They come for me when one of mine is to be dealt the cups.
Where do they find me? I am in the gap between cresting waves. I am in the curl of a leaf. I drift where hearing muffles to a whine, soaked in darkness, riding the clogged shadows behind the beam of a streetlamp.
—Which one? I ask.
—Luccas Santo, they say. I have never heard the name. Until I do.
And then I know him instantly.
We are little but our cups.
Everything else about us is grey and limpid. We are not alive, nor dead; outside of space and unatomic, only bobbing in the surf of time and place as though on an absent-minded whim.
But our cups seem so vivid, so real. So tactile that they anchor us.
We each carry three. Each, no bigger than a thimble, is puissant as a collapsing star. They appear as if painted, in purples, reds, yellows. The delicate filigreed enamel coat is remarkable, decorated by no sentient hand, and a true solid: there are no gaps in its make up, to any magnification. For this reason, it would be impossible for our cups to exist as a human would mean it, in their physics. Just one cup of my triad would be larger in mass than the planet upon which Luccas Santo lives, and breathes.
Yes, he breathes.
—It is almost the moment to deal him his cups, says Xe.
In our indistinct continuum, we carry the names of our cup triads. It simplifies the nagging needs of sentience.
—Go to him now, Au, urges Rh.
I hoist my cups in their velvet-lined case, a fitting avatar of safekeeping. I do not have a body but I feel their weight everywhere, sinking into the core of me.
Rh and Xe are a buzzing, a greyness, full to brimming with anticipation for my trick.
I go to Luccas Santo.
To my kind, human existence is deafening, rowdy beyond tolerance. But the place I am called to for Luccas Santo makes all things I have experienced of humans seem placid, even dignified.
It is a grand hall in the manner of humans, who love to build containers around the fragile threads of their lives. Frescoed with angels and devils, the vaulting roof vibrates duskily beneath the roar of a maddened crowd.
Folding chairs are scattered, most open and unoccupied, across a sticky floor. Humans hop before their chairs in a great agitation, crushing cans in their fists, pumping arms into the air.
In the middle of it all is Luccas Santo. His attire blares louder than the crowd, wounding my thoughts. A pair of knee-length shorts, banded with stripes of glittering green and frilled along the seams, swallows his small hips. Slender boots are cinched tight at his shins; boxing gloves bob guardedly under his jaw.
When Luccas Santo hunches over to protect his kidneys from punches, an angel, etched in ink, spreads her wings over his shoulder blades and peers out with an unsettling, warped face. His brown skin is shiny with sweat.
I approach the ring. No human sees me. Not one of them feels the unfathomable gravity of the near-singularities I carry into their midst.
We think our cups were the first thing.
The universe was once an elemental batter, poured out of perfect enameled thimbles. This new universe clung jealously to itself, chemicals clutching like threatened lovers.
The periodic table has ninety native elements. At the start, each cup—truer than matter, deeper than mattering—held a single, pure one.
My name is Au for the heaviest atoms my cups poured into the newly minted world. My triad is three elements: gold, my namesake; and zirconium, sulfur.
We think the cups came first. We think this together, I, and Rh, and Xe, and our two-dozen-and-two grey and limpid siblings. Some thoughts are impossible to think apart. Our cups remember the togetherness of the beginning.
Their new purpose seems small by comparison: to play a trick of fate, to decide the unlucky deaths of humans.
But I do not think it a small purpose. Just as our cups brewed the universe, they deal the end of lives. And what else is death, if not the pitch black of nothing, the destruction of all things, both witnessed and indiscernible?
Luccas Santo’s fans call him Lightning Rod.
Lightning Rod Santo is twenty-four. He is nervous about his baby daughter growing up poor, and he loves watching the sunrise color the world while he is out every morning, putting in miles.
I watch him through the ropes while I arrange the cups face down along the edge of the boxing ring. The judges tap pencils against knuckles and peer in through the ropes across the span where Luccas Santo and his opponent try to unhinge each other’s necks. The inadequate canvas upon which I array my precious triad is stained with blood and sweat and mucus.
The moment to deal the cups thrums towards fullness.
