Every so often over the years I’d be with Sabile in a bar—or an art gallery, or a party—and a woman would walk into the room who was so beautiful that not only did I want her, I felt jealous because I knew Sabile must want her, too. People gravitate to beauty like that, gender is meaningless. Orientation can fall away like snakeskin, like a robe you might loosen and step out of.
Or maybe it would be a man who walked into the room, and not only did I resent him, a possessive hand drifting to Sabile’s waist, but I felt drawn to him myself.
That was what the aliens were like.
They came down in August of that year in great white obelisks, landing in the forest, somehow turning the nearby air a terrifying candy green. We had left the city and were staying at an old house my parents owned in western New York state, outside a town called Welsh Falls. They used the house as a rental property—the top and bottom floors were each a furnished apartment—but it was empty until November, and my dad had said we could take a vacation there.
Sabile was a beautiful woman. We were both twenty-four and had been together since we were sophomores at Columbia. She had the eyes of a deer, black and apprehending.
I was watching TV in the upstairs den and she was taking a bath when they landed, around midnight. Snow filled the TV screen and from the corner of my eye, I saw that green light for the first time. I went to the window.
Things that looked like giant white needles had begun falling slowly from the sky. Their whiteness reminded me of the inside of a geode, white stone crusted with crystals, and each one left a phosphorescent green trail. I could see ten or fifteen, some very far away, heading probably for the outskirts of Albany. The nearest one was falling about a mile off, above the forest.
“Baby?” I called. “Sabile? Something is happening.”
Maybe she didn’t hear what I said, or she didn’t hear the urgency of my voice, because after a moment she called lazily, “Come get in the bath.”
“No, get out of the bath,” I said. “Something big is happening. Come see.”
A moment later she stood beside me at the window, wrapped in a damp towel, watching it rain spaceships.
“Oh my God,” she said.
With my cell phone I tried to call my parents. There was no signal. Sabile was using the house phone. “I got nothing,” she said.
Some of the ships were landing now. They landed vertically, like gleaming monuments, their tops pointed at the night sky. You looked at them staked there and sensed unimaginable power. Not human power for conquest, as if they’d come to kill our leaders and take our children, but overwhelming poignancy, as though they were something just barely remembered now from earliest childhood, from before you could really remember things, that meant everything to you. As if they were mothers. The closest one had landed now in the woods behind the house, less than a mile off.
It was taller than the trees, and its white shaft shone far above their tops. The green phosphorescence followed it down and settled around it, seeping out through the woods like fog, spreading.
Sabile said, “They’re majestic.”
In the far distance we could still see them falling in other places, hundreds now, maybe thousands. Where we couldn’t even make out the needles, the obelisks, we could see the ghostly green streaks that marked their descent.
I wondered, “Is it happening all over the country?”
She said, “All over the world?”
They were majestic, but of course I was afraid. I put my arm around Sabile. Her body was warm and her arms were still moist from the bath. With shining eyes she stood beside me at the window, hugged me back, afraid too.
After a while, it seemed to slow down. In the distance a few green trails were still descending, but now the landscape was studded with white towers, like sudden stalagmites. It felt like looking at a landscape on which fresh snow has fallen, a changed world. We wanted to get news, to find out what was happening elsewhere, but the TV was still full of silent static.
“Your laptop,” I said suddenly. She had brought it.
“I’ll try,” she said. “But it’s dial-up, it’ll just use the phone line.”
Of course, that didn’t work either.
What was there to do? We kept watch by the window for a long time, but nothing happened.
In the early morning darkness, we tried to drowse on the sofa. Sabile dropped the towel over a chair and put on a robe. On the coffee table was a stack of paperbacks, damp-looking and stained from being read in the bath, and she reached instinctively for one.
“You’re going to read?” I said. She always read herself to sleep. “How can you read now?”
“No, of course not,” she said, putting down the book. She was tall and had reckless freckles on her shoulders and cheekbones. Her hair, a startling black, had dried strangely from the bath and was flattened around her face in the style of a flapper from the ’20s.
Although her name sounded French to most people, she was Jewish and had been born in Israel, lived there until her parents moved to America in the 1990s. I had first seen her in John Jay dining hall, moving thoughtfully down the dessert bar, poking at yogurts and mashed strawberries. She had loaded her empty tray with ice cream, with almonds, with chocolate syrup.
I lay beside her on the sofa, the lights off, a faint green glow visible in the window.
“Wow,” she said. “My parents must be terrified.”
“We all are,” I said. “Who isn’t?”
She said nothing.
