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Planetary Science

Tablet Original Fiction: a scientist chases a meteorite, and finds a message from God

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Derek Shapton/Gallery Stock



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***

One winter day, with no warning at all, a 10,000-ton rock, 65 feet long, about which the Near-Earth Object observation group at Jet Propulsion Laboratory had not been in the least concerned, entered Earth’s atmosphere, streaked across the eastern sky where the sun was just rising on Siberia, and exploded 15 miles above the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, knocking out many of the city’s windows and pelting snow-covered fields with busted bits of iron and rock.

In California, it was 4:20 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, and Mitch Neyman, who had been in the embrace of a dentist’s chair for the last 11 minutes, was waiting for the technician to return with his X-ray images so the extent of damage to the crown on his number two molar could be determined, following a careless encounter with a nutshell.

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Mitch’s cellphone tinkled like falling glass. The text message read: “Huge met strike Russia lets go? Conrad.” Orbiting satellites, as well as stations set up to monitor clandestine nuclear explosions, had detected the celestial event. Observations all suggested a meteoric impact. Altitude, velocity, and direction of the meteor were quickly determined, and members of Mitch’s group of Small Body Planetary Scientists immediately uploaded what they knew to the NASA website.

A normally slow-moving and thoughtful man, Mitch yanked the paper bib from his chest, flung the chair’s restraining armrest upward, and turned his not-so-small body gracelessly out of the chair. His dental assistant was nowhere in sight.

“Sorry, emergency—got to go,” he explained to the receptionist.

*

At 5 o’clock of the same day, Mitch’s mother, Eva Neyman, 88 years old, sat propped up in her nursing-home bed with her supper on a tray in front of her. Paper valentines dangled from a streamer above her head. From across the room, where the television news was on, she heard the words “asteroid” and “meteor” and recognized them but could not have said exactly what they meant. She didn’t wonder about her feeling of familiarity with them any more than she would wonder that she knew a door from a wall, or her food tray from a box of tissues, for there was no wonder left in her, nor any trace of recollection of how she knew any of the things that she did, in fact, still know. If someone had popped in to ask about her professional life, she might even have responded with “Professor of Geology at the University of Southern California,” but she wasn’t conscious of that fact either, unless prompted. Things that were said were familiar and recognizable or not. The world had gone flat for Eva. That her mind had once been active and curious and full of knowledge remained embedded only in the admiring recollections of former students and colleagues and the fond ones of her daughter, Deborah, and her son, Mitchell.

*

“I wonder what Rob’s going to make of that meteor,” Mitch’s wife said to him at home, as he sat at his computer anxiously pecking out an email to his group’s secretary regarding the validity of the multiple-entry Russian visa he and Conrad had obtained some 14 months earlier, when they had attended a scientific meeting at the Sternberg Astronomical Institute in Moscow. “Remember that time—when was that? When Rob asked your mom to check out that crate of rocks he brought back from Israel?”

Mitch remembered. He remembered many things about Rob Collins, his oldest friend and now his brother-in-law, especially the wide, blue-eyed gaze of utmost interest that he wore when they first met. It was a look of sincerity and openness that he amazingly still bore more than 40 years later, even though his hairline had retreated to the crown and his face grown ruddy and broad. That look of innocence was never feigned. In high school he had engaged simply and unguardedly, almost joyously, with everything and everyone that crossed his path—except when it came to his homework. He unaffectedly held the trust of the other boys in their group, boys who were mostly acquiring top grades and preparing themselves for college while Rob barely managed to keep up, never excelling at anything other than shop classes and sports. But he had successfully built a working roadster in his garage and used to take them for rides whenever they asked.

“Maybe Rob would like to go rock collecting with you in Russia.” Sharon’s agile voice managed to sound derisive and cheery at the same time. Although she too liked Rob, she delighted in making fun of his simple-minded view of the world. “God Smites Evil Empire With Giant Rock,” she added. Mock headlines were her form of haiku.

Mitch responded to her sarcasm with a grunt. He understood his wife’s point: Rob might be inclined to read something supernatural into the Earth’s dramatic event that afternoon. But he didn’t want to take up his brother-in-law’s unscientific notions about meteors or Israeli rocks just then.

Like many scientists, Mitch managed two lives, lived in two different realities. One was the ordinary world of morning showers, meals, dental appointments. The other one was made up of the ring of boulders swarming between Mars and Jupiter, any one of which, suddenly perturbed, might enter a path that could lead to a collision with Earth. The quotidian domain was one that he more or less occupied without giving it much attention, aside from the demands of his physical body and the needs of his family; the other involved almost all of his conscious thought and engaged most of his time. He didn’t mind his wife making fun of Rob, but there was actually never a moment in all the years when Mitch wouldn’t have enjoyed his company. He would be glad if Rob were somehow useful and they could go off together to Siberia. But that thought vanished altogether during the turbulent flight from Los Angeles to Moscow and then a chaotic meeting in the airport with a longtime friend from the Vernadsky Institute. After that came an Aeroflot flight to Chelyabinsk with a member of the meteor committee of the Russian Academy of Science, with whom Conrad had been in recent contact in regard to asteroid DA14, which was expected to pass inside the orbit of communications satellites on the very same day the meteor, by amazing coincidence, struck Siberia.

Though jet lagged, cold-numbed, and overly stimulated by the prospects awaiting him, Mitch was aware of his good fortune. That this meteor event had happened in his own lifetime was remarkable enough, but also that he, Mitch, was in perfect position to view its aftermath and to collect—with his own hands—the pieces of meteoric rock that could tell the tale of the parental asteroid’s origin within the solar system: What a trip!

*

The following day, still sleep-deprived, his digestion reacting badly to unfamiliar food, Mitch was approached at the counter of the Wall Street Coffee Shop by a fellow in a mustard-yellow leather cap. “You want buy?” the man asked, holding out his hand. In the hand were two knuckle-sized rocks. He pointed upwards. “From sky,” he said. “Boom.”

“Where did you find them?” asked Mitch. “Over there?” He pointed to the north. “There?” to the east, then to the south, and the west. The man’s eyes and hand remained pointed toward the west. It was, as Mitch already knew, the direction of the meteor’s path. Mitch intended to follow that path himself. It was a matter of pride. If he failed, then meteoric fragments would no doubt be available to him for a few more days in the coffee shops of Chelyabinsk, before the international dealers snapped them up.