In the ring, the opponent is throwing looping hooks to the sides of Luccas Santo’s head. The entire hall reeks of human hormones. I watch the fight, and watch the cups. Each of the three wears a shining half-moon where ceiling lights might have caught the beautiful enamel. The cups strut; pretend to be.
Then it happens. Luccas is struck with a shattering right hand, straight as an arrow. The sound of it meeting his skull is horrific, to me a thousand avalanches, a cacophony. The crowd intakes breath as one organism as Luccas Santo falls backwards to the canvas, body arched like a feather.
His opponent retreats to a corner. The referee bends at the waist over the broken boxer. A count starts.
It is a simple trick. I must pick a cup, any cup.
When I placed them bowl-down on the canvas ring, their recesses held utter vacuum, a nothingness over which not even the rules of physics hold sway. But the cups have ways to speak. Now, when I lift one, I am searching for a verdict on Luccas Santo’s life.
The ten count is over, but Luccas Santo remains sprawled in the middle of the canvas, and he is not getting up. Something is wrong with him, the humans in the audience say. Something has gone very wrong.
Our existence has but a few rules. All of them are simple. Humans are complicated, ever tidal, flung about at the mercy of intersecting forces they cannot discern.
The cups are one of these forces. When we deal the cups, two outcomes are possible. We lift a cup to find nothing but the glint of the robin egg blue interior, twinkling like happiness on the surface of an eye. Or we lift a cup, and below it rests a tiny ball.
The rules of the discovered ball are also simple.
It is the essence of the element its cup once poured into the universe. The soul of a chemical. There is only one ball to be found amongst each triad every time the cups are dealt. My kind cannot see past the impermeable enamel. We never know which outcome awaits.
The last rule is simplest of all: finding a ball under a cup means that the human will die.
I begin to lift ziriconium, arbitrary, arbitrator, my choice for Luccas Santo. It takes an eternity to make the lifting motion, though he would not know it; he struggles to roll onto his left shoulder, to breathe all the toxicity in his skull out through his nostrils, to focus his eyes. I am watching the tattooed angel on the spasming muscles of his back as intently as I am the widening space below an enameled edge.
The space beneath is nothing: it is just space.
Luccas Santo will not die.
Humans hoist him onto a stretcher. I watch them strap his lightning-rod hips in, glittering shorts and tassels billowing around the stretcher belt, as I pack my triad into the velvet-lined case.
—He lives, says Rh.
—He lives, agrees Xe.
It matters little to them, but they know, just as I knew Luccas Santo in the instant I heard his name. Things are simpler for us: there are fewer complications to understanding, no barriers of bone and blood to contend with.
—He was spared calamity, I say.
—Lucky stars, they both say.
It is something we believe: that if a human life survives being dealt its cups, it is because there are stars to speak for it, calling through a preternatural bond to the cups that bore them into the world.
For a while, I am left uncalled, my cups dormant in their enclosure of velvet.
There are enough of my kind, and deaths of misadventure are rarer than any human would believe. Most deaths announce themselves in ragged whispers and thin ringing from a long way away. Those deaths are confident; they do not need our triads, our tricks.
While no one comes for me, I wander again, choosing space, choosing time.
Where do I go?
I go to Luccas Santo.
His life is dim inside of him. His is a peaceful enclave. Humans have put him into a white bed, in a white room. The only rushes of passion to assault my senses are his stubborn intakes of breath. When doctors train light on his eyes, the irises constrict, instinctive like sea snails, above the blue smudges of his bruised orbitals.
Luccas Santo is getting healthier, though he does not know it.
I have never before watched a human’s unfolding life—one who has survived the cups. There is no purpose to it. I can be at everytime at once. I could jump to Luccas Santo’s funeral in an instant, to the moment his last bone fragment dissolves into earth in the next.
But I do not. I let myself attend to his white room. I try to dampen the stink of chlorine, the sterile reek of bandages rising from his gauzy headband, the powdery smell of the plaster cast fixing the small broken bones of his hand. I forcibly ignore the jagged brightness of every surface.
It is Luccas Santo I watch, though I do not know why.
There are twenty-nine of us. To each of us, three cups.
Yet there were ninety atomic elements at the birth of the universe, not eighty-seven.