After that we must have fallen asleep. My dreams were strange, full of green smoke and blood, and several times I woke in terror. Around 6 a.m., suddenly awake, I heard scratching near the foundation of the house.
I rose, terrified, opened the window, peered out. Nothing.
“Want to go see it?” said Sabile, making me jump. She hadn’t risen.
“What?” I said. “See what?”
“The ship,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“Don’t mind me,” she said. “I’m asleep.”
I closed the window, locked it, and lay back down beside her. We held each other and at last slept again, lightly.
Just before noon, the house was suddenly filled with a terrifying racket. It was the TV—the TV had come back on. We hurried to watch. Every channel was a news broadcast. Anchormen were stationed by the ships, live continuous coverage, talking over themselves to catch us up on what was happening.
People had been taken during the night.
They were in the ships now, these people.
All young men and women. Around our age, mostly.
We saw a girl interviewed, her boyfriend had disappeared. It pulled him through the wall, she said. It pulled him through the wall? asked the reporter. Well, she said, he went.
She seemed less panicked than hurt.
“What is this?” I said. “Are we being conquered by these things?”
Sabile, chewing her fingernails, didn’t say anything.
I went to the window. The obelisks were standing just as before. It surprised me that the sky wasn’t full of helicopters—army, media, anything.
We called my parents. “Yes,” they said, “there are some here, too. Right near us. No, they’re not doing anything.”
But people on our street, the street where I grew up, had disappeared in the night.
“Stay in the house,” my dad told me. “They’re taking people your age. Don’t let them see you.”
When I got off the phone with him, Sabile was crying. Her nails were chewed down to crimson nubs, her face flushed. I sat with her on the sofa and kissed her swollen eyes. She was wearing soft jeans and a tattered workman’s shirt, looking more beautiful than I had ever seen her, and protective affection swelled in me.
“We’ll be okay,” I said. “I love you. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“It’s not that I’m scared,” she said. “It’s that I’m not scared.”
I didn’t understand.
She added, “I love you, too,” and looked out the window. It was a beautiful day in autumn.
I said, “When we go to France in November, where should we go? What’s that town you told me about, in the countryside?”
But she didn’t seem to hear me, she only said, “I love you,” again, in just the same tone.
Around 5 p.m., someone, a handsome young man, returned from one of the ships in Arkansas. It was on every channel. They showed him wrapped in a blanket, forlorn, listlessly sipping coffee—he had been naked when he emerged.
Did they hurt you? he was asked.
How did you escape?
I didn’t escape. And he looked over the reporters’ heads at the white top of a distant obelisk like an old man looking back on his unrecoverable life, on days of unimaginable richness.
Something cold went over my skin, a chill of fear, I don’t know why.
Another thing happened about an hour later, and that was on the news, too. They began finding bodies, naked. One or two around some of the obelisks—these were a few of the other people who had been taken in the night. Their heads had been half-eaten.
Faces gone, scooped out along with their brains as if by a giant spoon, only the backs of their skulls remaining. One imagined creatures with huge, convex mouths, like deep sea fish, the teeth protrusive and razory.
Sabile and I watched this on the news, not talking.
As night fell, the TV abruptly cut out again. Snow filled the screen. The phones went dead, too. Now it seemed calculated. The first time it might have been a temporary side effect of the ships’ descent, some unavoidable disruption of signals in the atmosphere, but this felt more ominous.
“We better stay away from the windows,” I said.
Sabile, hugging herself, said, “Okay.”
Helplessly we went to the window.
The obelisk shone white in the darkness. When I put my arm around Sabile, I felt all the tiny muscles in her body trembling, as if some faint electric current was being run through her.
“I’m hungry,” she said, pressing her body against mine. “We’ve hardly eaten all day, you know that?”
“So am I,” I said.
Silently she pulled away and a moment later I heard her in the cramped upstairs kitchen. I understood the need to distract herself, to do something quotidian, to forget the naked bodies with their devoured faces.
Idly, in the dark—we had kept the lights off all day—I stayed at the window, a frightened sentry.
For several minutes I watched two smears of whiteness, very faint, moving in the woods, imperceptibly growing larger, before it registered on me what I was seeing. “Oh, shit,” I said. They could have been giant, dying fireflies.
The trees at the edge of the woods weren’t too dense, and the two aliens lurked there. They moved slowly, like men walking on the moon, and they were very tall. Faint white phosphorescence wreathed them.
A hundred feet from us, perhaps less.
“Sabile,” I whispered. “Sabile, I see them. They’re right outside.”