He took the rental car and drove to a Walmart-like store. There he bought himself a pair of pull-on black boots and a coarsely knit khaki-colored cardigan for extra warmth under his fleece-lined jacket. He then drove off in a more or less westerly direction. As he dodged the erratic local traffic, his attention was diverted by what looked like a gingerbread church with Stars of David decorating the upper story below the roof. Slowing the car at the edge of the road, he saw that most of the building’s arched first-floor windows were broken. Even for a Jew raised in a secular household, as Mitch had been, it was impossible to be unaware of the significance of smashed synagogue windows in Eastern Europe.

Mitch’s first impulse was to stop and offer help. But then he recalled the boarded-up front window of the Wall Street Coffee Shop. This broken glass did not belong to his people alone, but to everyone in Chelyabinsk, to Orthodox Christian, to atheist, and to Jew. He, a man in search of natural, not social, causes of destruction, was free to turn his back on the damage and move on without regret.

He resumed his drive, threading his way out of the city and onto a highway bordered by vast snowy fields. After a while, he saw in the distance a number of moving objects that turned out, as he approached, to be solitary people making their slow way over hard-packed snow, eyes cast downward like winter beachcombers.

He pulled to the side of the road and parked. He then reached into the back seat for his new boots and an eared hunting cap Sharon had found in one of the closets, put them on, and headed off to work.

It was while walking in a more or less orderly series of paths in order to avoid covering the same ground twice (he was nothing if not a methodical man) across the two-foot-deep undisturbed layer of hard snow, watching for holes that might indicate the entry of invisible extra-planetary objects, that Mitch thought again of his wife’s reminder about Rob and the crate of rocks he had brought back from the Middle East. He pictured his old friend trudging, in just the way Mitch now trudged, across a rock-littered desert landscape, the customary baseball cap on his thinning gray-blond hair. What the heck had Rob been looking for?

Mitch was a theorist, by nature deliberate and precise. Teasing out a man’s motives from the results was a dubious kind of detective work; any conclusions he came to would not be based on accumulated knowledge and calculation. Nor could they be based solely on intuition, which had on occasion stood him in good stead, since (he reminded himself) he understood far too little about Rob’s beliefs. But still, the question had caught his attention and lodged there.

He recalled something Rob had revealed to him almost 30 years ago, when he and Rob, with their wives and youngsters, were at the beach together. Rob had been having fun with a small dog that came nosing around their blanket. Running his hands briskly and affectionately over the animal’s damp fur, he looked over at Mitch and said, “You know, each time I look into the eyes of a dog, it’s totally obvious that God created it.” Mitch had been so nonplussed by this unexpected expression of Rob’s faith—as well as keenly aware of the young ears nearby that might take in any ensuing disagreement if he challenged Rob on it—that he failed to respond. Later, whenever similar failures to speak up troubled him, he had thought: Let him believe what he likes. Rob’s unsubstantiated view of the origin of dogs, though demonstrably wrong, was apparently rooted in some teaching of which Mitch had no knowledge. Within the Neyman family, though, it was occasionally said—out of his sister’s hearing—that when it came to choosing a mate, Deb’s common sense must have been swamped by Rob’s sex appeal. It was the only possible explanation.

There were a dozen rocks inside the plastic crate that Rob had brought to Eva. Mitch reasoned that such a large number was unlikely to have been gathered in a single day, since they would have been far too heavy for Rob to lug casually around with him while collecting. The sheer difficulty of carrying them also suggested that they were not gathered at random, but had been selected with something particular in mind.

Keeping an eye out for holes in the mind-numbingly blank canvas of yellowish snow, Mitch continued to think about Rob. It was amusing to consider how their searches might have differed. The rocks that he, Mitch, was looking for were mostly finger-sized fragments from an explosion that had been strong enough to blow in windows and knock down a factory wall. Rob, on the other hand, had brought back larger specimens. From Sharon’s description, they had been oblong or roughly rectangular, flat, and approximately 10 inches long and half that in width. “Like feet,” she had said at the time, tossing him one of her ironic looks.

Is that what Rob thought he had found, rocky footprints from the Holy Land? Perhaps outright miracles; proof of, say, walking on water? Mitch did not assume, as Sharon did, that Rob actually believed in miracles, even though his assertion about the divine creation of dogs suggested as much. Mitch was aware that dogs were descended from relatively tame wolves and had then been selectively bred into today’s hundreds of species and thus were more a human-engineered creation than almost any other example of life on earth, aside from edible plants. But he wasn’t comfortable making assumptions about a man’s beliefs from a couple of naïve statements. As a boy, though, he was aware that Rob and his mother and stepfather used to go to church on Sundays, and Mitch had gained the impression, from things he overheard the parents saying in their poorly maintained house—a bungalow in which (to a boy with a scientific bent) an impressive array of containers rested on the floor in winter to collect the water from the many leaks in the roof—that their form of worship involved “getting Satan behind them” (whatever that might mean) and the frequent use of “Amen” where a simple assent would do. Mitch wondered if his sister, as an official or possibly unofficial convert to Rob’s religion (he didn’t know which), believed in Satan and in miracles, but her crossing the boundary between the two religions was a mystery that he did not have the stomach to confront. As practiced by Eva and absorbed by him, religious tolerance meant not probing differences, a kind of separate-but-equal policy. Intolerance was to be avoided at any cost.

It was interesting to remind himself, though, that although both he and Deb had grown up in Eva’s secular-humanist household, as adults they had each sought religion. In midlife, he had committed himself to taking part in a minyan that met on Saturday mornings in his local synagogue’s small side chapel, before heading to the Lab for a half-day of proscribed, but necessary, Sabbath-day work. It was not spirituality that drew him, nor was it the religion per se. It was the respect Judaism had for humans and its acknowledgment of the complexity of human life, the Jewish attempt through thousands of years of dispersal and persecution to continue, as individuals and as a people, to be slow to anger and to care for the stranger in their midst. He liked to think that it was the judicious quality in his own character that drew him to the practices of his forefathers. But he had no idea, beyond Rob’s undeniable charm, what had drawn his sister to Christianity. And to be truthful, he did not want to know.

*

It was an early dusk when Mitch found what he was searching for. The little meteorite had left a hole in the snow the diameter of a walnut shell. He worked his finger around the hole, widening the circular motion as he descended, until the bit of rock fell into his hand from where it sat suspended. He brushed off the ice crystals with his gloved finger, noting the dark, glassy fusion crust on one side of its surface where the superheated plasma that was caused by its rapid journey through the atmosphere had enveloped, in a medium hotter than a welder’s torch, the larger rock from which it came. He stroked the fragment, put it in his pocket, then searched in vain for more before the dimming light forced him to return to the car.

