C R I T I C A L S T A T E
Sitting back against the beach house, under a wedge of shade, he watches his daughter sleeping inches from the sea. Light bounces off her bathing suit and catches on the waves. Soon the water will rise, waking her to hunger.
Patting sand from his skin and shorts, he stands to climb the steps. Grains dust the floorboards, pleasantly abrading the soles of his feet as he collects what he needs to make lunch.
His daughter has not been to the island since going to college. She has not noticed the new coat of paint. Instead, attuned from her studies, she detected the slipping of Creole into his tones from so many visits to St John. An ear for languages is just one of the things they share. He hears it too. The beats of his words drift a little longer now.
Daily, each sensation and idea makes him into something different. When he was her age, he craved new things to add to his experience and push on his refinement. His tastes changed. He worries she will not like his cooking anymore. Then he remembers the flavour of bagel and lox, of coming home to New York after lonely years studying in Europe. The butter sizzles as the eggs touch the pan.
When he slides two plates onto the table she is still asleep. He lets her rest. He can always cook more. Forking omelette into his mouth, he looks over the beach. It is an easy place to be. The universe is simplified: cabin, trees, sand, water, sky. It does not go on forever and is small enough to think of all at once. It is out of reach, too, from Washington and Manhattan.
But he has brought a contaminant with him. The medal in his pocket exerts a force. It is attached to him, like a magnet. He pulls it out for a better look.
A spectacled face peers back. Embossed in gold, Fermi’s eyes appear serene in a way they never did when they worked together. The first to win the President’s prize, when Fermi died it was named after him and his image was printed on one side.
Turning it over, he reads the acknowledgement. Credit is given to him ‘for leadership of the Los Alamos Laboratory and the atomic energy program during critical years’. The accidental pun raises a weak smile. Filled with infinite unintended meaning, the metal complicates the beach.
It was Fermi who first saw the possibility of making the detonations even more awful; unwittingly starting the race between sharp minds to out-think one another. All the while, subtler thinkers waged wars of escalating threats. On those bright evenings in the desert he would talk to the others of intangible things as though they were part of the assembly: history, legacy, genocide. All of them knew one bomb would ignite them all. Speaking out, though, was as suicidal as standing in the blast radius. It was only natural he would do it in the end. He was cast away and came to hide, for part of the year, on this beach.
The medal is a gift of rehabilitation to bring him back from exile after years in the wasteland. A token made of gold; the fuel for an atomic fire that sparked the first American hydrogen bomb.
It is a cold, dead weight in his hand. Tiny pockmarks scar Fermi’s face. The metal’s grain catches in the light. A haze dusts off the edges; lattices of gold drift into the air. He can make out the atoms as they ricochet. Electrons spin and fly out of their orbits. Protons and neutrons spiral away from each other. Energy pours from the metal. His palm sears with pain as the medal glows white and begins to spark.
A ball of silver heat blooms from his hand. As it slips along his arm he is burnt black and thin. The wall of fire expands and transforms him into a filigree of carbon. He is dusted up in the wind, becoming the force of it, joining it to push outward.
The cabin deconstructs. The trees flame and lower themselves in the gradual blast. The sand flares as the light touches it and leaves behind shiny black glass. The water boils and evaporates. The sky darkens with ash.
His daughter is ravaged by instant fire. She is obliterated; as everything will be when the rim of destruction of his making catches the boundaries of creation.
The building is a slab reverberating with the sounds of all the languages of the world. Her father had come here too; hoping to persuade every country to listen to his warnings. No one heard him. ‘Miss Oppenheimer?’ His voice is large enough to fill the foyer
of UN Headquarters. She looks up and stands. ‘John Stanton, I head up the Secretariat. Will you come with me, please?’ He turns and strides away without waiting for an answer.
She follows him into a room with two chairs separated by a table. He holds out a hand, signalling her to take the seat closest to the door, before slumping into the other. He opens a file and, upside down, she recognises the photograph she stapled to her application.
‘I’d like to thank you for coming today and I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, Miss Oppenheimer.’
‘It’s no trouble. It’s very easy to get here. My family have an apartment on the Upper West Side.’ She is still unbuttoning her coat.
‘Nice part of the city. You grow up there?’
‘For a little while, but not long. We lived all over when I was growing up.’ She struggles with her coat, trying to take it off without standing up.