The remaining three cups, to complete the ninety, are of course hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. Great quantities of their liquor were churned into the pre-universe, and no other elements so bountifully fill the coffers of the world.
It was left to an uncommon being to deal those cups. That being is The Controller, the one called O.
O completes the trick.
Luccas Santo remembers how to walk shortly after. When his baby comes to visit him in hospital, he picks the toddler up and nips at her chubby fingers, lips curled over his teeth. The child screeches with glee.
Atrophied muscles ache from the strain of her small weight. Luccas Santo is downtrodden, recalling an endless set of explosive sit-ups, a heavy medicine ball braced against his chest, his coach shouting gruff encouragement. Before the damage he took in that fight, he could have gone on forever.
In the next instant I watch, a week later, as Lightning Rod attempts his first jog. His concussion was bad, but he was lucky (lucky stars, said Xe and Rh). The swelling has gone down. His brain is fragile, but it is mending.
For a lark, I disperse in the brisk atmosphere of six in the morning, above Luccas Santo’s painstaking progress. I pretend molecules of carbon and oxygen have a reason to burrow through my coalescence and out the other end. Me, whose body is nothing, whose avatar is a set of impossibly beautiful cups denser than planets. It is a strange flight of fancy.
The jog is over quickly. Luccas Santo inhales sharp swords of air. His thighs tremble. He looks up at the clouds, knuckles his shaved head, and sinks to his knees. The whites of his eyes dart across the horizon. He drops his head to the ground and weeps.
I know this human, for he was my human; I was sent to deal him his cups. His awareness spreads to me like the puddle of sweat and tears dropping off the bridge of his thrice-broken nose.
Human thoughts are peculiar, too colorful, too full of yearning. He wishes for strength. He remembers being a predator. Now, nothing feels predatory about his body. It is a massive hurt.
I return to my kind.
—Where were you, Au? What did you attend? asks Ti.
We can never be alone. Only, ignored.
—I visited my human, I say.
—It is strange, says Rh.
—It is unsavory, agrees Xe.
—It is not important, I say.
Their attention pins me, circles me for a time. Then their interest is tugged away, slowly, like a weed in the waves.
I reel in more of Luccas Santo’s lifetime. Weeks, greedily. Months.
Inside his boxing gym, he is punching a leather heavy bag. His gloves land in the same spot time and again. The bag is worn and concave at this invisible bullseye, slit open to reveal a sturdy criss-cross of stitching.
Sunlight slants in, golden and thick. Luccas Santo is different now, much stronger. He seems far from the moment of the cups. The motion of his arms is a geometric battery, swift and precise. Each new barrage makes his body dance so that the force of his weight travels into his fists. An elegant system of muscles pops against skin, the arrangements of lines and curves in his arms shifting with every angle of attack.
I shift my locus of attention until I am looking out at Luccas Santo from where the boxing bag rocks on an unoiled chain. For a time his mind is calmly flowing, and all I feel of him is the wordless way he is becoming better at his tricks, the tricks of his fists.
Leather snaps against leather. Unmuffled by sensory organs, it is the sound of boulders falling into a rock basin from a great height.
Then something changes, and I am in the focus of someone’s thoughts. For a moment, I think it is Luccas Santo who has seen me, and I am terrified.
It is not Luccas Santo.
—Au? Do you know who I am?
—Yes, I say to O, though it is the first time I have attended to them. They have never attended to me before, and we are unable to initiate contact with The Controller. Now, carefully, I allow myself to fully absorb their new presence. It feels like a dangerous indiscretion.
O and I drift out of space, but not too far. Luccas Santo’s punches filter towards us, as if reflected through a thousand shards of mirror blowing in a gale.
—He survived the judgment of the cups, but you see he is not put off, says O.
Neither of us communicates for a time. I am trying to decide the meaning of O’s interest in me. In my human.
—Humans are not built for clear thought, I say.
—What about our kind? We are simple, pure subjectivities. Unswerving, ever loyal to our cups. Certainly clear of thought, says O. —But the others tell me that you have not been perfectly clear, Au.
O spotlights me, bright and hard as I have ever felt. I think of Luccas Santo under a wave of jabs and hooks in the center of the ring, before the right hand that fells him and nearly ends his life.
—Why are you following the human?