On the return trip through town, he made his way back to the gingerbread synagogue. The windows had been replaced during the day, and in the gathering night a pale glow shone through them and fanned out across the furrowed white courtyard. He parked and let himself in. Familiar evening prayers were being chanted within the sanctuary. A few men eyed him as he came among them, and one broke off his prayer and, with a quick nod of the head and an inquiring look, handed him a yarmulke. It pleased Mitch to temporarily throw in his lot, as he put it to himself, with his people in this foreign city. He prayed aloud with them, the long view of this people and their history stretching behind him and borne forward on the Hebrew words, like sparks sent out into the unforeseeable future. When the Ma’ariv service was complete, he shook hands with each of the men, spoke a few words with them in broken Yiddish and a little English, then bade them “Shalom” and departed, his heart warmed, his sense of himself and the present solid.

***

On Sunday, Rob sat in church with his family, watching Pastor Tim slowly amble across the stage while speaking into a cordless microphone about the signs and warnings sent by the Lord to the sinful people of the earth—most recently an enormous rock of many tons that had exploded, a mere three days ago, in the sky above the heads of the atheist Russian people. Turning his head to glance at his wife, Rob was struck by how solemn she looked. He placed a protective arm across her shoulders. For as long as Rob had known her—that is, ever since she was in grade school—she had been a serious person. She tended to take on more than she could handle, and it was sometimes difficult for him to get her to lighten up and experience the joy of existence that he experienced almost every day of his life. Perhaps it was the sermon that was weighing on her today, he thought, since her brother was over there in Russia at this very moment. Rob, who never listened to radio or TV news, hadn’t even heard about that meteor until she told him that Mitch had flown over to investigate it. He was glad that their pastor was talking about it, because that was surely something he and Debbie should both understand from a scriptural point of view.

He continued to follow Tim’s trek around the altar while the pastor elaborated, without notes, on the increasing number of prophetic signs—devastating floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, disease, wars, and even, of late, piracy. As always, Tim addressed his congregants in an informal and compassionate, yet knowledgeable, tone, not like somebody who occupied a niche above everybody else, and not at all like one of those hell-fire-and-brimstone preachers, either, who Rob couldn’t stand ever since his stepfather started taking his mother and him to one of those churches when he was a child. To Rob, loving the Lord should be a matter of compassion and reverence. Yet today Pastor Tim’s message was definitely not a cheerful one, having to do with the awesome events yet to come as God established his kingdom on Earth. Apocalyptic times were approaching—there was no denying the signs; but prophesy was being fulfilled according to God’s magnificent design.

Rob drew his wife closer to his side, trying in effect to tuck her in against his ribs. She turned and looked at him, giving him an odd, grave, half-smile.

Contemplating, as he was at that moment, the inevitabilities to which Tim alluded, Rob was thrilled by a wave of gratitude to God for having given this wonderful woman to him, a once-timid girl who every year seemed to gain more of her mother’s stature and significance through the many things she did for others. To him, she possessed the very qualities that were used to describe the Hebrew matriarchs of the Old Testament: steadfast, loyal, unbreakable. It pleased him to think that together Deborah and he made up the entire history of the world, from ancient Israel all the way to God’s coming Kingdom, as if they naturally fit together to form part of a necklace of precious events strung from Creation through Salvation, the Almighty’s invention, the Son’s perfection.

The Hebrew faith as practiced by her family, though; it still puzzled him. He had practically lived at the Neyman house when he was a boy. He had shared meals with them and even celebrated Passover there. That’s how his mother-in-law Eva was, making it a point to gather people from different walks of life together. At the Neyman Seder table, the non-Jews, like him, always outnumbered the Jewish people, and there were far more interruptions and silly songs than deep reflection or serious prayer. And he remembered, as a 13-year-old, sitting next to her and Mitch’s father in the synagogue at Mitch’s bar mitzvah. With the impractical skull cap resting lightly on his head, Rob had listened with earnest respect to the Hebrew prayers and to Mitch’s awkward singing of the strange words from the scroll that held the Hebrew Bible. Yet a week later, Mitch gave up going to synagogue and declared himself an atheist to all their friends.

That had been a surprise to him, although Mitch’s family seemed to think nothing about it. Why the ceremony, if Mitch didn’t believe in God? Since Mitch was so smart, wouldn’t it have been smarter for him to call himself an agnostic?

He could never figure out what being Jewish meant to the Neymans. It seemed to change over time. When Eva retired and moved into a condominium, she even started going with her new friends to a Unitarian church. She called herself “a Junitarian.” As far as he could tell, Unitarians didn’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah or even in God, and when he asked her once if they prayed in church, Eva said, “No, we don’t waste time with such things.” Why go to church if you didn’t pray? You could organize social action groups in super market parking lots, or just about anywhere, you didn’t have to go to a church to do it. And when Rob learned from Debbie some time back that Mitch had started attending synagogue again, he wasn’t sure what that meant, either. Did Mitch believe in God or didn’t he?

His Debbie, though? She had stepped decisively away from all their uncertainty once and for all, for she had undergone a miraculous change of heart. One day, when she was a junior at UC San Diego, Debbie phoned him to ask if he would drive down on the following Sunday and take her to church. He asked her what church, and she said she didn’t know since she’d never been to one. “It doesn’t matter which one, Rob; I just need you to go with me,” she said.

“I’d be honored to,” he told her. Having attended Pentecostal services as a boy, he selected a Nazarene church from the phone book. After the service, during which neither Rob nor Deborah gave any hint of what they were thinking—daring only to look straight ahead so as not to take a risk of offending the other—Debbie had gone with him down to Torrey Pines City Beach. There they sat side by side on a log watching the day turn to evening, and there she told him about how she had almost been run over in a crosswalk the week before. She said she found herself on the ground looking up at the underside of a red pickup truck that had stopped just in time, and realized how miraculous it was to be seeing anything at all. Then, she told him, an amazing thought had crossed her mind, sounding as clearly in her ears as if it were spoken out loud: “Why can’t you believe in God?”

In order to find out more about what it would mean to believe in God, she went to a bookstore and bought a King James Bible, which she tried to read, but it didn’t make much sense to her and finally just put her to sleep. Reading old-fashioned language was not the way for her to find God, she realized. And that’s when she phoned Rob.

Once she became convinced that what she was hearing from other people at the church was important and true, she talked Rob into taking classes and attending Bible-study groups with her. She never told her family about this important change in her life, and even when she was baptized in her new religion, she never said a word about it to Eva or to Mitch. After their marriage, which took place in their new church, Rob realized that the Neymans thought she became a Christian to marry him, whereas, in fact, it was almost the other way around. But Eva and Mitch never asked any questions and always seemed accepting.

