BY NOA COVO
1. A light that sometimes appears at night over marshy ground, and is often attributable to the combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter.
2. A deceptive goal or hope.
When the grad student unlocks the lab for the day, she forgets to turn on the flashlight she brought with her. In the dark, among the flicker of monitors, the will o’ wisps glow in their jam jars. She’s told herself, time and time again, when she woke up, on the bus here, on her way into the building, not to let them catch her unawares, but here she is. The wisps pulse gently, their light rich and blue. Come to us, they seem to say. She is halfway to them, arms outstretched, when she remembers. The lights. She turns around and flicks all the switches, until the lab is drowning in fluorescent light. When she stops blinking, the wisps are barely visible. The grad student turns on the AC, checks the other samples, and logs into the computer.
When she’s the only one around, the wisps keen softly, desperately, just loud enough so she can hear them over the hum of the fridge. Oddly enough, she doesn’t mind. The song is far better than their glow, which confuses her, and never fails to bring her back to being a little girl looking for her mother between rows of the supermarket. The grad student makes herself a cup of coffee in a chipped mug someone — possibly her — left in the kitchenette sink and gets to work.
The Polish exchange student stumbles in halfway through her second cup of coffee. He’s blond and blue-eyed and miserable.
“Good morning,” he says gloomily. Despite the warm spring weather, he’s wearing a woolen sweater. He turns on the electric kettle in the kitchenette again. The Polish exchange student hates American coffee. It makes him nauseous. But there’s a sound in his dormitory, a sort of chirping that makes it impossible to sleep. His roommate says it’s a cricket. The Polish exchange student refers to it as a diabełek, little devil. He sips the coffee, bitter and grainy, from a paper cup. He stares hard at the wisps, utters his first curse of the morning and settles down in front of his computer.
The lab supervisor makes a point to come in before eight thirty. She brings green tea in a thermos and keeps her eyes off the samples. They’re so fucking spooky. Jesus. She greets the others and locks herself in her tiny cubicle of an office, poring over checks and spreadsheets, real things, not like those fucking fairy tales next door.
The doctor of cryptozoology comes in after dropping off his kids. He doesn’t drink coffee, or tea, no time. He sits in his chair and opens the computer. Emails wink across the screen. He closes his eyes and allows them, just for a moment, to become bright light seared into his corneas. Then he begins to reply.
The grad student misses the gathering days. It was stressful, the rain coming down in torrents, the trees whispering, the mud sucking on their boots. The three of them – she, the lab supervisor, and the doctor of cryptozoology – had wandered for hours, clutching a bag of sterilized jam jars. All that time, she’d been sure she’d been dragged into some elaborate prank, that they wanted to see if she was dumb enough to believe that will o’ wisps were real things, not just reactive bog emissions. But the moment she’d seen them emerging from the marshy ground, she’d fallen in love. They all had. All three of them had been waiting to find something, something real, that they’d been told they wouldn’t, and there they were, surrounded by blue light. They sat in wait, each with a jam jar, and caught them like the grad student used to catch fireflies. The grad student had seen her superiors’ faces, glowing by the light of the fantastic. They’d returned to the doctor of cryptozoology’s banged up Ford, squeezed between child boosters and sippy cups, and started the long drive back to the lab. They’d stacked their samples on the shelves, labelled them one by one, logged them into the computer and called it a night. The grad student remembers how they’d stood there by the door with the lights off, watching them in awe.
That’s when the trouble began. The wisps refused to be transferred to petri dish or vial. There was nowhere else to put them. The wisps pulsed blue like a migraine, and no matter how much they poked and prodded they remained balls of gas of unknown chemical makeup that the grad student hadn’t been able to make heads nor tails of for two months. They were supposed to release a paper that would go far, that would get them published in places where no cryptozoologist had dared dream of. But for now, all the little lights had done was be the source of all her dissertation-related problems.
Once, the grad student had been labeled promising. She’d written papers in biochemistry. She’d known several people with lab vacancies had their eyes on her. Her academic advisor, a stern woman with a mole on her left cheek, had smiled at her when she’d had to choose her dissertation topic. So many people would love to have you, she’d said. Start sending emails. It had been a whim to decide on cryptozoology. Her boyfriend had been asleep in the other room, and she’d been thinking about doing careful biochemistry for the rest of her life, analyzing proteins in cow dung or something, and the thought had made her want to weep. As a little girl, she’d wanted to study unicorns. She clicked send on the email before she could rethink.
In his office, the doctor of cryptozoology thinks about money. It’s almost grant season. Grant season and almost grant season have replaced more traditional forms of time measurement. He has a proposal that needs writing, if they can get some data that’ll back it up. They’ve got photos, logs, recordings, but without some tangible compounds or behavioral study, there’s nothing to propose. He can’t prove that those things in jam jars, winking seductively, are will o’ wisps. The analysis is inconclusive, incapable of disproving they’re built of methane and other marsh gases, or proving it, for that matter. He can’t prove anything about them, except that they’re taking up space in his lab. He’s considered quitting cryptozoology more than once, becoming an agroecologist or a phytopathologist, or anything that brings in grant money. Maybe then the dean wouldn’t treat him like dirt. Those thoughts always fall to bits when he picks up his kids from school. What sort of dad would he be if he gave up? He keeps telling them to follow their dreams. His wife would laugh at him if he brought it up. She’s a physician and pretends to have no opinions about cryptozoology at faculty get-togethers, but he knows she’s only being kind.
