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
Boston, listening to revolutionary songs of a different country. I saw him from the corner of my eye, never looking straight on, his black hair and white skin, the kind of coloring you often find in people who recite from memory lines from Yeats. We drank brown foamy beer and drew codes in the sawdust floor with the toes of our boots. He was with his friends, I with mine. Yet we knew we were together. His arm slowly, inevitably curled around my waist, under my coat, where no one could see it, but I could feel it. We didn’t look at each other. We hadn’t spoken a word to each other, yet we belonged to each other. This is not a true story, you see. It is a story of unstable elements, of unknowable colors, of rare metals and all that we cannot see of existence, all that cannot be imitated. It is a story of solitude and rarity.
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
Eden but it leaves behind this memory of a boy and a cold night and that knowledge of rarity, of immeasurability. The memory lasts longer than the moment and that is how we know we are, and have been.
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 seven 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 in the MFA Creative Writing faculty at Goddard College.