Now I watched the two figures approach the tree line. Their physical characteristics became easier to see. They were about seven feet tall, spindly, pure white, like ice cream, and they had huge, intelligent eyes. Eyelids, too—I could see them blinking.
One left the woods, entering our back yard. With deliberate, undersea movements, it looked around.
“Sabile,” I whispered.
The sight of the alien, even if its presence inspired fear, made me want to approach and examine, perhaps touch. There was grace in the way it moved, an almost erotic quality in the dolphin-smooth physique. It stepped toward the house, its attention focused on something.
I saw her then, just as I’d finished speaking her name. She was walking across the grass, away from me, without hesitation. Toward them, and they were waiting for her. For a second I felt sure she must be under their control, they must be doing something to her mind.
But I didn’t believe that.
When she got to the creature in the back yard—the other was watching all this from the woods—she stopped, looked at it. It looked at her. She stood still while it walked around her in a half-circle, head bent to her height, like a dog sniffing another animal. She didn’t move. Straightening, it turned and walked into the woods.
She followed it.
Only then did I remember that I was part of this scene, too, that I had a voice.
I opened the window, yelled her name.
She stopped, looked back briefly. “Sorry,” she called. “I need to.” Then turned and kept walking. I felt a sense of staggering disbelief. They were stealing the woman I loved. No, not even stealing! After a moment I couldn’t see her anymore, only the glowing outlines of her companions getting dimmer, dimmer.
I found myself bolting out the back door with no memory of descending the stairs, my heart slamming against my ribs. I ran halfway across the back yard and stopped, hesitated. Nothing was visible among the trees.
Should I follow them in there? I was afraid. I remembered afternoons in her dorm room, listening to an old record player, the coffeemaker rumbling on the bedside table, a love so easy and unadorned. She had betrayed me.
I took a step back from the trees. With my own eyes I’d seen her go with them freely, uncompelled.
The night passed, sleepless. I drowsed in my chair by the window.
Sabile. Good god. By dawn nothing had changed. The obelisks towered with inscrutable majesty over the landscape. It’s an insane feeling, being jealous of extraterrestrials.
Just as it had yesterday, the television came back on a little before noon. It was all the same, more of the same. They were showing photos of the disappeared. More people had gone in the night, a small percentage of them reappearing in the morning as nude, discarded corpses, faces gone, skulls emptied like bowls.
Noises downstairs distracted me from the newscast. I leapt up, my heart pumping something that wasn’t blood—panic, adrenaline. Feet came up the stairs, and then Sabile was standing in the doorway at the far end of the room, her hair in loose tangles like she’d been fucked.
She said, “Hey.”
I didn’t speak.
She said, “Don’t be worried.”
Her freckles were darker, as if she’d tanned. She looked radiant, fresh.
“Tell me what happened,” I said. “You’re okay?”
“They made you go with them, they controlled you. You were like a zombie.”
“No, I wasn’t,” she said. “Yes, they came into my head. Or, no, it was more like they—sent me an invitation there. I could go or not go.”
“And you went,” I said. “The ship. What was the ship like?”
“I didn’t go in the ship.”
“Then what happened?” I said. “Just tell me about it.”
“I went into the woods with them,” she said. “You saw. I don’t really know where the time went. They touched my face.”
She walked to the window, looked out. The television was still on. Someone else who had been in one of the obelisks and somehow returned, a beautiful young woman, was saying, They don’t hurt anyone on purpose. It’s more like a kiss, a hungry kiss that goes too far. All the people who had been taken, it seemed, were beautiful.
“What?” I said. “Touched your face? What do you mean, they touched your face?”
A hand rising to her throat, Sabile said, “It felt good.”
“Oh? And what else? What else happened?”
She flung up both hands, a sudden, angry gesture. Tired of my questions. “I don’t know, nothing else, we walked, then I wanted to come home, so I did. I don’t know where the time went. I wasn’t even afraid.” She hesitated, staring out the window. “They led me through the woods. They touched me. It was like—flirtation.”
“Oh, wonderful. And on the second date, they eat your head.”
She lapsed in sullen silence, as if I’d slapped her. I could always tell when Sabile was angry because every part of her body grew still except for her lower jaw, which tensed and shifted like a restless child’s.
I went into the little kitchen, turned on the water, turned it off. I wanted to do something but there was nothing at all to do. I wasn’t hungry.
When I returned to the living room, she was on the couch, watching the news. I sat beside her. The newscasters had begun using the term selective abductions, and live newscasts from the obelisks were being punctuated by more interviews—not with those who had been inside an obelisk, because virtually none returned, but with the loved ones of the disappeared, their fiancés and fiancées, their boyfriends and girlfriends. Those not selected for abduction.
