Chapter 1: Seraphine & Max

I loved your age of wonder: your third and fourth
and fifth years spent astonished, widening your eyes
at each new trick of the world—and me standing there,
solemnly explaining how it was done. The moon and stars,
rainbows, photographs, gravity, the birds in the air,
the difference between blood and water.
In true life? you would say, looking up
and I would nod, like some broken-hearted sage,
knowing there would be no answers soon
to all the big questions that were left, to cruelty and fear,
to age and grief and death, and no words either.
And you, like me, will sit and shake your head.
In true life? Yes, my sweet, strong daughter, I’m afraid
there is all this as well, and this is it: true life."

― Robin Robertson, “Keys to the Doors” 1

⦿ Early Awakening Era: Brooklyn, 2018

Before the Awakening, there was a city known as New York, and, in it, a borough called Brooklyn. A garden-laden neighborhood named Little Satori bloomed to its south. And in the building with the plaque “Asimov Hall” sat a daughter who watched her father shut a book of poems. The sound echoed off the surrounding bookcases. 

For a long time, the two were silent in their chairs. And yet an orchestra of implications swelled between them, conducted by quivers of eyebrows, intakes of breath, and fleeting variations in the aromas of their bodies.

The poem made the daughter think of the tricks of the world: the spaces beyond the street, of glass towers; mad beggars; radio waves over fields of flowers; swarming mayflies; pious temples; torture chambers; blue-lit tunnels of fiber optic cables snaking underground, carrying bits through miles of atoms between server rooms. In autumn of 2018 there were millions of asteroids circling above. There were billions of bacteria in the armpit of an actor she’d never meet. There were 324 members of the Project, not counting the two new babies or the Little Satorians who were ‘townsfolk.’

She puzzled at the essential solubility of all these. A thing might seem solid, yet it was constantly shedding molecules until it was no more, until it had dissolved and then coalesced into something new. On the timescale of the universe, cruelty and fear were new secretions of the matter which became brains. She could see no reason why that matter couldn’t be reforged. Why she and her family couldn’t reforge it.

Finally she decided. “Daddy, that is not it. That is not true life.”

Her father tilted his head with a serious smile. She used her schooling to take in these gestures and more, comprehending his question as if he’d spoken it aloud: Sweet daughter, then what is true life?

She answered. “That there will be answers soon. To cruelty and fear and…um….” Her legs kicked the air above the floor as she stumbled over words.

“...To ‘age and grief and death?’”


Her father leaned forward to take her hand in his. “What are those answers, my love? To age and grief and death?”

She looked at him as if he were confused. “We are.”

The father paused. He took in a daughter who would soon outgrow his comprehension. Her eyes were bright with agony and delight.

“Not soon, Seraphine. But perhaps in time."


“Keys to the Doors” is from Robin Robertson’s collection Hill of Doors (Picador, 2013) and published with permission.