Somewhere Between Sea and Sky
Author’s note: This story was a contest entry for the Seat14C fiction contest. The prompt was as follows: “Your flight has been mysteriously transported 20 years into the future. How could this happen? Wait, that’s not important. Take a deep breath. Look around. Without a doubt, the world has changed. What new technologies and innovations have reshaped the way we live?” Below is my submission.
In my ears is the word of God; it emanates through the conductive fibers and wires in my scarf, draped loosely around my face, and I let it fill my mind, the soothing hum of the narrator who is reciting prayers just for me. He speaks in Russian, my mother tongue, and the voice sensor has picked up the clicks and the angles of it, sharp and familiar.
The prayers drown out the chatter on BART, the exhausted sighs and low conversations around me. Whenever I am on vessels that move I wonder if I will once again be projected into the future. It’s a passing but common thought, and not unfounded.
After the prayers end, the next voice relays the news in Japanese. Now that I am no longer an English teacher in Japan, Japanese conversation eludes me. My mind is frequently a vortex of languages.
I could say that Russian is my native tongue, but truthfully, nothing about me is native to anything, any time or place. I’m a Jewish woman born in Berkeley to a Russian mother born in Vladivostok, a mother who put her small and awkward daughter in a private Japanese-American school at kindergarten. It was imperative to her that I know a language and know an instrument; those skills, she said, were the ticket to any future I wanted.
At the Pacific Academy of the Nomura School in the East Bay, I learned how to speak and read Japanese, and find the halfway point between an R and an L, and my clumsy tongue struggled to identify the sweet spot of proper pronunciation. Eventually, it clicked, and I reached fluency the same year I achieved an effortless vibrato on my violin.
I wonder where my students are now, if they’ve found English to be the key they had sought, a key to jobs and opportunity. It is easier to be a polyglot in 2037. The world’s languages are available everywhere, translated in real-time, in our watches and mirrors and fibers of our clothing. The first thing I sought out, once I had adjusted to the interrogations and the shock of seeing my 28 year old face in a mirror that should have shown a woman’s face aged to 48 years, was the 2037 version of a smartwatch. It’s a sleek and round shiny thing that clamped around my wrist like an octopus tentacle, and from it came the murmur of whatever I selected to play — recitations of Jewish prayers, podcasts in Japanese, or modern compositions of Dvorak and Stravinsky.
I am nearly obsolete now, as a linguist by trade. All one has to do is use the correct trigger word near a sensor, and some inanimate object will awaken and translate. Sensors are everywhere, embedded into walls and street lamps and mailboxes, and not all are corporate; some are home-brewed rigs. Everything in San Francisco is alive and powered on, including the glowing bike lanes, of which there are now more of than car lanes; BART, now sleek and shiny instead of rusting and rattling; and the automated food carts now punctuating every street corner, selling burritos, macarons, and ramen. The city is smart and has a life of its own, and it can react, and communicate, storing the data of everything you’ve ever done and said, and it hears all.
But the world still needs people like me, who know how to listen.
Turbulence made my heart hop into my throat, and I swallowed it. I kept my eyes shut tight, my mind focused on prayer. Flights to America were tense in 2017. I folded into myself, elbows pressed against my sides. I tried not to look at magazine covers of Syria or Washington or Britain. I was selfish and had moved to Japan before the shroud covered America.
Past the inside of my eyelids I saw the light ebb from blue to green to blue again. I could tell by how the light felt on my eyelids that something inexplicable had occurred, not unlike the feeling I often got at temple. I have always been sensitive to light; its changes and moods reflect my own, as if I am chained to sun rays, flickering lightbulbs, and luminous storm clouds. This light felt soft, but it pushed gently against my eyes, like two fingertips blessing me, before releasing.
I opened my eyes and pressed my nose to the window. Dawn was a gradient in the Pacific sky. San Francisco lay gleaming below us, like someone had taken a broom to its dirty corners. I was struck by how much it shone after just 12 months of my absence. Had it always glowed like that, its skyscrapers beaming like beacons? Had my mother asked the city to be on its best behavior, to lure me home for good? The Bay was fogless, and the lights of life glittered as the city stirred awake.
After a year in Tokyo, I thought coming home to San Francisco would feel like stepping back in time. Tokyo was an assault on the senses. Lights and sounds and colors and smells were relentless and inescapable. At times it felt like another planet, so much more advanced than the States. Everything was available at the touch of a button and the swipe of a credit card. Even with Silicon Valley trickling its innovations into the daily lives of San Franciscans, so much of the Golden City was a time capsule. One could analyze the layers of generations that had influenced the city by chipping off paint from a building, like studying the tree rings in Tilden Park.
