turned 15; off to Danish efterskol, a strange hybrid of boarding school and technical school. Finally, the bunny passed, too, and Ericka was alone.
And so the years went. Then, one dim and warmly rainy day 20 years after the first time Ericka had heard the commenter sing about rematriation in San Francisco, she accidentally stumbled on a former-NPR (now a special, regional label of the BBC—the rebirthing western U.S. had banned all digital communication in favor of short-wave radio) podcast retrospective on the rematriation movement. Ericka turned up the volume on her speakers and put aside the music she’d been working through on the grand piano she’d bought herself for her 60th birthday. A woman was speaking and sounded exasperated.
“What I don’t get is how people didn’t notice that rematriation was never supposed to be about white people. We appropriated the concept to feel good about fleeing a country in trouble, and look what happened!”
Ericka ran the back of her fingers up a scale on the keys and looked around her large apartment as she listened. For all his faults, Gray was upstanding about splitting the profits from his digital death dream, Ethical Paradise, Inc. Ericka would have to keep her job until she could retire in accordance with Danish laws, but she was far from hurting thanks to him, and her own work. The kids were thriving, too. Not that Ericka ever took it for granted or felt good about the money. She would always be surrounded by death now.
The American-British host sounded genuinely skeptical. “But isn’t there something positive about white people rediscovering their roots?”
There was a long silence and Ericka stood up from the piano and went to stand in front of the speaker in front of the window to listen more closely. She put her hands on the fabric of the machine and pressed hard as the waves pulsed into her flesh.
The woman’s voice was a clear high soprano, slightly dulled in the middle. “Not if their roots are toxic.”
Ericka rested her head on the top of the box and stroked the side of the device like it had fur.
“So what do you suggest, then? The options seem to be suicide or moving to space—digital or real life. I mean, I’m yanking your chain, but not really.” The host laughed. The first groups of people had begun moving to space, of both kinds. There was a high death rate, though that was true everywhere now, and it didn’t seem like a good option for a lot of desperate parents.
There was a long pause. “I honestly have no idea, but we seem to have chosen suicide, haven’t we?”
Gray uploaded himself to a Danish-Californian simulation in Ethical Paradise five years later. Ericka and the kids said their farewells the night before but opted not to travel to his facility in Switzerland where he had arranged to commit legal suicide. Ericka found she was sad, devastatingly sad about his choice, but also saturated with relief that the kids hadn’t also chosen death. In the end, that was all that really mattered to her. It was a bright spring of relief in her chest that it hadn’t even crossed their minds. No, they were growing into the sun with strong roots thanks to her choices. Mostly healthy, if twisted at their deepest points. Her sun was bright but it also created deep shadows. Lars had let her peek at their immigration files and there was no risk they’d ever be deported.
Willa had mellowed into a proper janteloven Dane in her 20s and taken a job in financial marketing, refusing to join her father’s company. “He has no right to do that to Danish culture. My friends are all upset he didn’t even get the fairies right in the designs.” She was considering whether to do a sailing trip to Norway with her latest boyfriend, who was in government, and Ericka was happy that she’d found pleasure in convention. Her vibrations had hooked into harsher parts of the Danish chord; a tempered version of Gray and Ericka. Still, she was alive. Ericka would always be there for her when she got pushed out of her comfort zone.
Monty worked as a bike-based knife sharpener on the southern side of the city and seemed happy drinking a lot of beer. He was firmly happy in the middle of the Danish sounds, like Ericka in her 20s. She liked that he loved to laugh and always made a big point of celebrating J-Day with her like their very own creation story. It was a pleasure to spend long Sundays with him, eating and drinking and talking about nothing in particular.
Blue was the exception, unsurprisingly. Their (they had transitioned in their teens, to no one’s surprise) vibrations were something else: water and color and much more aware and free. They were deep into the beginning of an art career, and Ericka felt the way their physical energy was already giving the world hue, if at great cost to her child. It wasn’t Danish but it also wasn’t foreign. Ericka’s instinct was to hold on to them as tightly as possible, but she knew it would kill her child and so she let go. She would do anything to give her children life, and this one’s needs drew on something especially deep in Ericka.
Happily, Blue often asked to stay with Ericka. During those occasional weeks, while Blue was in town, Blue locked the door to the apartment and painted while Ericka lost herself in her music on the other side of the room—much deeper than she ever let herself outside of that room and those days; Blue said the vibrations touched something in them that they couldn’t otherwise access. It was one of the few times that Ericka truly felt her mothering reaching up from the deepest place of herself, primordial, and sometimes her low notes rang so loud it made her new cat, Dolores, jump up and flee the room. Blue would stare at Ericka and nod in appreciation as the tears flowed down their face and they rocked and painted. Such disturbing, wonderful paintings.
Those were the best moments of Ericka’s new life.
Over the coming decades in the second half of her life, Ericka noticed herself beginning to dissolve. Not in a bad way. She was happy and had a good and full life—in short supply at that time. Willa and Monty both married and had large families full of blonde babies. Blue found a rhythm to their art and love.
Still, as the years ticked on, Ericka began to wonder in earnest what would become of her when she passed. As much as she tried to hold tight to all the things that now made her Danish, she more than anyone else knew she didn’t belong on Danish soil. She could pretend but in her heart, she was still a poisonous mushroom, or maybe a sun too wild and aggressive for the straightforward harbor winds. At best, a deadly, sly wind waiting to unfurl. She was not yet at peace with herself, but what could she do?
She began singing more.
In the last year of her life, Ericka joined a choir and enjoyed riding her bike through the increasingly damp heat to rehearsals. It was on the way back from an especially passionate rehearsal of Schütz’s Psalm 150, on a sultry May evening, that she had a heart attack and died. Her heart had succumbed to the stunning rich hope of the E major chord; too much hope for the world as it had become. But just what Ericka wanted to die of. She smiled through the final pain; she had given her children a good death, at long last.
Her children incinerated her body and sang their favorite songs from childhood as they scattered her ashes to the wind on a dark, rainy day; their babies cried and then laughed and peed. They mourned but also held her tight, as much as they knew of her.
She was dead then, a series of pixels on deep YouTube archives and an unwitting simulation in Gray’s Internet purgatory; something she’d explicitly asked him not to do. Ericka died before she found out he’d created a bastardized copy of her to keep him company in digital eternity (well, sort of—she was an indie rock star, not an opera singer, in his simulation). It was a one-note vibration.
But the true Ericka was not gone.
On solstices and the brightest solar transitions of sommernatten, she burst through Denmark like the golden color birthing through the Kezar arches all those years ago in San Francisco. On those nights, she became a song for a country quietly and temporarily mad with irrational hope.
Babies were made, and dreams of an impossible future were born and bloomed open. The ground shook and cats, yes, cats were able to stretch out their paws and stretch into the light, ready to continue their slow watch of the planet.
On those days, she was a mother again.