The first tree we cloned was in Bolivar Park in Zoar, Ohio: a short, vulturine-limbed thing right there in the open, nestled by a vale and a necklace of pines never ill-affected by the seasons. We decided this was the most obvious place to test a danger, in an exposed mark of land where either a rescue would ensue or no one would ever know the difference: purloined letter science. We stood misshapen beside our cloned tree, dotted silhouettes inspecting nothing.
There wasn’t smoke, or friction, as it occurred. There was only a rapidity, as if we watched the cloned tree rise from a sapling, but in such a way we couldn’t feel the aging process. It was nothing–dry dirt, scattered pine needles. In another moment, it was the mirrored image of the same magnificent guise, force-fed mitosis.
Hopko, from afar, is a lank. His legs are no thicker than the arch of his spine. To a point, he is the image of a wizened man with youthful features: a nose not wide or slender so that it sits forgettably, a leanness that miscommunicates his strength. If one were to attack Hopko, approach him irredeemably, the attacker wouldn’t know whether to go for the legs, the waist, or the neck. He continually holds my shoulder when we speak, as if to absolve me, the incarnate inventor of soothing tempers.
A speck of blood has browned on the rim of his shirt. Another on his knuckle. We speak of neither.
Hopko and I quickly discover that the many complications in constructing an existence always comes down to understanding where the seams must go, of where the boundaries must be made so that a pocket can be sewn, so that everything doesn’t have a place to fall out of, into ether, into nothing, into its original self. “What about cloning something good, something beneficiary?” That’s how the first boundary was engineered, when we went looking for something good, something pure, something too few.
In moments, we come to the idea of a children’s hospital, of wide stone entryways leading to large-windowed rooms of unfeeling cots within, an orchestra of lungs filling outward, hollowing inward. We could make two hospitals at once, and next four, or eight, until we’d eventually constructed neighborhoods of young life growing better. We’d manage tanneries where ailing children would simply unzip the suits of their illnesses, hanging them on display in our solar system of ministrations. We’d outpace cancers by nostril, by snout, by neck, by legs.
And then it met us that cloning a hospital meant cloning its contents. It meant recreating the sick children already contained, the parents of these swollen cheeks, of the grey washcloths mashed into the hampers, and all the emotional baggage that goes along with hoping your child will survive, will make it through the night, will live past ten, and fifteen, and thirty; and, of the lucky parents, it meant cloning the experience of children watching their parents die on, of putting a wet paper towel to the lips of their mothers and fathers as they dried shut for good. After all, if we clone histories, we clone movements, we clone liberties, and personalities; in other words, we create hindrances and fears in directions opposite the timeline we know.
Yet, since the possibility to go wherever exists, we won’t be able to scare our knowledge away. We can avoid what we know, but to some extent, it’s now stronger than our will to forget.
Hopko’s teeth are floured with plaque, piebald stains of smoke, amorphous upon the ivory, suchlike the unruly globs of lint one recovers from their pocket. One great smile from him, and you understand there is no understanding the whirlpool inside him.
Aster is crushed beneath our feet. Its scent expels upward like a final breath.
“We need to break open a branch,” Hopko says, his fingers vines overrunning my shoulder.
“Of which tree?” I ask him. That’s the challenge of cloning, of having to remember what is real. His head dips in thought, and he pats my shoulder blade like I’ve developed a long-standing question, one that predates both of us.
With a small, wood-handled machete, Hopko amputates the branch of the real tree. He snaps into the side with the edge of his blade, the polished hilt inseparable from the bark: a loud crack sounds off, a lone-swung stone that drowns rather than skips. The inside is white, petrified, dead.
With his knife, he gluttons the cloned tree. The outer layer of the clone is the same as the real: burnt and ashen, but the inside is a pink and pallid flesh tone. The blade is unable to make it all the way through the clayey arm. Hopko looks back at me, initiating our surprise. He thwacks into the clone again, and then tears it loose like a flak of dry, viridescent skin. He hands the debt of wood to me.