“Our job, our duty, our task, is clear,” Pastor Tim was telling the assembled from the center of the stage beside the lectern, in front of the simple wooden cross hanging above on the yellow birch wall. “We must gather the peoples of the earth under our tent; that is, under the protection of our roof. The Tent and the Roof is our Savior, Jesus Christ. Prove your love, prove your devotion to Him. How? By offering the truth to your friends and to your family. The time is imminent, and the word of our Lord is our only truth.”

It saddened Rob to think that Mitch and Eva, cherished so deeply by him, continued to lie beyond salvation’s reach. Their minds may be more intelligent than his, but they were unilluminated; these dear people would perish, he knew, because their hearts were stubborn and closed. As he sat among his fellow Christians in the clean, well-lighted church, Rob began to realize that he had neglected them, his mother-in-law in particular. He was sure that Mitch would never at any time have been open to a discussion with him on the subject of his eternal soul. But Eva—fair-minded Eva—might actually have listened and considered what he had to say, if he had ever had the courage to say it. After she broke her hip and had to have surgery, he tried to get her to come live with them, but she wouldn’t do it, saying she had no intention of becoming a burden to her children. Why, he wondered now, had he stopped there? He would have been happy to give her anything he had.

Rob blinked back tears as he thought of her all alone in her nursing home, isolated from her loved ones, while such awesome events were taking place in the world. Why had he never offered her the home she truly needed, the Tent, the Roof of the Savior? Why not approach her now with God’s Word?

***

Mitch woke up sometime between 2 and 3 a.m. Wakefulness in the wee hours had become a normal state of affairs for him as he aged, and he sometimes gained important insights into whatever technical or theoretical problem he had been working on earlier in the day. This time, in a narrow bed in a hotel in Chelyabinsk for the second night, free from worries about his spouse’s well-being, reinvigorated by his contact with landsmen, his thoughts again began to focus on those rocks of Rob’s. What was their significance? Did Deb know? Would she tell him? If not, why not?

It struck him as astonishing that people like Sharon and himself could know so little about the beliefs of the dominant religion and therefore be so completely unable to understand how they thought. The two families were somewhat like planetary bodies orbiting around one another, each shrouded in an atmosphere that was impossible or difficult to penetrate. Then, though it was entirely unprofessional and implausible, he began to entertain the question of what would have happened if Rob actually spotted and brought home something that had been in the vicinity of, or been an actual part of, something of a miraculous nature. What might his mother have been able to discern of that in her examination? Mitch cupped his hand around the meteor fragment that he had set on the nightstand beside the clock. It seemed reasonable to conclude that any flame-scorched rock, such as the piece he now held, would look to a planetary scientist like an ordinary meteorite even if the hand of Jehovah had intentionally hurled it toward the earth.

“God Smites Russia With Giant Rock,” he murmured. And laughed aloud, as he had not when Sharon said it.

***

In the year 1998, when Rob collected the rocks, he had been in Palestinian territory, working on assignment as a construction supervisor for a European group putting up towers for a cable car system that would carry tourists from the archaeological site at the ancient walled city of Jericho to the Monastery of the Temptation. Every day off, and for another week after the project was complete, Rob would visit the holy places located in and around the Jordan River rift that stretched between the Sea of Galilee in the north down to the Dead Sea. Most often he found himself at biblical sites with groups of pilgrims, with whom he found good company; but occasionally he was alone, gripped by the power he felt emanating up and through him from the stony ground and by a blue sky that seemed to irradiate him with its holiness. At such times he walked out across the stony land, or pushed through the thigh-high thorns and thistles, the reeds and cattails that stretched along the banks of the Jordan, and think, This is where my Savior walked.

In Jericho, in a small, hot hotel room, Rob took out the small Bible he kept in his backpack and read aloud from the book of Joshua:

Now it came about when all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan, that the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying, “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from each tribe, and command them, saying, ‘Take up for yourselves twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet are standing firm, and carry them over with you, and lay them down in the lodging place where you will lodge tonight.’” So Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the sons of Israel, one man from each tribe; and Joshua said to them, “Cross again to the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel. Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”

Rob sat for a long time on his bed with the holy book in his hand, taking in the night sounds of the inhabitants around him. He wondered about the fate of those stones that had been lifted from the floor of the Jordan and carried to the lodging place of the sons of Israel. Where were they now? The sacred text in his hand suggested that the rocks were removed from the river and placed on the land as a permanent memorial, but he had seen no obvious public display of stones, nor any fence like the ones around the numerous archeological digs nearby, that might indicate where a memorial had stood.

Surely, on examination, any such rocks would look different from the surrounding rocks. After that, whenever he could get off alone, Rob would examine the stones in the vicinity of the archaeological site where the ancient city of Jericho had stood; not at the fenced dig itself, but beyond and below the perimeter of the walls that Joshua had blown down with his trumpet, in the region between the eastern escarpment and the oases where the Jordan valley snaked between Galilee and the Dead Sea. He didn’t bother with the ubiquitous small stones nor, obviously, those that showed signs of having been hewn for use in construction of walls or buildings in the ancient city. He stopped only for those larger, relatively flat ones, some showing signs of marine life or other indications of having existed in an environment in every way different from the barren ground. Whenever he came across one that met his evolving standards, he carried it back to his room. After a while, he purchased a capacious, military-style backpack in which to transport them, a few at a time. The longer he did this, the more amazed he was that people hadn’t noticed the indications of shells and borings made by marine animals in those wasteland rocks. Perhaps he was the first person who had taken the time to observe them so closely. After Rob had collected eight or so specimens, he spent a morning examining them one by one, tracing every curve, protuberance, and crevice, top, bottom, sides. He thought hard about their differences from the other types of rock he saw—angular ones that looked as if they had been shattered from a larger boulder, ones that looked glassy or had jagged intrusions of quartz or other material.

Finally, after many such days, Rob had selected a dozen stones that he believed were brought to Jericho from somewhere else and carried to the fields surrounding the old city as testimony to God’s miracle in the fulfillment of his promise that his chosen people would inherit the land of Canaan. These rocks were for him a sign of trust in the Lord and of the mighty purpose the Israelites had handed over to Christendom through Jesus Christ. And he pledged to himself that if the rocks were as he thought they were, he would dedicate himself to raising money, in the name of his and Debbie’s church, so that a tabernacle or shrine could be built near Jericho to house them, “a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”

He provided his mother-in-law with no indication of their significance, when he asked her to evaluate his find, because he cherished the hope that she would recognize what he recognized, which was that the stones had been shaped by water and thus could not have originated where they were found. About the first element of his wish, she did not disappoint him. About the second, however—that the stones had been carried to dry land from the river as God commanded Joshua—he could never have guessed the truth. With Sharon taking notes on her findings for Rob to keep with his specimens, Eva scrutinized each one, often peering closely with her loupe, treating the assignment as seriously as if one of her colleagues had approached her with it, without ever asking Rob what he expected her to find. According to her analysis, the rocks were sedimentary in origin and each did, indeed, show signs of having existed in a fluviatile or lacustrine environment, with most bearing traces of fossils or borings typical of what one might expect at the rim of a lake or inland sea. She concluded that the sediments were suggestive of the Middle East, “but nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times, dear.”

