Smart people go one of two ways. Take my sister -- she was brilliant. All day, she would run around in her diapers, chasing butterflies in the backyard, putting caterpillars into mason jars with a few leaves of cabbage. She learned to read with butterfly field guides, went to college for biology, studied every night until her eyes nearly bled. She grew up to be a leading lepidopterist, a butterfly scientist, working at a prestigious university, bringing home accolades and publishing in every glossy-paged science magazine. She’s the kind of smart person who knows what she wants, who gets it, who makes parents proud.
Me, I was the other kind of smart, the vague, yearning sort with a general intelligence that hung around me like a cloud, misguiding those around me, projecting competence through big words and high grades but concealing a terrible confusion beneath. I understood school, I understood books and lectures, but there seemed to be some giant, mysterious thing forever floating right out of sight, one that if I turned my head too quickly, vaporized. I wanted to know what it was, but how was I to get answers if I didn’t even know what I was looking for? Normal intelligence, the kind that guided me smoothly through school, seemed useless in this quest, like scooping out all the oceans’ water with a spoon.
That’s why I got into astrology. The people who knew about it seemed to understand what I meant. They told me that because I was a Sagittarius, I was on a quest for higher truth. I had Neptune in the ninth house, so of course there was confusion. Their terminology was foreign to me, but at least they had labels for the shapeless things I wanted to learn, and it sounded scientific enough, with angles and planets and complex calculations.
But my parents thought it was silly. So did my sister. She was an Aquarius, of course, a scientist, a skeptic, an intellectual, favoring logical thought and empirical observation. She would think anything spiritual and esoteric was silly. But some part of me agreed with her. I worried I was going down the wrong path, that I would end up a crazy lady spewing nonsense about witchcraft and astral planes, wearing a raggedy shawl and prowling the streets with madness in my eyes.
Astronomy seemed a natural alternative. It was the same cast of characters as astrology, all my old buddies, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, the whole gang. Bioastronomy was even better. It was a fringe science, reserved for those optimistic enough to believe in aliens and the possibility of discovering galactic life in our century. But we Sagittariuses are known to be optimists, and bioastronomy was just serious enough a science to win my parents over.
I enrolled in a research program that flew me out to Siberia, to a frozen lake in the middle of the taiga. It was in the harshest winter months, and to make matters worse, the program also enrolled Americans. The bioastronomers there were said to be particularly vapid.
The program had been running for decades, and its founders were always in search of new scientific talent. They recruited from both Russian and American universities with the triple goal of training a new generation of student bioastronomers, establishing friendlier relations between our two countries, and bringing humanity closer to discovering intergalactic life.
The environment out there was one of the harshest on Earth, but it had water. The program aimed to sample every square centimeter of the lake for biomarkers, indicators of life. There were planets in our own solar system with similar enough conditions, unbearably cold but with water. If something, anything, could survive in the lake, something could survive on those planets too.
The Russian and American camps were located on either side of the lake, a decision made by some Cold War veteran who thought it best to keep the groups separate. Every morning, one person from each camp trekked through knee-high snow, met their partner at the halfway point of the lake, then collected ice core samples for hours, until frostbite set in on purpled fingers. Though I’d yet to be summoned, I was already weary. Every evening, my colleagues stumbled back to our little cabin on bloodied feet, groaning. Their main complaints weren’t about the cold -- that they were used to. It was the Americans that caused them the greatest discomfort. Throughout all the grueling hours of work, the Americans insisted on pleasant chatter, filling the Siberian stillness with anecdotes, musings, half-baked opinions on this or that theory. My people, we weren’t used to small talk. We preferred to work in serious, diligent silence.
I received a message: my first day of sampling would be the following day. Something heavy sat in my chest. I felt like I was making a mistake. That this whole endeavor had been a mistake.
The next morning, I shoved my feet into snow boots, tying them so tight, blood ceased to pump in my toes. Anxiety fluttered like gnats in my stomach. I didn’t really understand how sampling worked. Everyone said I’d figure it out once I was there, that it was easy. But these other people, they came from research backgrounds. They threw around scientific names of phytoplankton and chemical formulas with ease. They were speaking my language, but a foreign dialect. And they spoke Russian! What if I looked silly in front of a fucking American?