“It’s soft,” I say aloud, as if I can assemble no other discernible thought.
“More,” he explains, putting his arm around me, as if to present the canvas of the world undrawn before us, “it’s living.”
Hopko coughs roughly. Inside him, slug-bodied phlegm contracts into his lungs, and scrapes the olive-shaped organs like a shovel dragged across concrete. He winces, and swallows an egg.
This is a lot to take on, to mull over: a thousand children trapped by a potential lack of imagination. It also occurs to us that we’ve become presumptive, as if we understand the power we’ve received, but not the way it can be wielded. For example, can you clone a memory? Can you clone pain or fear, and if so, can you clone a layer over it, say, resilience and courage? If you can, if we can, rather, then why not? Why not clone the truth over the painful lies? Why not clone the innocent lies over the truth? If such is the case, we could clone a children’s hospital, and subsequently clone whatever it takes to not feel upended over all the families milling inside. In our minds, we see Alzheimer’s disappear. We see prosthetics as gangly and as able as arms. We see the elaboration of time, and the way in which we might edit the entire portrait of life, piece by piece, making manual cuts into the film reels of humankind.
“What if we can clone death?”
“How do you mean?” I ask him, which, immediately, became the moment I wished I could clone over. I wished I could clone back over that question with silence, with the effects of a vacuum.
“What if we can bring people back to life, by cloning their life over their death?”
Once this idea had us, we couldn’t back away. It became addictive to evince the reversal of misfortune. Without pausing, we amassed a list of human atrocity, and watched the world spin unmornings and unnights, giving each lost soul a new stroke of life.
We started with the Darfurians, watching the spears of Janjaweed pull out of their eyes, cloning over them a sense of brotherhood; we went on watching the Serbs unkill the Muslims, and the Tutsis being rebuilt by the Hutus; saw the Guatemalans apologizing to the Mayans, admissions of fault swarming like nets; we saw the Khmer Rouge offering gifts to the Cambodians, bowing before them in soft robes; before us, rows of Nazis were cloned over with tolerance, with reflections of their past selves, and the Jews pulled them away from the heinousness of these mirrors and read to them the world’s beginning.
“What do we change by changing everything?” Hopko asks me.
This is where selfishness begins. This is where it would have befit us to ask a different question, but where time travel and cloning depart.
“What if we can’t change anything?” I reason in futile.
“We cloned a dead tree for a live one. Surely, in a cemetery . . .” and Hopko leans his contemplation into his palm like a superpower, infusing the top of my head with what he can’t detail all at once.
In it, I see God evolve from a tadpole and create the Earth.
A timeline is a sophisticated pattern out of our control. “These things are cyclical,” people say aloud, say aloud with the same recitation as applauding, or tidal waves, or suction. If this is the case, maybe we don’t have to resolve to correct a pattern, but we may create our own. This is where we come to odds.
“We can create anything we want,” I explain to Hopko, ideating a preserve where endangered animals no longer cry.
“But we have something more powerful than that. The way we can experiment could end death, could finish suffering. We could go on looking at one another for as long as we want.”
Hopko rests both his hands onto my shoulders, and his eyes even into an unblinking need for me to understand, for me to appreciate his mortal starvation. I stare back into their obsidian shape: his sockets appear tired and wounded, as if he’s taken a fall down a flight of stairs and landed rightly upon a pair of binoculars. We haven’t slept in four days.
“They’re trees,” I tell him.
“Right now they are,” he replies, “Right now, they’re trees.”
As we waver, a bird of a listless color flings out of the cloned tree, and beats its wings against the air, like rainwater buoying off the arches of umbrellas. Above us, it skis against the streaks of fading blue. We stare on waiting for a collapse, for the bird to become disabused of flight.
“Did it land without us knowing, or was it always in the tree?” This is the question that exists, needlessly spoken by our lips, hunkered stilly in our thoughts. It begets a previous question we’re unable to wrest from our minds.
“What if we can clone death?”
“Has it happened already?”