“Was that your interview?” I said. “The selection committee? Did you get approved?”
“I don’t know what it was, Rob,” she said. “I don’t know why I went out there.”
She looked at me, reached across the distance between us, took my hand. She said, “I love you.” Her gaze was frightened, perhaps apologetic. We had talked, all summer, about getting married in a few years. The night before we left for the country, I’d lain beside her in our apartment in Brooklyn, wondering where my life would be if I hadn’t seen her that first day, at nineteen. But I couldn’t imagine an alternate trajectory, only the same life but without her, half the life.
Through the afternoon we waited. We spoke by phone with our parents. “I want to get out of here,” I told my dad, Sabile looking up, startled. “Tonight, drive back to the city. Out here, isolated, we’re more vulnerable.”
“Traveling, exposed, that’s when you’ll be vulnerable,” he said. “Don’t let them see you. People are hunkered down everywhere, the roads are empty. Wait it out.”
From shame I hadn’t told him about Sabile’s leaving. To me it seemed like a moral lapse, something to be hidden. My parents loved her.
A new feeling, not to trust her. A drowning feeling, my breath uncatchable.
Slowly for a time, then with terrifying speed, the sun slid down the sky and burst like a yolk, turning everything yellow. Orange, then red. Night again. The TV went dead.
I heard an ominous, insistent scraping. I moved from kitchen to bedroom to living room, but I couldn’t find its source. I looked out the window, certain they were coming.
“What are you looking for?” Sabile said. “What do you expect to do against them?” I realized the sound was coming from her—it was her fingernails dragging anxiously across her corduroy pants, over and over. She wasn’t even aware.
“They don’t mean any harm,” she said, brushing dark hair from her eyes. “They’re not here to hurt anyone.”
“Sabile,” I said, “the bodies? The heads? They eat the heads?”
“Only a few,” she said. “Not on purpose.”
The air felt strange, thick.
“‘Not on purpose,’” I repeated. “Well, I guess it’s all right if it’s not on purpose.”
She said, “Life is full of risks. Every time you get on a plane.”
Abruptly I turned to the window, thinking I had glimpsed something, luminescent on the darkness. Again there was nothing. Then, suddenly, Sabile was on her feet and had both arms wrapped tightly around me from behind, a violent and honest embrace, murmuring into my shoulder soft words I couldn’t quite hear. My muscles slackened, I went still. There’s an embrace only a person who loves you can give.
For a minute or two we didn’t move, the two of us resting like that.
Her body was quivering, just a little, as if in anticipation.
“What is it?” I whispered.
Then I heard quiet feet on the stairs.
After they had gone, after she had been taken, I had to laugh a little.
No, that isn’t true. I didn’t laugh.
I was sitting on the dry grass of the back yard. The kind of exhaustion that feels like it could last your whole life.
Out loud I might have said, “What is this? Where am I?”
But I could understand. They were glorious creatures. They truly were.
Still I couldn’t accept it, wouldn’t accept it. Surely she would wander back out of the woods with an apologetic smile. “I couldn’t,” she would say. “At the last minute I came to my senses.”
Silent green light extinguished that dream, bleeding across the sky like daybreak. The ships departing.
They made no sound when they rose. I watched the end of the ascent, the last moments before their disappearance into the clouds. I saw her disappear into the night sky.
I drove home a few days later, back to our apartment in Brooklyn. I threw away a lot of her things immediately. All the decorations in the apartment—posters, paintings, a mobile of butterflies—were hers, and I tossed them in the garbage by our curb. A girl who happened to be walking by, a chubby, lonely oboist who lived in our building, looked at the debris, the things that were obviously Sabile’s, and said, “Figures.”
Other people said similar things.
The most beautiful, but not the merely beautiful. The ethereal, the mercurial. Our visitors really had been selective. I wondered about couples where neither partner had been taken—if they were ashamed, a little, or jealous. On the face it seemed absurd, that any human ideas of desirability should overlap with those of an alien species, but there it was: they had taken our most-loved ones.
At first, in the weeks afterward, there was a certain honor in having had one’s mate taken—it meant you had had a beautiful, extraordinary companion, and your sense of loss was deeply valid.
But that didn’t last, and then ahead of you the decades stretched, and thinking about it made your throat constrict. The years. Nothing to do but set the alarm, go to the office, buy groceries, eat dinner, go on living… You find tears on your face and don’t know where they came from. You have your old life but certain hopes are absent and things feel truncated, as if every year has been cut in half.
Photo By: Boris Mitendorfer Photography