My English was good, but I feared the words would dissolve the second I needed them. As I shoved my way through snowbanks, I rehearsed aloud “Hel-lo, how-are-you?” I hoped they would hear the words through my accent.
Nearing the lake’s midway point, I spotted a figure in the distance, also struggling through snow. It raised a hand and waved. I waved back.
He was handsome. It was hard to make judgements on a body wrapped in layers of thermal wear, but the face beaming at me through goggles and a scarf seemed lit from within by the sun. His eyes sparkled, reflecting light that in turn reflected off the snow. He introduced himself, Andrew, shaking my hand. I wished there weren’t two thick gloves separating our skin.
We began our descent to the lake. I expected him to start chatting mindlessly, the human parrot my fellow Russians warned me about. But there was only the sound of our boots crunching ice.
Our sampling point was demarcated by a metallic dock, a balcony hovering over the lake’s frozen surface. We were told all the equipment would be there, stored in a black box with a master lock.
“Hey, do you know what the lock combination is?” he asked, an already soft voice muffled by his scarf.
“Six, seven, three,” I said slowly, enunciating each letter. I was thankful for the chill reddening my face, hiding my embarrassment of my thick accent. English is an ugly language, heavy and lazy on the tongue, but I suddenly wished I’d tried harder at it all these years.
The equipment was old, heavy. We lifted a rusted-over contraption, something akin to a large drill bit. That was what we would use to extract the ice cores.
On arrival day at the camps, we had all undergone training for this equipment. “It does most of the work itself,” the senior researchers assured us. “You just set it up right, position it over your sampling area, and allow it to drill down. Give it about a half hour.”
Setting it up may have been easy thirty years ago, when the machinery was still new, but Andrew and I spent the first hour of our shift fiddling with the gears and levers. It refused to cooperate.
Frustration bubbled away in my intestines. I wanted this to work. I was smart, I could not only read books and answer questions but do real work, with equipment and measurements. My intelligence wasn’t limited to school -- it could help with discoveries, do something real and good.
After two connecting gears wouldn’t connect, Andrew threw his head back, dejected.
“This sucks,” he groaned.
We both sighed.
“I am not used to science,” I confessed. “This is my first research position.”
“Really?” He was being nice, classic American flattery. My shaking, uncertain fingers screamed of inexperience.
“Yes. Bioastronomy is really not my area of expertise.”
“Are you coming in from biology? I know a lot of you Russians seem to be transferring from there.”
“No, I actually studied astrology before this, but my parents thought it was silly.”
His eyebrows arched, amused, like the two arches of the McDonald’s “M.”
“Astrology?” He repeated. “Like horoscopes?”
“Yes.” My face turned even redder beneath the windchill.
“You actually believe in that stuff? You know it’s a pseudoscience, right?”
“Yes.” I hoped he didn’t think I was stupid.
“Hey, I mean, whatever floats your boat,” he shrugged.
When I returned back to my cabin that evening, most of my fellows were asleep. It was a boring, dangerous landscape with little to do, so sleeping became a favorite pastime for most. Only a few girls sat around still awake, cradling mugs of coffee, eyes dull and unblinking.
“How was sampling?” one of them asked, watching me stomp excess snow off on the welcome mat.
“It was alright. It took us a long time to get the machinery going, but we figured it out,” I answered. “Have any of you visited the Americans’ camp?”
“No.” The girl looked confused. “Why would we do that?”
“I don’t know, just to hang out? Meet some new people?”
“I’ve met a lot of new people in this cabin.”
“Yeah, but doesn’t it get boring just seeing the same faces all day? This is an opportunity of a lifetime to befriend people from another country!”
She still didn’t understand. Really, I couldn’t blame her. A day ago, I also had no interest in getting to know the Americans.
The camps’ halfway point was already a trek, getting to the other camp itself would be twice that. But there was one man I was interested in having cross-cultural dialogue with. I wanted to find someone to go with me, a companion to make the journey more bearable. They all were hesitant.
