Nature is always mysterious and secret in her use of means; and art is always likest her when it is most inexplicable. That execution which is least comprehensible and which therefore defies imitation, other qualities being supposed alike, is the best.
FRANCIUM IS A METAL SO RARE we can only guess at its color. With a half-life of twenty-two minutes and a melting point so low this metal would be liquid at room temperature, it is an element of dream time. Scientists speculate that at any given moment less than thirty grams of it exist on the entire planet. It is measured in atoms, not cupfuls, and even the atoms are measured in thousands, not billions. They have to be trapped in laser beams in a magnetic field, briefly floating like snow flakes in the glow of a street light and then melting back into a great unknown. Francium is so rare that we don’t even have a use for it. We will live our lives without ever seeing this metal, without experiencing its catastrophically brief existence.
There was a boy once, like that. By accident, though there may be no such thing, we sat next to each other in a pub in
The door opens. A cold wind blows into the pub, and the codes in the sawdust of the floor are wiped away by the draft. We shiver and grow aware, leave behind the dream time. His arm snakes away back into its private
We exist in a single moment surrounded by before and after, and when the boy who is and always will be a stranger removes his arm from around the waist of the girl who is a stranger, the moment changes, before and after changes. We measure such moments by atoms of the unexpected, not cupfuls of what is known. And sometimes the atoms of the unexpected create larger memories than those cupfuls of what we know. What is the half-life of such a moment, that decades later I am still trying to measure its atoms?
JEANNE MACKIN is the author of five novels and numerous stories and essays. She is also the author of three mysteries published under the name Anna Maclean. Her novels have also been published in England and Japan. She has worked as a journalist and as a science writer at Cornell University where she received a number of national awards. She has taught writing at Ithaca College, and is presently on the MFA Creative Writing faculty at Goddard College.