On the shelves, the wisps blink. They stretch against the glass, and the room chills. In her office, the lab supervisor shivers. Damn it. She shouldn’t have taken up this position. It was nice at first, but working at the same place she’d been told she’d never be held on as a researcher, because this institution was, as the dean put it, awfully conservative, made her stomach churn. She’d been a good student, and would’ve made a good researcher, too, but no one was hiring, and her good old alma mater made it perfectly clear that women who couldn’t be bothered to hide that they slept with other women were limited to non-faculty roles only. The lab supervisor stares at the figures in front of her. Maybe she should’ve left academia behind, become a bartender or something. The pay’s better. So are the hours, and there aren’t creepy ghosts lining the walls. Maybe, if she left, she and her wife wouldn’t have to save every penny. Maybe they’d buy an apartment. But she’s been here all her life. The lab supervisor rubs her hands together to stay warm.
The grad student tries to convince the Polish exchange student to come eat lunch with her.
“I’m not hungry.” He says. He has a jam jar in one hand and a straw in the other, trying to transfer the wisps into a container to no avail. In frustration, he purses his lips over the straw and sucks. The wisp doesn’t budge. The grad student repeats her question.
“Not now,” he snaps. “Can’t you see I’m working?”
When she leaves, Tupperware in hand, he wonders if he should’ve gone with her. They’ve shared this space for weeks. Then he remembers he didn’t pack a lunch that morning. His wrists itch under his woolen sweater.
The Polish exchange student wants to go home. He’s had enough of America. His mother’s sick, maybe dying. He spoke with her on the phone last night, and she couldn’t stop coughing. She’d never forgive him for leaving early, but maybe she’d get better if her only son come home. He abandons the jam jar and goes out for a cigarette.
The grad student finishes her lunch still hungry. Her Tupperware, packed last night as she sobbed quietly in her kitchen, was half empty. She’d intended to fill it this morning. She has some cash on her, enough to buy some chips or a prepackaged sandwich at the cafeteria, but no matter how hard she looks she can’t find her way. The halls of this campus all look the same, she thinks, even though she’s been here for four years. She should know every inch of it. In the end she gives up and retreats to the lab. She sees the Polish kid smoking a cigarette, staring moodily into the middle distance. She passes him by without saying anything.
The lab supervisor is looking for something in the drawers. There are so many. They’re supposed to be convenient, but they’re not. The grad student, returned from lunch, asks if she needs help. The lab supervisor shakes her head. She’d been so sure of herself, back in the beginning, the grad student thinks. A tall woman with a stare that assured you she didn’t mean to hide.
“I’m not looking for anything.” the supervisor mutters. “Just to get away from those pieces of shit.” She points at the wisps glowing innocently on the shelves. Stupid, idiotic — she kicks at the shelf and it rattles, sending the wisps into a frenzy. The supervisor storms off, still shivering. The Polish exchange student comes back, muttering something about American cigarettes. He collapses back into his seat. He can’t make heads nor tails of what’s in front of him. He’ll leave early today, claim he has a quiz to study for. Americans take days off for their football. He can take off an afternoon to walk the long way to the dorms.
The doctor of cryptozoology closes his inbox. Empty. Another day gone by. Time to pick up the kids. He used to wish he had more time in the office, but now he’s just glad to get out of here. He fishes for his keys and packs up. On his way out, he waves goodbye to the lab supervisor, the students.
The Polish exchange student leaves next without saying anything. Some peace and quiet has never been so appealing. Maybe he’ll buy a ticket home today, get out of here. He could be in Warsaw this time tomorrow, if he wanted. The heat hits him as he leaves the building.
The lab supervisor’s wife calls and asks if she’d like to be picked up early in their beat up Subaru instead of taking a bus.
“Fuck yes,” the supervisor says. “I’ll wait for you outside.” She saves her documents and shuffles her papers. She wishes the grad student a good day.
The wisps start keening the moment they leave. The grad student leans back in her chair. There’s a position open in another lab, just across the hall, in fact. Someone forwarded the notice to her, pretending she’s still looking for something to do her dissertation on. Something real. She stares hard at the wisps. They sing back. Her mother, who once lost her in a supermarket, used to be so proud of her. She hasn’t explained her new dissertation yet. There isn’t much to explain. When it’s time to leave, the grad student turns off all the computers. She makes sure to close the lights with her eyes turned out towards the bright hallway. She walks to her bus, head bowed.
In the darkness of the lab, the wisps glow, and sing. The shelf groans, although the weight of them is measured in mere milligrams.
The doctor of cryptozoology drives and drives. He finds himself in a back street he isn’t familiar with. Pick-up is in ten minutes. He tries to find a street sign.
The Polish exchange student can’t seem to find his dorm. The buildings are all named after flowers. He can’t remember the name of his flower in English, although he used to know it. The halls are full of rooms without numbers.
The lab supervisor and her wife are trying to understand each other’s words. It’s been a long day. Their sentences twist into an argument.
The grad student takes the bus. The announcement system is broken, as is the display screen above the driver’s head. She’s not sure if it’s the right bus. She’s not sure if she’s headed in the right direction at all.
The shelf buckles. The jam jars twinkle to the floor and shatter. The wisps crawl out, squeeze out, ooze out of the floor and windows and ceiling. For a moment the lab is illuminated in light.
The doctor of cryptozoology is standing in front of his kids’ school. He doesn’t know what road he took, but a blue light blinks in the corner of his eye. The Polish exchange student collapses on his bed. The diabełek chirps. Something flits by his window, between the clouds. It looks like a plane. The lab supervisor falls silent as she sees something disappear under their car. For a second she thinks it’s one of those weird fucking lights, but then it’s gone. She takes her wife’s hand. The bus’s display screen springs to life, flickering with blue. The grad student sighs with relief. It’s okay, she thinks. They’re going home.