When Sharon later told Mitch about this examination, he concluded that his mother’s lack of questioning was consistent with her set of well-considered principles, which held that unless a person’s actions would cause harm, or specific articles of their beliefs ran counter to what was clearly scientific truth, he ought to be free to do and think as he thought he should do and think. His wife, however, had something more to impart to him, which she related with particular delight. It was the first time, she claimed, that his nonjudgmental mother had shown herself capable of humor as mordant as her own. “I assume Rob is not unaware,” Eva had commented dryly, a few moments after Rob drove off with his specimens, “that 100 million years ago, Palestine and Jordan lay beneath the Tethys Sea.”

Until then, even Mitch had never heard of the Tethys Sea.

***

“It looks like your mom’s not going to last much longer, Mitch,” Sharon told him when he got in the car at the Los Angeles airport.

Mitch felt that odd tingle in his chest that he recognized from earlier health crises involving people he loved. “Who told you that?”

“The hospice nurse.”

“Since when does Mom have a hospice nurse?”

“Mitch! Deb and I brought hospice in after Mom lost all that weight. That was at least six months ago, in early summer, I think, after she stopped getting up from bed. We talked it over at the time, you, me, and Deb.” Mitch didn’t seem to remember, though. He must have blocked it from his consciousness. There had been several alarming incidents with Eva, as with his father in earlier years, between the first heart attack and the one that killed him. All these phases of illness and death blended together and eventually had to be put out of mind. “How long does she have, then?” He fingered the notch at the base of his throat, where the collarbones joined below the laryngeal prominence.

“Weeks. Days. The nurse can’t say for sure. She’s very peaceful, no pain; nothing is obviously wrong. Her night panics are over; she’s no longer terrified her children won’t be able to find her.”

“My dear mother,” Mitch said. The words came out with no forethought. Solid Eva, always steady, always there. He could hardly believe that even now she wasn’t really there; what a disappointment to think that she wouldn’t be able to appreciate his Siberian adventure.

“ ‘Woman Lost in Nursing Home; Children Perplexed,’ ” said Sharon, with none of the usual witty snap audible in her voice. “She’s just … languishing, I suppose you’d have to say.”

This made him even sadder. Children Perplexed: so true. He’d much prefer not to lose her. He’d go see her tomorrow and tell her every detail about the meteor strike.

*

Mitch told his Chelyabinsk stories to Eva’s silent form as she lay in bed, the side rails pulled up so she couldn’t roll off. Beyond the window that ran along one wall—her only connection to the world outside—the day was neither hot nor cold. Her eyes opened for a while when he started talking to her, and when he held up the meteorite and pressed it into her palm, he had the impression from the way she grasped and held it that she understood what it was, and this provided some satisfaction for him, this solid link of planetary material that both of them could appreciate and share. Then her eyes closed again, her hand opened, and the rock slid onto the blanket.

He patted her hand, bent down and kissed her on the forehead, then put the little extraterrestrial traveler safely back into his pocket. “See you in a couple of days, Ma,” he said, trying to sound cheerful about leaving her. He thought his mother gave him a slight nod of her head, a tiny curling upward of the corners of her lips, a smile of farewell.

The next day she was gone. Deb drove out to view her body before the mortuary came to pick her up, but Mitch remained at his desk at the Lab, convinced that there was no value in viewing a lifeless body and much value in continuing with his work. But there was a heaviness and sadness in his chest all day, and he kept rubbing his sternum, as if the rubbing could help. He knew all along that she was not going to get better, but the actuality of it left him feeling hollow. Was this what loss felt like? The mind that had once seemed to be the greater part of her hadn’t been in good working order for a long time and recently hardly seemed to function at all.

Mitch mumbled the words of the Kaddish as he stared perfunctorily at his computer screen, where a simulation of the orbit of the Siberian-bound asteroid swung over and over again in ellipses with the orbits of Earth and Mars as they circled the sun. “Yitgadahl, v’yitkadash,” he whispered as the orbits turned and the asteroid looped by. Scientists now knew that the shock wave caused by the meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere had circled the globe twice.

Lake Chebarkul, Chelyabinsk. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

In the late afternoon, Mitch phoned his rabbi and made an appointment to see him; then, feeling useless but determined to work, he turned again to the simulation. This time, he noticed that on the second approach of the asteroid to Earth, the planet appeared to knock into the smaller body. Which one knocked into which was not significant from a physics standpoint, but it did look to him, as he stared at the screen, as if the asteroid was the first to arrive at the impending point of intersection and had then been in some sense “struck” by the larger object. He stopped compulsively repeating the Aramaic words and tried to do the calculation of orbits with pen and paper, to predict the precise nature of the collision. A foolish exercise in denial, as the long looping arcs of the boulder’s path were vastly more complex than any calculation of his could accommodate. The whole afternoon had been a foolish exercise. He should have found the strength to go to the nursing home and view his mother’s body.

That evening in the rabbi’s office, he and Sharon made arrangements for a funeral ceremony. Eva hadn’t been religious since her college days and had stepped foot inside his synagogue only twice, at his bar mitzvah and then that of Ben, his son. Nevertheless, he asked for a simple religious service for his mother, to be followed by a gathering at the house of family and friends.

“You’ll have to talk to Deb,” Sharon said in the car after their visit with the rabbi. “She should know we’re doing this.”

“Doing what?” he asked, and was surprised by the unexpected energy in his tone. “This is our religion, Eva’s and yours and mine. Why would Deb’s opinion matter?”

“Your sister should be prepared for the religious side of it, Mitch. Eva was her mother, too.”

“Then it shouldn’t come as a surprise to her that there would be a Jewish service! Eva may have been secular, but she was Jewish. You and I are Jewish. Deborah used to be Jewish.” A bitter taste flowed across his tongue.

“We’re doing it this way because you want the service, Mitch. It isn’t as if your mother asked for it. She’d probably be happier having her ashes scattered in front of the geological sciences building. Or off some peak in the San Gabriels.”