San Francisco was always like a dream to me, even before it was the technological marvel it had become in my absence. From my home across the bay, in the lush and tumbling Berkeley hills, my mother would take me across the bridge to violin lessons. I used to hold my breath and press my nose against the car window when going over the wide expanse of the bay, and I wondered what God saw when he looked at me — a young girl suspended somewhere between sea and sky. And that was me when I passed through the portal of time, a young woman with my nose flattened by glass, my eyes half shadowed by a very different horizon.
I found a job for you and your elf ears, reads the text from Kristen. The text slithers over my arm, cycling until I tap it to stop. Those of us on Flight #008 have a group chat, originally founded as a support group in which we’d exchange experiences of confusion or reassurances of sanity. In the weeks after, we grappled with our new life, coming to grips with the world carrying on without us.
It’s true I have ears like an elf, like two scallops sloping into points on the sides of my head, but Kristen is referring to my impeccable hearing, which has awarded me a new career in this future that no longer demands my teaching skills.
Send me details. I respond, speaking the words into my wrist. Thanks for thinking of me!
A map appears on my wrist, marking St. Cecilia Catholic Church in the Embarcadero. I scroll down by moving my index finger upward on the band, and I see a small moving avatar of a woman named “Sister June.” It waves at me, and I tap it. Her face blooms on my wrist, a pleasant face that smiles at me. Our church has received new violins for the San Francisco Symphony, and we’d love to have an expert test and tune them. Kristen said you were the woman for the job. Hope to see you tomorrow!
Flight #008 had descended into chaos.
The change in whatever happened in the sky now felt palpable, and we passengers made wild, alarmist guesses as we were ushered into the airport by guards dressed in black. A terrorist attack? A natural disaster? But we felt OK, we looked OK, we were worried about our suitcases still on the plane.
I knew SFO well, the whole web of it, but all I saw as we were trudged through the airport were screens. Everything else had been gutted from it, replaced with glossy panes of glass on every surface. That was common in Tokyo, the analog replaced by the digital. It was the ads and text that appeared on the screens that perplexed me. The news headlines were abstract and foreign. Some images were familiar enough — the presidential seal, and the White House, seemingly the same — but the people featured alongside these images were unrecognizable.
We were guided quickly through the airport into an enclosed security area, a muted gray room with no tables, just a few white chairs. Only one section of this room had screens, and they made us line up in front of it. The screens pulsed and reflected our body heat, and I cringed seeing the hot red auras pulsing in our armpits and at the vertex of our legs. Weren’t we allowed some semblance of privacy? What had happened in Tokyo to make them suspicious or cautious at our arrival?
An elderly Jewish woman stood a few people in front of me; I could tell by her paisley tichel, not unlike the one my own mother had worn for nearly three decades.
“I need to scan your hijab,” a uniformed guard said, gruffly, waving his hand over the woman’s head. Before I could respond to correct him, his wrist beeped, and I noticed a shiny, translucent band gripping his wrist, and from it came a stilted, robotic voice: Incorrect. Object identified is a tichel. A tichel is a head covering worn by married Jewish women —
He twisted his wrist, moving it quickly back and forth, and the arm band ceased speaking. “My apologies, ma’am. May I scan your tichel?”
She balked, and I looked at her, with eyebrows raised, surprised at two things: whatever smart device on his arm could tell the difference between religious headscarves, and the fact that the TSA Agent had apologized.
I broke out of the line.
“Look, I live here in the Bay Area,” I said, pulling my passport from my pocket and showing them my mother’s Berkeley address. “My mother is waiting to pick me up.”
He waved his arm band over my face, and frowned. With two fingers he beckoned to a woman dressed in a white lab coat with a high collar. She pulled me into a corner of the room. She introduced herself as Dr. Sydney, and took my hand in hers, her fingers cool against my sweating palm.
“I’m so sorry to tell you this,” she said, brows furrowed. “I understand this will be confusing to you. Your mother died.”
My head fogged, my heartbeat loud in my ears like I just ran a mile too quickly. I had talked to my mother a mere 20 hours prior. We had discussed where to go to dinner. She had jokingly suggested ramen.
“Are you sure you’re talking about the right person?” I looked wildly around the room. “What’s going on here, anyway? Was there a terrorist attack? Is that why we’re being detained?”
“Ms. Levya, you’re not being detained. We’re examining you.”