—I am not, I reply. Then, surprising myself: —He is my human.
It is indeed strange, maybe unsavory. I have dealt cups for a baby accidentally dropped onto the tracks of an onrushing train (that time I found the ball). Or before that, Jacob Trent, the young boy who stopped to lick a sloppy ice-cream cone beneath a loose roof shingle. It sailed down and struck the most delicate part of his skull, but when I chose his cup, death did not lurk beneath.
But I have never felt a human to matter to me the way Luccas Santo does. And I do not know why.
O’s presence becomes maternal, a warm grey-gold throbbing that garters my thoughts.
—I will tell you how his story ends, says O.
—You must hear it, Au.
How could I preserve my pinholed vision of Luccas Santo’s unfolding life? We are not capable of fleeing to empty rooms, slamming doors behind us. Even now, O’s sentience leaks into mine, and mine into theirs. So I let O say what I already half-know.
—Luccas Santo will take another fight. He will lose. It will not end well.
O’s warmth intensifies, enfolds my silence.
—It is not our part to track these souls. They are different from us, alien and small. We are made to serve the cups, Au. The cups that poured the universe.
—We are little but our cups, I agree, though the thought feels sharp and needlelike.
Then O is gone.
I will the hours along faster than their wont. The percussion of punches speeds to an impossible ratatat then fades. Luccas Santo locks up the gym and heads home.
I return to the others, thinking. O and I both know that Luccas Santo will fight again, and for the last time.
But I am also considering that I can move time and bend space. That I can heft the weight of planets and more.
What stops me from shaping an impressionable human life?
Lightning Rod is not something Luccas Santo is, but something he becomes. It is a process of physical hardening and fool-hardening in equal doses.
I dip into days of his life, and find that everything about Luccas Santo is regimented.
He spends thirty minutes with his daughter once light has cracked the sky. She nestles into his armpit and watches cartoons on a laptop, its audio muted. His free hand steadies a mug of coffee upon the arm of the futon couch. It is instant coffee. Luccas Santo hates the way it tastes, hates the residue of granules only half dissolved when he forgets to stir. He always forgets to stir.
One day, he thinks, he will afford real coffee, brewed by a house chef.
His mother arrives to take the little girl to nursery school. Busily changing into his tracksuit, Lightning Rod Santo shouts his thanks. Lately, he doubles up layers. He is trying to bring his weight down.
This is one of the last steps in preparing for a fight.
The jog is a stark contrast to the first I observed. Luccas Santo scales a hill at a sprint, four times, then circles back for a bonus lap. He runs until he sweats through every layer of his clothing.
Later, at the gym, six sparring rounds with his training partner. They wear padded headguards and groin protectors, but neither pulls his punches.
Luccas Santo relishes it all, even the fluke uppercut that bloodies his nose.
I sense something dogging him, a building obsession.
In the shower he dreams of twinkling championship belts, arms raised in victory. At seven o’clock he fries cutlets for his daughter’s dinner, cubes the meat and dunks the pieces into mashed potatoes. While he feeds her, he is replaying key combinations of punches. Muscles twitch in his arms and sides beneath his awareness.
Every day I try something new. A distraction, some suggestion. Any wisdom Luccas Santo might be willing to receive.
Except for our role in dealing the cups, there is no precedent for my kind communicating with humans. I do not think any one of us has ever really tried.
I focus the full heat of my attention on the space between his eyes. I speak curses above the gloves, that they might crumble to ashes. I even insinuate myself into the morning cartoons, to play out a message of warning. Nothing punctures the membrane separating me from Luccas Santo’s world. None of my attempts break his determination.
He only becomes surer as days pass: he will fight, and he will win.
The universe allows itself to be egged on, unrolled at a strenuous pace. And if we wish it moments will stretch out before us, long and thin and languorous. But outside of our meddling, time moves ever onwards and does not meander.
Time has its nature, as we have ours.
That is why the scraps I have of Luccas Santo’s unfolding life, though I ration them well, eventually lead me to an agitated banquet room, another roped ring, a retelling of a tale I know.
I unwind my attention until the spectacle blurs around me. Luccas Santo and his opponent enter the ring and begin to circle each other, still tentative, testing. O told me this fight would end badly, but I do not know if I will be called to deal Luccas Santo’s cups—whether the judgment of the cups will be necessary this time.