As soon as they reached the house and he had parked in the garage, he got out. Without waiting for his wife, he stalked along the driveway to the street, astonished at the churning of emotions within his chest, the swift circulation of confusion whirling round and round in his head. He thought of the order of planets in their solar systems. As long as Eva was alive, he and Sharon, Deb and Rob, held their places in the universe with the appearance of respectful acceptance of each other’s disparate personal convictions. But without their mother as the gravitational center, he wondered if their willed ignorance of one another could keep them from knocking together. He stood for a while, trying to get a grip on his fragmented thinking, and then walked back to the garage. Sharon was still sitting in the car, with the door open.

He came to stand beside her and rested his hand on the top of the door. “Look, Sharon. Mom made it clear that all that business after her death was mine to decide,” he told her. “She didn’t consult Deb about that, she didn’t request that her Christian daughter be made part of that decision. You and I agreed that it’s meaningful for us, and for our son and grandkids, and our cousins and other relatives, to say goodbye to her in a traditional way, with rituals that our ancestors have shared since ancient times. Throwing her off a cliff doesn’t do much to keep us together as a people, does it?”

“I’ll talk to your sister,” Sharon responded in a conciliatory tone.

***

It was not an emotional service; Eva was old and ailing long enough that death had come as an expected visitor, not a sniper. Nevertheless, as he drove his family back to the house Mitch was aware that he was not feeling like himself. For one thing, an unyielding lump had lodged in his throat, which made it seem more prudent for him to sit silently behind the wheel with his ears open and his eyes on traffic, listening to the excitable rise and fall of the voices of the people he loved best as they chattered away. His son lived with his family in London, where he worked for an academic publisher. There was a great deal of catching up to do, especially with regard to Ben’s two children who, at 8 and 11, were in the process of rapid change, including studies, interests, friends, and just about everything else worthy of questions from eager grandparents.

Once back in his home, Mitch had no choice but to get caught up in the onrush of arrivals, the greeting of friends and family at the door, exchanging handshakes and kisses, and directing the conveyance of covered dishes from the front door to the kitchen or dining room, coats to the upstairs bedroom. His body’s constricted core warmed up and expanded, and he forgot about frailty and loss, and his throat, without his even noticing it, unblocked.

When the time was right, and all the expected people had gathered in the living room, Mitch stood in front of the fireplace and, in a clear, unbroken voice, spoke about his mother, his words inspired by a notion he had derived from the Passover service that it was his duty to teach his children and his children’s children the story of their family’s matriarch.

“Eva Kagan Neyman was a lifelong idealist,” he told his hushed listeners, “who ardently believed in the basic equality and decency of her fellow human beings. She was never either a class snob or an intellectual one, and had friendships with people from all walks of life. She thought people could be improved if they were treated fairly, given decent work, provided with an education, and had inexpensive access to nourishing food and good medical care. She regarded a broad and free education as a basic human right. Her house was always filled with visitors, and she loved nothing better than conversation with friends.”

Sharon stood to one side of the bookcases opposite him, watching him with grave eyes and a sad smile. Rob and Deb, their expressions tranquil, sat beside their daughter and son on the sofa at his right, their three well-scrubbed and well-behaved grandchildren on the floor in front of them, their backs against their grandparents’ and their parents’ knees. Oddly, not one of them stirred.

“And that, my dear children,” Mitch wound up, as he looked into the face of each child in turn—Deb’s three impassive grandchildren and his own two restive ones—“is what we Jews mean when we speak of a Woman of Valor. That was your great-grandmother Eva. I hope you will each grow up with her high standards in your mind and in your heart and will teach these values to your own children. In that way, Eva can never be said to have truly left us.”

After that, others rose to express their thoughts and memories. Then Sharon left the living room, Deb followed her, the food that had been set on the table was uncovered, and people were invited to relax and enjoy the platters of cold cuts and salads, pastries, cookies, and cakes. The children, released from their former constraint, sprang up and ran noisily up the wooden stairs to play. Mitch had just helped himself to a handful of butter cookies and sat down to enjoy them in one of the dining chairs that lined the room, when his granddaughter sidled up to him, leaned against his thigh, and said, close to his ear, in her lovely English accent, “Grandad, did you know that Granny Eva isn’t Jewish?”

“What gave you that idea, Alexis? Of course she was Jewish.”

“No. She got converted by Jesus so she could go to heaven.”

His troublesome throat constricted as if a hand had closed on it, and Mitch’s thoughts dashed headlong in the direction of Rob and Deb, who had sat with such unnatural restraint while he sang the praises of Eva’s ethical humanism. His sudden alertness startled the little girl, who was still leaning against his body. Worry began to crumple her broad forehead. He ran his hand along her back, trying to offer her reassurance that he wasn’t upset with her and that she hadn’t said anything wrong. He bent his head close to hers. “Who told you she got converted?” he asked, in a careful half-whisper.

“Seth,” she whispered back. Seth was Rob and Deb’s eldest grandchild.

He forgot all about his earlier objectivity concerning collisions between heavenly objects and the question of which hit which; the strike had come—sooner, and in a more treacherous form, than he ever could have imagined. And he discovered that this time he was eager to confront it head on.

Mitch didn’t believe in God, not fully, not precisely—not even close. He believed in the immense power of the workings of the laws of physics that moved the heavens and governed the earth, and he was comfortable enough with calling that power God when it came to the prayers he recited at holidays, and at his dinner table on Shabbat evening, and as part of his minyan on Saturday mornings. But if there was a heaven, or any form of afterlife—which he doubted and which his mother had doubted before him—Eva would without question be there.

“It’s true that Granny Eva is in heaven, sweetheart,” he assured his granddaughter, trying to sound calm and reasonable although alarm and dismay were racing through his veins. “But she got there on her own. God doesn’t distinguish between Jews and Christians, we are all his children.” Apparently his sister hadn’t taught her kids and grandkids that obvious formula for mutual tolerance. It was time he told Deb the ecumenical good news.

Mitch slowly rose from his chair, keeping his hand on the child’s shoulder as much for his own stability as for reassurance to her. He found his sister in the kitchen with Sharon and his cousin Ruthie, who paid no attention to him as they put up coffee and wiped counters and did the practical things women do when they want to talk in the kitchen. He stared at his sister so intently that she halted in mid-sentence and looked back at him with a dark-eyed, level gaze.

“Can we go somewhere and talk?” he asked.

His wife swung her eyes from the canister of ground coffee in her hand to his face.

“Sure,” said Deb.

“Not here. Outside.” He longed to get out of the house, where no one could hear what he had to say; somewhere where the air was cool and easier to breathe.

“It’s cold out there, Mitch.”

“Why don’t you two talk in the back room?” Sharon suggested, referring to the little room next to the washing machine where she stored anything she didn’t know what to do with.