She continued on, and for once in my life, my hearing failed me. Instead, I stared in silent horror as Dr. Sydney took me to a screened wall and swiped at it, showing me news reports, my own face appearing in a collage of faces; video footage of our departure in Tokyo; anything that constituted some sort of proof to convince me of the circumstances. She gave me a mournful look and pulled up my mother’s obituary, dated three years before present day. I sought out the culprit: a pulmonary embolism, and it was quick, and she had been at temple, and she had no surviving relatives. The photo of her was an old one, but my favorite of her. In it her eyes are closed, her bow raked halfway across her beloved violin.
I realized that I was alone in the world and I realized that my mother had felt the same, in the twenty years of my absence. What could she have possibly imagined about my disappearance?
We spent hours in the room, inspected by doctors and scientists who looked bewildered and excited about our return, and what it may unlock about the secrets of the universe. Some of us were given items and belongings. I received a key to a storage unit, kept in the care of a distant family friend, and a bank vault with money and gold left for me, in the event of my return. Dr. Sydney attempted to console me, telling me that my mother never lost faith that I was out there, somewhere — but I found myself numb to her words, desolate tears spilling over my closed fist pressed against my lips, wishing desperately that I had been given the same opportunity.
I disembark at the Embarcadero stop, and let my smartwatch navigate me toward my destination. The light spins on it like a compass, and I go in the direction it points. It illuminates blue and begins to vibrate as I near the church, but I don’t need its confirmation to know that I’m at the right place. St. Cecilia Catholic Church is a glossy facade flanked by two older brick buildings, and it’s the most modern structure on the whole street, with a tall, metallic cross mounted at the top. In the months I’ve lived in 2037, faith appears to have waned. Devout communities still exist, but the presence of religion in everyday life is far less pervasive. I still cling to my own, the only constant I can depend on, but I hold it like a secret now, unsure of its place or purpose.
The door is open when I approach, and the discordant sound of musicians each playing their own song emanates from within. Much of the music is familiar, simple fiddle tunes from the O’Connor Method books, and I can’t believe they are still in rotation amongst musicians. I can still hum the tune of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” from memory; as a young child I used to stumble over the quick string crossing, D to A to D again.
Sister June comes to greet me, wearing what I can only assume is a modernized habit. She wears gray from head to toe, and much of it looks traditional, although the material resembles neoprene. I wonder if her coif contains conductive threads like my scarf.
“We’re so glad to have you,” Sister June says. “The Symphony is expecting these tomorrow, so we’d like to have them strung and tuned by the afternoon.”
Sister June waves a hand toward the dozen or so musicians in the hall, and they wave back, and it takes me a moment to realize that they are humanoid androids, the whole lot of them. It’s not uncommon to see androids around the city, often in service roles, but I’ve never been in a room full of them, and their gestures are so lifelike as they twist pegs and rake bows across blocks of rosin. “Feel free to enlist an intern to help you. We have thirty instruments, total.”
She introduces me to a robot called James, bright blue wires sprouting from his head and bound in a long braid. I balk at the violin he’s holding, for it barely resembles the Rubenesque shape of a traditional wooden viol. It’s a long, alien-looking thing, molded out of silvery resin, with a fish-like shape. Where the f-holes should be are matte black rows of gill-like slats. The strings are transparent. Almost all of the violins in the room are strange shapes, no two exactly alike. Sister Junes explains that many are 3D printed, only a few crafted by hand, and even fewer made from wood.
I am skeptical that any of these violins will sound the way I expect, but I try to suppress my own bias. My mother had a preference for warm, round sounding instruments. I like my violins to have a slight edge, a hint of sharpness. So much of a violin’s sound depends on the wood that comprises it, and the quality of the strings. Violins existed for hundreds of years, relatively unchanged; how is it that an item so embedded in musical history has undergone such a substantial evolution is just 20 years?
I fumble with the awkward shape. It’s the lightest violin I’ve ever held, and my fingers are eager to fly over the strings, unburdened by weight. James shows me the chin rest, a shallow groove toward the top, and I wedge it in the crook of my neck and jaw. He hands me a carbon fiber bow, and I’m relieved to see that the shape of that, at least, is standard and familiar. My other arm finds the fretboard, located at the arch of the swooping neck.
I push the bow across the strings, and the D string echoes in the church, and I feel the pressure of tears behind my eyes at the bittersweet sound. It contains the weight of what I’ve lost and the promise of a future I have yet to unravel, and in that moment I disappear into the note — I could be anywhere, in any era and in any place of worship.
I play another note, harmonizing both the A and E open strings, capturing the suspension of time, and despite the instrument’s strange, foreign shape, it sounds like how a violin always has sounded in a church: clear, euphonious, and timeless. •