He looks down at the table before he speaks. ‘Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to say this so I’m going to get straight to it. I’m sorry but we can’t progress your application beyond this point.’
‘I see.’ She finally loosens her coat from her arms and it sinks into the back of her chair.
‘Miss Oppenheimer, I want you to understand, this is not a reflection on your capability as a translator. You’re a gifted linguist and your skills are not in question.’
She suffers her feelings and displays them without wanting, just as her father did. She is betrayed by a few shared genes and the creasing of her brow.
He releases a sigh. ‘In the process of conducting your security check something came to light.’
She knows what he is going to say. The beach house is not the only thing she has inherited.
‘The revocation of your father’s security clearance based on his associations with known communists is a matter of public record. The FBI strongly urged us to reject your application on the grounds of your father’s beliefs.’
It is not a lifetime’s work wasted exactly, but it is every day of her life so far. Since she was a child her father spoke to her in any one of the languages he had coiled inside his mind. She grew up in houses where languages were changed between courses at dinner and almost every guest had f led a troubled motherland.’ The concern expressed to us is that you may be placed under pressure to divulge information related to your father’s work or from translation of restricted documentation. I’m sorry but this decision is final and irrevocable.’
His words are solid, final and irrevocable. That is the point of this building, to cement definitions across everyone. It is nothing like the world she learned from him: where sounds spill their meaning across languages; where the listener can change the message just by listening.
‘On a personal level, I’m very sorry, Miss Oppenheimer. We all know what your father did to protect this country. It’s just that things are more complicated now than ever. In ways even he, it seems, couldn’t predict. Now, unless you have any more questions, I’ll show you out.’
He stands before she can answer and returns her to the foyer. ‘It was nice to meet you, Miss Oppenheimer. And again, I’m sorry.’ He turns and walks away without waiting for a goodbye.
The glass wall blues the light as it shines on the marble floor. Her coat is still bundled on the chair in the interview room. Outside, rain bounces up from the concrete plaza. She takes a seat and waits for it to end.
Neglect flakes off the cabin. The beach never felt the same after he died. Too much of him is threaded into the fabric of the place. Some of the regulars at the restaurant even call it Oppenheimer beach now.
His ashes, along with her mother’s, lap in the waters and his decisions are mapped onto the geography. It was he who wanted to build the cabin so close to the water. It will be washed away one day.
That suits her. She understands decay too. Nothing lasts. All that is left is the radiation, unseen and deadly.
She turns the gold wedding band in her fingers. It is the second she has taken off never to slide on again. This time it hurts no more than the background ache of living. Everything vibrates, mixing up the boundaries of things. Effect and cause are confused. Times are no longer distinct and memories compete with the present.
Dense with pain, the ring’s gravity pulls bits off her. There is no protection from it. Soon there will be nothing left. The gold tarnishes and blackens. It voids itself and draws her in with it. The fibres that hold her together stretch and snap. She is uncontained, little more than a particulate cloud. The gaping maw of the ring sucks her in to a place where instants last forever in the dark.
Treading onto the sand she makes her way to the water’s edge. Waves touch and then flee from her feet. She can feel him around her, in the breeze. He lives in the spaces between things, in the line of light and shade, water and sand. Though he never wanted to, he gave her the world, but left it just out of reach. Words, in so many languages, spiral in her thoughts but make no sense at all. It is too much.
She takes a rope from the beached sail boat and walks into the cabin. As she passes, she stops at the table, writes a note and leaves it under the weight of the ring.
There is an amount of time, less than a moment, in which the tiresome complexity of everything fades away. She is surrounded by the cabin, trees, sand, water, sky.
He can see across to the farthest reach of the universe, the youngest edge of space. All of it will be consumed by his fire. It is just a question of time.
‘Hey Dad, I’m hungry.’ At the sound of her voice, the explosion recoils, compressing back into the medal. The shrinking inferno returns the beach to its pristine state. His flesh reforms but something inside him still burns.
He points to the food on the table. She smiles. She has always loved coming to the beach house. He hopes she never finds a way to complicate it. It is too late for him.
He lights another cigarette. He has seen too much into the gaps between things and the unending darkness. He cannot stop it radiating out into the world, undoing everything before him.
She joins him at the table, under the shade.
OSAMA AMMAR lives and works in London. He writes in his spare time and is currently refining the draft of his first novel, Sparks.