Brother and sister went down the hall and entered the cluttered room. There was only one chair, so both stood among storage boxes, shoes, wrapping paper, and a laundry basket full of ironing.

“Deb, did you try to convert Mom on her deathbed?” Mitch asked once the door was closed.

“What?” Deb laced her fingers together, as if intending to pray. “Hey, listen, Mitch. This is the first I’ve heard of it.” She hesitated. “Not that I’m surprised,” she added.

“You mean to tell me Rob would do something like that without letting you know?”

She looked across at him without blinking or turning away, although it seemed to him from the color of her knuckles that she was squeezing her fingers rather hard. “If he did it, it was the right thing to do. Anyway, who told you?”

“Your grandson Seth told Alexis, and she said something to me. Alexis found it confusing, to say the least.”

She grunted a word that sounded like “huh.” It wasn’t clear to Mitch what this was meant to convey.

“Deborah,” he persisted, using the full name she had detested as a child. “Do you really think it would be OK for Rob to go ahead and do something like that?”

“What would make it wrong? Mom was dying. She had no religious faith.”

He brought his hand to his head. “A number of things might make it wrong, Sis.” He began rubbing the skin between his brows, as if repetitive motion and contact with his skull could help keep him oriented under such bewildering circumstances. “In the first place, Eva was not only your mother, she was also mine. Second, Mom had her own ideas about religion, which a reasonable person might think she had every right to hold until she died. Finally, and possibly the most important of all, she was suffering from dementia! Did Rob somehow miss that fact? Did you?” By now he was aware that he had raised his voice. Reasonable people should not need to shout, he reminded himself.

“What difference does it make to you, Mitchell? Christianity is either true or it isn’t. If it isn’t, Mom’s where she was always going to be without our help. If it is, well, she’s been saved for all eternity. Would you want to deny her that?”

He stopped rubbing his forehead and stared at her again, hoping to penetrate the smoke and confusion that accompanied her words in order to keep them focused on the simple facts. “I won’t let you trap me in that sort of logic game, Deb. Let’s stick with the human side of this issue. Did you and Rob stop and think what kind of a person she was, what she stood for?”

“You’ve always had a thing for her, Mitch. A Jewish mother and her son, her first born.”

He was struck by the resentment lurking at the reptilian base of his sister’s mind. She seemed to have gotten stuck in some formulation of family reality that she had developed in the distant past and never bothered to update. “That’s childish,” he said. “Do you really imagine she loved me more than she did you?”

“No more childish than you, kiddo, wrapping yourself in your once-a-week rituals and pretending you’re devout! There was never any religion in Eva’s household. She was too involved in material things.”

“Material things? Like science, you mean?” He drew back, waving his hands to indicate he had reached the point of stopping. “I have just one thing to say to you, and it’s this: What Rob did to our mother was wrong. And what you’re trying to convince me of now is wrong. The thought of you and Rob trying to hijack our mother from the story of her life in order to fulfill your own needs is staggering. I can’t believe how angry it makes me.”

“Your anger is chiefly a matter of your relations with God, Mitch, not with me and Rob. It hasn’t even occurred to you that Mom might have converted of her own free will.”

Mitch found it frighteningly difficult to draw in his next breath. Like a half-drowned dog, he shook his head, shook it again, straining to pull in air. What was wrong with him today? It didn’t matter, though, that he couldn’t speak, since there was nothing he could think of to say in response. Volition was next to impossible, of course—his mother’s doctor, based on C-T scans and neurological testing, had written on her record that Eva didn’t have the mental capacity to process most of what went on around her, a fact that was obvious to him and everyone else who saw her regularly. But still … .

“I’m going to speak to Rob,” Mitch managed to get out, stepping toward the door and pulling it open.

She shrugged. “Be my guest.”

Sharon was standing at the end of the hall between the kitchen and the dining room, a sentry’s position from which she was certain to catch the two of them as they emerged. Mitch saw that she was not looking at his face as he approached, but had focused instead on Deb. Only after she took in her sister-in-law’s expression did she turn her eyes on him. At that, she bit her lower lip. “Mitch!” she said sharply. She closed both of her eyes for a second and then opened them, still looking straight at him. A reassuring warning, he guessed, not being a mind-reader as she often was. He was pleased to know that she would be standing by when his talk with Rob was over. He would need her.

*

Then it started, a rupture in their family that would never be repaired. Rob was, as always, agreeable when invited by Mitch to take a walk. He took the stairs two at a time to fetch his jacket from the bed, while Mitch grimly dragged his from its hanger in the downstairs closet. Then Rob came back down and the two men stepped outside into the chill of the winter evening.

They crossed the lawn and headed south along the sidewalk. Nothing was said for a time, and that time seemed almost normal. They were friends, old pals, walking along a mostly deserted street. Mitch even found himself wishing that he didn’t have to raise the issue at all. It was easier to understand collisions with stealth asteroids than calculate the differing relationships between men and women, brothers and sisters.

Almost a block away from home, Mitch concluded that he couldn’t put it off any longer. He cleared his throat. “Seth told Alexis that you converted Mom.”

They stopped walking and looked at one another, and Mitch supposed from his unperturbed expression that Rob had already figured out what this man-to-man chat might be about.

“That’s true,” Rob said. Nothing more.

Mitch knew this approach from their school days: Acknowledge the truth, stick to the truth because it’s the simplest way. Now, in later-middle age, it had an added touch: Take the high road. He, then—he, Mitch—would take the low one, because there was a sureness, almost one could say a smugness, in Rob’s manner that Mitch could not, would not, let stand.

“What kind of a person would try to talk a dying woman with dementia into converting, Rob? What did you think you were doing, taking advantage of her in her helpless state?”

“She wasn’t helpless, she was just dying. What harm does offering salvation to a dying person do, Mitch?”

The way he said it was very much like the way Deb had put it, except Rob sounded more caring than she had. It was still an awfully hard question to answer. What harm had been done, since the act was committed on a woman who didn’t believe in the need for salvation? But Mitch’s mind was clearer out here in the cold. “Mom had a right to die as she lived,” he asserted. “Who were you to decide to try and alter who she was?”

“She deserved a chance to make that final choice, though, Mitch. Because what it says in the Bible is either true or it’s not. If you’re right and it’s not true, has Eva lost anything? Have you?”

“Has she lost anything?,” he cried out. It was exasperating to have that illogical logic thrown at him for the second time. His sister and her husband sounded as if they had been drilled on these arguments as members of the same debate squad. It was a red herring. It led a person along the wrong path, away from what really mattered, which was the non-negotiable value of human volition. “You might as well justify biting her neck and drinking her blood!”