No matter. The moon and stars would be my watchful companions. I strapped on a headlamp, its beam illuminating a long yellow strip upon the snow, a path guiding me forth.
It was only when I arrived at the Americans’ camp that I realized how silly this was. What would my explanation be? “Hi, I’m just a Russian sneaking up alone on an American camp -- no funny business though!”
There was a person leaning against one of the cabins, a girl whose breath rose in wispy white clouds to the heavens. As I neared, I spotted a cigarette in her gloved hand.
I introduced myself to her, and we exchanged pleasantries. She thankfully didn’t find me suspicious.
I eventually worked up the courage: “Do you know where Andrew is?”
“Which one’s Andrew?” she asked, lowering the scarf from her mouth to re-insert the cigarette.
I described his appearance.
“Oh.” The girl nodded, understanding. “I think you just missed him. The boys take snowmobiles out in the evening to go racing.”
“You have snowmobiles?”
“They brought their own.” She rolled her eyes. “These rich L.A. kids think this is a vacation. A little Siberian ski trip. It’s people like them that are dragging this study out, you know. If everybody took their research seriously, did what they were supposed to do, they would have found these biomarkers a long time ago. But no, it’s been thirty years of UCLA’s and USC’s finest coming here after their daddy-who-funded-the-college’s-new-gym recommended them for a research post. They party all night and then come hungover to sampling, mess up all the numbers and procedures, and then everyone has to keep doing everything over again. Meanwhile, everyone’s drilling hole after hole in this lake, needlessly disturbing the environment. It’s fucked up, really.”
“Yes, fucked up.” I nodded. I didn’t really know, but I suddenly really wanted this girl to like me.
She removed the cigarette, jabbed it in the air, a tiny torch against the night sky, “And I don’t even like science! I don’t even wanna do all this! Like yes, it’s also fucked up that I’m just doing this for my resume, but at least I’m doing the work and doing it right!”
The question tumbled out of my mouth, like a frog escaping its captor-child’s hand: “What is your zodiac sign?”
“Sagittarius sun, scorpio moon, libra rising,” she prattled off. “Sagittarius mercury and venus, and gemini mars, but I doubt you need to know that.”
“That is an interesting combination,” I say.
“Right? Unfortunately, it means I’m usually doing a lot and for no good reason.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, I’m smart, you know? And I feel like I should be using the intelligence for something that’s actually useful. But I don’t know what exactly, so I keep trying all this new stuff, hoping to find something I like and am good at. But I just end up feeling scattered and useless” She sighed. “It’s the sagittarius mercury fucking me up, you know?”
“Yes, I understand.”
I watched her stub the cigarette out on a snowbank.
“It’s getting late.” She yawned. “I think I’m going in. When Andrew gets in, do you want me to tell him you stopped by?”
“No. I will come by again tomorrow.”
If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, I was definitely going mad for Andrew. All through the following week, I made the exhausting journey there and back, hoping to catch him spread on his cabin’s couch, sipping a coffee, chatting with friends. I imagined over and over how I would slowly take off the hood of my snowsuit, shake off the snow from my hair like a movie star, catch his gaze, smile as if I knew he were expecting me. Yet each time, I came too early, too late. Andrew was away, Andrew was asleep, Andrew was working.
The girl, however, was usually around. It seemed rude to come, inquire again about Andrew, and leave abruptly, so I stayed behind each time to talk to her. One time, we drew her birth chart, the astrological calculation of all the stars and planets at the time of her birth. She held the finished paper up with outstretched hands, a ship captain consulting a map.
“Isn’t it something?” she mused. “It really makes you think, there’s something so big and beautiful and powerful and mysterious out there that arranged everything just so. My whole life is written here. It’s like, why even bother with our little science stuff? The greatest mysteries will never be plotted on a graph or neatly sorted with some formula.”
She was interrupted by another girl with a slip of paper, a message -- the work summons for the following day.
“Ugh, I’m sampling tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s see who I’m working with.”
