Darla Revere was born to live her whole life as part of a conversation, the outcome of which she would never know. She was raised to be certain of three things:
1. The leviathan will come for you. She will come suddenly and without warning.
2. You will feel great joy and pain at the moment she contacts you. Be prepared. You may only ask her one question.
3. If you change yourself too much—if you do not bear resemblance to your mother, your grandmother, the long line of women the leviathan has touched—she may not be able to find you when it is your time.
Darla, who wanted so badly to change herself, hoped the alien—the leviathan—would come for her soon. She hoped she could soon ask her question and have it over with, live the whole rest of her life without worrying about being touched by a monster from galaxies away.
“Have your question ready yet, tatertot?” Darla’s mom asked as she slid a cereal box across the kitchen counter to her daughter, as if she were inquiring about the status of a homework assignment. Darla was dressed in her school uniform, skirt and knee socks, clothes perpetually rumpled, even though the same uniform looked pristine on all the other girls.
There was a slight problem with Darla’s anxious hurrying, with her desire to speak to the leviathan and be done with it: she had no idea what she would ask.
“Maybe I’ll ask her favorite color,” Darla said.
Her mom made a face. “How do you know she even sees color?”
Darla poured cereal into a ceramic bowl, then sloshed milk over it. She shrugged.
“Honey, it’s about furthering a conversation. Why not ask a follow-up question to mine? Or Grandma Judd’s?”
The leviathan came once a generation, always to a Revere daughter. The alien was long-lived and slow, part of a species for whom conversations took what a human would consider to be millennia. The story started with Chip, enslaved in Georgia in the late eighteenth century, describing a harsh pain in her head and a rush of euphoria to her heart. The leviathan said something, though the opening of the conversation was immediately forgotten in the intensity of Chip’s feeling. “What’s happening to me?” Chip asked. That was the first question the Revere line asked the leviathan.
Chip had never felt such pain, nor such joy. The depth of feeling bowed her over in the corn fields, stalks blowing around her. She could only describe her experience as an act of God. She told the story to her daughter, Phoebe.
Phoebe was seventeen when she received the answer to her mother’s question. She felt the pain and joy go through her, felt her body curl and keel over. “You are being visited by a presence beyond yourself,” said the leviathan. “I am here to speak with you.”
Like her mother’s, Phoebe’s question was wasted: “Are you God?” The question was not answered in her lifetime.
But Phoebe could write, and she owned a Bible. Inside the front cover she wrote Chip’s question, the leviathan’s belated answer, and the question she herself had asked. When she spoke to her own daughter of the words she had exchanged with the leviathan, it was not with her mother’s reverence, but as a warning. “Child,” she said, “something strange may happen to you, and it may happen at any time. A being beyond your understanding may reach out and touch you. It will hurt, and it will be the best pain you have ever felt, and it will only last a moment. Ask a question with a meaningful answer. Do that as a gift to your own daughter.”
And so centuries of questions and answers were recorded in Phoebe’s Bible, handed down from mother to daughter. The documentation survived all the hardships the Revere women survived—fires and floods, plagues and revolutions, every foul thing the world could hurl at a long line of Black women.
“I have a question I could give you,” Darla’s mom said.
“Maybe,” Darla said.
“Do you want to know it?”
“Don’t tell me yet. I don’t want it to bias me.”
“I think it’s a pretty good question.”
Darla slurped her cereal milk. “It probably is. But I want to find my own.”
“You may not have much time—”
“I’m seventeen! She came for you at what, twenty? And Grandma Judd at twenty-five?”
“She came for Phoebe at your age, and Hanna at fifteen. It could be any day.”
“Odds are I won’t need a question today.”
“I just need you to be ready.”
“I’ll think about it after school,” said Darla. “Are you driving me today? Or should I walk?”
• • • •
After school, Darla ran laps of the red rubber track with her team and tried to let her mind wander to the matter of her question. She heard her mother’s words in her head—don’t change yourself so much that the leviathan can’t find you—but an alien was going to speak to her in her head, and that alien would be unimpeded by Darla making minor changes like getting a haircut or piercing her septum. Even if the leviathan wasn’t very smart, believed that everyone experienced time the way that she did, and was certain that she’d been speaking to the same woman every few decades since seventeen-seventy-whenever.
Maybe that would be her question—“Do you think you’ve been speaking to one person all this time?”—but that wouldn’t further the conversation or whatever.
Darla got a mean stitch in her side and breathed in, trying to pull air all the way down to her navel. She wondered if this was it. If the leviathan came for her right now, knocking her flat on her ass while she was halfway through her fourth mile of the day’s run, what would she ask?
She had an idea.
• • • •
“Has the leviathan ever spoken to a boy?” Darla asked her mom at dinner that night, though she knew the answer. She’d been through all the records, read the notes in Phoebe’s Bible over and over. She’d heard the stories from her mother and her Grandma Judd, while her grandmother still lived.