Agitated by his inability to convey any better grounds for argument against his irreproachable adversary, he broke off, stepped from the sidewalk, and crossed the empty boulevard separating his neighborhood from the wealthier one on the other side of the street. His brother-in-law strolled behind, and Mitch let him catch up. He was not surprised to again find himself face to face with the innocent wide blue gaze of the righteous. Throw the next stone, was his look. Throw as many as you like. I can take it. There was no remorse to be found there, no awareness of having crossed the line, no looming apology. Mitch couldn’t bear it, and he turned his eyes away. In wary, no-longer companionable silence, the two men started down a block of enormous Italianate and Spanish revival houses, most of which appeared shut up and dark, their semicircular driveways empty.

It was now essential to him that Rob understand his offense. “You know, Rob, Mom never, in all the years I knew her, showed any interest in the subject of religion. She felt reasonably OK about your church wedding. Later, though, when she was invited to watch your kids’ baptisms, that was different. She made it clear to Sharon that she only went out of love for Deb. She was a scientist, devoted to rigor, to evidence. She thought all religion was simplistic. She believed that the world needs less magical thinking, not more. Does that sound like someone who’d want to be converted on her deathbed?”

“Christianity isn’t simplistic, Mitch. It’s deep and rich. More and more as I get older, it proves its truth to me in amazing ways.”

Mitch again raised his voice. He knew himself to be one of the two people whom his sister and brother-in-law had wronged, yet he was the one who kept sounding unreasonable. “Yet its followers consider themselves free to convert the sick and dying of other religions when they get the urge, Rob? How rich and deep is that? It sets a terrific example of ethical action, you know, Rob, doing things like that to helpless people.”

“You haven’t even asked me what happened,” Rob reminded him mildly. “How come you’re so angry before you’ve even learned the truth?”

With all his heart, Mitch did not want to hear whatever he might call the truth when it came to his mother. Rob’s stubborn refusal to accept blame was damaging enough.

“It was on Monday after that fireball came and hit Russia,” said Rob. “There are miracles, you know. God’s hand is visible everywhere if you know how to see it. You scientists study these things from a material, physical point of view. We Christians study them for what they are, the hand of God.” He stopped, pulled his hands from his pockets, held them out and open in a gesture of harmlessness. “You see, Mitch, when God smites the Earth it is meant as a sign to everyone, all men and all women, everywhere. And there was your lovely mother, dying unbaptized, dying in sin, without friends or family at her side, without the Lord.”

Sharon had used those very words, God smiting the earth. She had guessed what lurked in Rob’s mind. She always knew the truth about people.

“I cared for Eva so much, I’m sure you know that. She was a second mom to me, an accepting, non-judging woman with a huge heart. After that asteroid—or meteor, or whatever you call it—I went in to where she was and explained to her about Jesus Christ having been born to take away the sins of the people, to die for them so they might live in eternal peace with God.”

Like a kid on the playground, Mitch longed to cover his ears and not listen to one word more, but in the presence of this adversary—his old friend Rob—he felt he had to appear single-minded, stiff-necked. Even so, he recognized the irony of pretending to be simple and strong in the face of Rob’s genuine simplicity.

“She opened her eyes and looked so sweetly at me, Mitch. She said, ‘Rob,’ and lifted her hand for me to take in mine. I held her dear hand. ‘Will you accept the gift of love being offered you, Eva? Will you, of your own free will, accept Jesus as your savior and live in eternal peace?’ And she said, clear as can be, ‘Yes, Rob.’ She had a peaceful smile on her face when she closed her eyes again.”

Mitch felt like smashing his brother-in-law’s face. What was the lie, where was the lie? Eva wouldn’t say ‘Yes’ to him like that. Yet the story sounded true. Rob, though hopelessly skewed by his fairy-tale beliefs, would never lie. “That can’t be right, Rob,” he protested. “She was senile. She hardly even spoke!”

“She did speak. There were witnesses.”

Mitch responded with derision. “Witnesses? There were no witnesses.”

“There were, though. Lucas wanted to come visit his grandmother with me for the last time, and he brought Seth along. They were there.”

Deb’s son Lucas and his 12-year-old son, the first-born of Eva’s great-grandchild. The next generation of Kagans and Neymans. The limits of tolerance were now clear; its fruits lay in a rotting heap before him. A spasm smacked the top of Mitch’s head and barreled straight through to the soles of his feet. The betrayal was absolute, irremediable. No more talk was possible.

He thrust his hands forward, fingers wide, palms forming a barrier in front of him. “Get away from me, Rob,” he said in a low growl that belied his urge to shout loudly enough to wake even the deaf, drunk, or comatose denizens of this silent neighborhood and warn them of danger. “In fact, why don’t you just pack up Deb and your grandchildren and go home. I don’t want to find you at the house when I get back. Understood?”

Rob rocked back on his heels. “OK, Mitch,” he said. Then, after a pause, he leaned forward again. “I love you, man,” he said.

Mitch remained quite still as he weighed the meaning of the word “love” in this context. There was no definition for it that he recognized. “Rob,” he said slowly, as if addressing someone who might not even understand his own name. He could feel his pulse shaking his body from within. “Let me state this to you very clearly.” He stared straight at Rob as though his eyes could pierce the bones that armored his brother-in-law’s face. “If I should have a stroke, or a heart attack, or anything of that sort—today or any day in the future. If I’m in the hospital, Rob, dying; or even, let’s say, drugged up and barely conscious. Do not come near me. Not you, not Deb, nor your children, nor your grandchildren. I want you and yours nowhere near me. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

Rob looked stunned. The eyebrows that he raised over those innocent eyes expressed, of all things, incredulity. Mitch half hoped to hear him say, because they had been friends, Of course I wouldn’t do that to you, Mitch, but that was not what happened. “But why not?” came Rob’s uncomprehending and faultless response.

Mitch turned away and thrust himself forward along the sidewalk to get as far out of reach of his friend’s treacherous innocence as he could, moving fast, trying to out-walk the fissure that had opened wide across the bedrock of his life. “Planetary Scientist Sole Victim of Local Earthquake,” he heard in his mind, as if Sharon’s amused voice had pronounced it, although even Sharon would not find this headline in the least amusing. Then, overcome with grief, he wrenched at the collar of his jacket as if to tear it, and veered from the sidewalk toward a dark stand of maples, well out of reach of the streetlight and anyone’s view. There, deep in the cover of a stranger’s trees, he began to mourn.

***

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Planetary Science

Tablet Original Fiction: a scientist chases a meteorite, and finds a message from God