Our cups decide uncharted deaths, perfect storms of space and time, action and reaction. This is something different. Folly, wild confidence. Heroism.
The round is over, tame as it began. At the start of the second round, Lightning Rod sashays in with an aggressive jab, then a scooping body hook. They connect, but do no damage; his opponent shuffles to one side. Luccas Santo closes in again and readies to throw a well-timed right hand over the lowered left glove of the other man.
He never makes it. A savage hook cuffs Luccas Santo’s ear and jaw, sends shockwaves through his lips and cheeks. A mist of sweat explodes into the air.
Suddenly, my attention is no longer glazed and afloat—it is taut, light straining through crystallized carbon. I am thinking Luccas Santo’s thoughts, in his own private, inner words, and his thoughts are making no sense. He wonders how he has injured his jaw. He thinks: I’ve fallen from a ladder. He thinks: I’ve bounced off the windshield of a car.
Then I recall that I am more than human, empowered by an impossible trick, my impossible triad. If Luccas Santo’s mind is so tangled in mine, it is no big leap to . . .
Another impossible thing happens. I am in a warm, wobbly cocoon, petrified of losing narrow footing on a suctioning ground. Sounds are wispy and shrill. And I am in a radiant miasma of pain.
—Come on, Luccas Santo, I say. —Turn around and walk home to your daughter.
My new lips say these things around a puffed-up lump, a tangy slick where my new tongue throbs. An exploratory jab lands between my shield of red gloves.
This is when I realize I want Luccas Santo to live, I who have never wanted anything before. I have chosen him—not the choice of a cup, a sleight of hand—but of a life. A true story. Wrapped in Luccas Santo’s body I am the intersection of a thousand causes and cares, big and heady and fragile and breakable. My excited heart pounds out punches against my lungs.
—We are going home, I say.
The body of Luccas Santo finally understands. It pitches and begins to turn around. I feel the shuffle of my knees through satin.
But the lips do not move with my next encouraging words. And now the eyes, locked fast on the door of the banquet hall, degrade. Even the valiant knees go no further. If I let myself see my entire vista, Au’s entire world, the front and back of time, I know it with a piercing, hollowing sadness: the end of this fight has already come and gone.
Blood is razing a path through Luccas Santo’s brain.
—Where am I? I say.
—A meaningless question for you and I, says O. —But you’ve been inside the taint of a body, now, and I am not surprised that it has muddled you.
O is right. I reorient myself. I am everywhere. And yet.
—These are my cups, says O. —Hydrogen, helium, oxygen.
—They are beautiful.
They are. An unspeakable triad, The Controller’s triad. Enamel that projects not color and pattern but vital warmth, as of blood coursing through branching veins. I cannot attend to anything else, for The Controller’s cups are upended in a row before me, their velvet case set to one side.
—I do not understand. Do you deal these cups for me now?
After the insulation of flesh, it is grotesque that I sense the answer immediately.
It is not something my kind has ever known, to be dealt our own cups, to be shown some analogue of death. But of course this would be the way: The Controller, the regulator of all things. Including the twenty-nine of us.
Still I strive for the logic, the elemental truths.
—But I am not threatened by accidental death. And our kind cannot die.
—Everything that begins can end, Au. If this is true of the universe, then it is as true of any of us.
For the second time, I feel O enfold me with a blazing comfort, a succor.
—You burrowed a sentience tunnel and planted yourself in the human. You altered his path. The perversion made the universe quake, O says. —This is the only reckoning worthy of what you did.
—This trick is unlike ours, I press. Then: —How many balls wait to be found beneath these cups?
—It is a mercy that we do not know.
—Can you tell me what happened to Luccas Santo? I ask.
O gives no answer but to attend to the central cup of the triad, the one called helium. They begin to raise it, sure and steady as the rising of a planet in the sky.
I am not rapt, not frightened. I am not really present. My attention has raced elsewhere.
I see my glassy-eyed boxer in a corner of the ring, his head lolling in a brace.
At the side of the ring, Rh has laid out a triad of three cups, and is lifting the middle one, slowly, with infinite care.