She read the name, stumbling horribly over the Russian sounds.
“That’s my name!” I exclaimed.
“Ooh, yay, I get to sample with my favorite Russki.” We smiled at each other.
The next morning’s walk was nothing -- the halfway distance ceased to phase me. As the girl and I approached each other, we waved.
The latest sampling location was trouble from the beginning. Even the master lock refused to open. An hour was wasted just trying to access the equipment. But the time flew by, pushed along by conversation.
“That’s awesome that your sister’s a lepidopterist!” the girl exclaimed, her fingers trying yet another lock combination. “Mine’s a bee scientist. Such a smart girl, you wouldn’t even believe, much smarter than me. She’s actually doing something productive right now, not trying to open a fucking lock.”
When we finally opened the box, the machinery, of course, also proved difficult. We managed to set the drill up on the ice, revved up its motor. It started boring into the lake, then sputtered, and shut off.
“You know, we tried, we really did,” the girl reasoned. “But I just don’t think we’re gonna get these samples out. Look how stuck the ice is in the drill.”
I nodded. There was no way to get the ice out without cracking its glossy surface, thereby potentially contaminating the sample.
“Honestly, what if we just fudge the numbers, just for today? No one’s gonna know. We can just sit and chat until it’s time to go back. Like, we’ve actually been working all this time while everyone else slacks off. I think we deserve a break too, right?”
It was hard to argue against that. We left the drill standing, and sat down in the snow. It was a relief to talk to a fellow Sagittarius — she seemed to understand all that I meant, even with the accent.
As it turns out, we had struck the particular part of the lake absolutely teeming with primitive life, the elusive sampling spot our program’s founders poured decades of time, effort, and money into finding. The numbers we would have recorded would be revolutionary, biomarkers in one of Earth’s harshest environments, a breakthrough for the field of bioastronomy and encouraging proof of the potential for extraterrestrial life in our very own solar system. We, unfortunately, did not know that.
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I loved it. The story was a natural and the way you ended it was great. Well written. I am also a Sagittarius by the way. :) Would you mind reading my new story "The adventurous tragedy?"
Good job! Keep writing, and hey, if you have time will you come read any of my stories? Like "The Cecil Greene Story?" Some of the paragraphs were a bit lengthy for me, and there was some word usage and long sentences that I might have swapped around. It is your story though and you did a beautiful job with it!
Nice work! Loved the narrator! That introduction was fantastic and I was hooked immediately. I'm not really familiar with zodiac signs, so now I'm gonna do some research! I totally relate to that quest for a purpose, a higher knowledge, though. That ending though, haha. A wonderful way to wrap it up. Loved the title, too. Great read!
thanks so much!
I really enjoyed reading this! I felt very invested in the main character and her quest for self-discovery, as a fellow Sagittarius myself. The apprehension she feels about whether the path she's on is the wrong one felt very relatable. I loved your use of imagery, such as the metaphorical cloud the protagonist feels around her, and the 'gnats in my stomach' in contrast to the usual butterflies. There were so many funny moments that made me laugh like when the protagonist imagines shaking snow from her hair, and the ending was brilliantly dr...
thank you so much! always glad to hear a sagittarian opinion :)
I really liked this story, the characters were so lovable, and the language was beautiful with such a nice flow that didn't obstruct the clarity or the plot. This story was beautiful (I know I've already used beautiful but I really can't think of another word) and endearing. Loved the incorporation of astrology and other sciency things. Amazing work!
thank you so much! i’m glad you enjoyed it :)
This whole story is gorgeous. The funny narrator, the realistic characters, the scientific background. I just adored it. :)
I really like how you weaved this story of human connection into this scientific setting. And this line cracked me up: "If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, I was definitely going mad for Andrew." Out of curiosity, how did you come up with the title?
thank you so much! and the song title is a lyric from grimes' song "belly of the beat" !
Cool! It is a nice line, I will check it out!
Very unique! You managed to combine astrology and Siberian dig sites into something interesting. The narrator’s quirkiness really shines through. Good stuff! 😁
thank you so much!