His eyes are rheumy from the whip of the air. A fisting gust runs across our stomachs. And then another. My nerves alight into the warmth of a gland I’m unable to articulate, unpossessed of history.
I think about going to church as a child, and of what it felt like to be pinned inward, sitting beneath checkered glass. When mass let out, I would wait for the larger bodies to feed into the other lumbering bodies, watching grown men slide down the pews like batteries falling out of the ends of flashlights. Back in the sunlight, everything said inside became forgotten outside, sermons turned to weaponry and judgment fleeting windward from pious mouths. I imagined what sort of weapon an ability to clone would be reduced to. I didn’t know if it was worth trying only to have someone else appropriate the power. I didn’t know how to define power any longer.
“Who would we clone?” I ask Hopko. “If we could clone someone, if we could create the undead, who would we clone, and how would we explain it to them?”
Hopko raises his hand in the air like a trunk, as if prepared to settle it in mine, but lets it fall back to his side like a sheep, as if the points of his fingers had become partway capable of a violence he must holster.
A ways off, we hear a traffic we’re unable to see. It reaches us again and again, a meniscus incapable of spilling over.
Hopko grew lame in answering the question. He bent into his knees, his body as abstract as a constellation. Slowly, he turned around and began to motion his legs back up the valleyed edge from whence we came. Around us, the clouds slugged hurriedly along, round shadows that came and went like the movements of curtains obliging the comings and goings of days.
The rain broke, cracked open like an egg from the mottled cloud-pieces.
At the top of the mounded land, Hopko keeled once more, his body a shadowed beaker against the brims of sky. In front of identical trees, I eyed his shape as it reached up like a plume, and sunk flat to the earth.
Threads of rain unraveled tortuously from green clouds overhead. They swung diagonally into the crest of the hill where Hopko lain. Everything to my left hazed, dun-colored streams running down the land formed lips and moats of storm water. To my right, the rain skimmed the earth, unbidden blankets that whipped like gray bed sheets, and filled on the other side of me. Plangent murmurs of thunder whirred in the distance, and I finally decided I must make my way to Hopko, his knees barely visible peaks: snorkels off a hump, tiny cilia on an atom. My legs kneaded into the sodden hillside, spidering up.
All around me grew heavier and cooler in the storm, leaves sagged from their branches like cooked spinach; the sky grew besotted with darkness, opaque purples vaguely alit like lantern light at a distance. Halfway up, my shins dug a trench. A rivulet sprung like a channel breaking its lock, the unpredictable spew of city fountains, and tumbled me over into the shallowed and mossy river. I swung shut my mouth and clambered up and up and up against the runoff, my hands gripping in place of my eyes, which now bled with silt.
As if it were a dream tugged into reality, I reached Hopko.
His body was angular, supine. I dropped my knees beside him, gathered my arms beneath his lower back, and pulled him over my thighs: a grand pieta amid a flood. I tried to startle awake his pulse, slapping his blanched cheeks, waiting for a twitch, for a pursing. His eyes had rolled backward; they glazed in the corners of his tear ducts, guts of citrus that reformed in the rain as soon as I wiped them clear.
The rain winnowed to a mist. The sky diluted into yellows, with gray blisters spread across like punctuation.
I wondered if the grass beneath him stayed dry, or if the droplets curved toward his back the way stalactites slag from overtures of caves. I thought about the imprint his body would leave, an unreadable name in drying cement.
The storm calmed, a pall looped like a shower curtain pulled around a tub. Water slid beneath my clothes, beads racing one another down my chest as if on car windows; my hair parted in the weather at the middle, matted by the dead rain’s force, now poking off my head like whiskers dented into elbows unable to be straightened.
Behind me, the water had swelled, covering the hill and the height of the boles, making a basin where treetops breached like the feathery ends of turnips, or carrots, or something unknown.
A fog descended over the water that filled around us, isolating me onto a false island. Hopko’s leg pressed against the side of my ankle, and I looked down into the trees I could no longer tell apart.
“This is the way we clone death,” I say to no one.