“No, it’s always been a woman.”
“Is that what you want to ask her? Because I couldn’t begin to tell you.”
“Well, why do you think?”
“She said something to Hanna”—Darla’s great-grandmother—“that made it seem like she sees us all as one. We are a continuum.”
A continuous and unbroken line of women, always women. Darla thought about all the women in her family, the conversation she found herself born into between a presumably female alien and generations of female humans. She thought about her private high school, gaggles of girls in perfectly pressed uniforms, button-ups and cross ties and plaid skirts. She thought about where she fit within that whole mess of gender.
“I want to shave my head,” she said, all at once. It was something she often thought about when she ran, sweat gathering in the roots of her hair. She thought of her mother washing her hair over the kitchen sink, running a plastic comb through the heavy snarl of curls. She thought of the unbroken line of women before her who had done the same. She thought of what it would mean to break that line.
“Don’t change yourself so much that she can’t find you,” her mother said.
“I’m not worried,” Darla said. “An alien is going to speak to me inside of my head. I don’t think the amount of hair on that head could stop it from happening.”
Darla’s mother cocked her head, chewed her food and chewed on her thoughts.
“Maybe she just contacts the oldest child of each generation,” Darla said, eager to fill the silence.
“Your Grandma Judd had an older brother—”
“But he died before the leviathan came. Maybe she would have contacted him.” Darla paused. She hated how well all of this lore had been drilled into her. She resented how the leviathan had become nearly all they talked about. “Maybe that’s what I’ll ask,” she said. “See? I have several possible questions.”
“You don’t know what it feels like,” said her mother. “It has to be one question, and you need to have the wording down pat. When she touches you—she’ll knock all the words right out of your head, even your own name and address. You have to know your question better than you know anything.”
“I will,” Darla said.
“We have never, not ever, lost an opportunity to speak with the leviathan. It’s just not what we do. Not since Phoebe figured out what was happening, at least. We have never wasted a question, not since then.”
And Darla saw then that her mom was afraid. Darla reached across the table and placed her hand over her mother’s. “I’ll get it. I promise.”
The older woman shook her head and drew her hand back. They ate for a few minutes, silent but for the sound of forks scraping against plates, before Darla said, “And Grandma Judd had short hair after I was born, and the leviathan came back for her. Maybe the leviathan liked that about her.”
Darla’s mother finished chewing. “If you really want to shave your head, I’ll take you to the barber on Saturday. If you’re really sure.”
• • • •
The next Monday, Darla went to school with her uniform as wrinkled as ever and her scalp prickling with stubble. During second period, she went to the bathroom and took the cubic zirconium studs out of her ears—they’d been pierced when she was only a baby. She looked at the set of her jaw, her earlobes with the dimple where they were pierced, the determined width of her nose. She tried to imagine herself as something other than a woman.
Without her mother’s voice, without the deep fear of change she had inherited, it was easy.
“If anyone should understand,” she said to herself in the mirror, “it would be an alien.” She knew the centuries of questions backwards and forwards. No one had ever asked if the leviathan was a woman—only assumed. No one had ever asked the leviathan if she only spoke to women. Why should Darla’s potential not-woman-ness preclude her from being a part of the conversation she was born into? Why should her inheritance pass over her for something as small as wanting to shave her head and wear pants instead of dresses?
She tugged at her plaid skirt, tucked her shirt in, buttoned her sweater, replaced her earrings. She tried to imagine herself as someone who wouldn’t spend her entire youth waiting for an alien to touch her mind and wreak havoc on her body. No luck.
• • • •
“I don’t feel like the other girls,” Darla said at dinner that night, after a long day of classes and a hard run and a hot shower. She was in her pajamas, perched on her seat at the kitchen table with her legs curled underneath her.
“You aren’t like other girls,” said her mother. “Other girls don’t have a leviathan. It’s a big secret to grow up keeping, and I’ve been there—I’ve seen the way it alienates you. I’ve lived through it.”
“I don’t think it’s that,” Darla said, though maybe it was? Maybe she found it so hard to fit in, to be herself, because she was living every moment waiting for something supernatural and strange to happen.
“Then, how do you know how the other girls feel?”
Darla pushed her food around on her plate. Maybe every one of her perfect-looking classmates, with their easy grace and brash jokes, felt just as lost as she did. She doubted it.
“What if the leviathan is dead?” Darla asked, though she hated how the leviathan was all they talked about.
“How do you know?”
“Do you think,” said Darla, “she would tell us if she were dying? Or do you think she’ll just disappear?”
“We’ll find out,” her mother said, though what she really meant was that one of Darla’s descendants would find out, and the two of them would never know the answer. There were so many questions with answers Darla and her mother would never know.
• • • •
Darla’s grandmother Judd got to ask two questions. Most women of the Revere family only got to ask the leviathan one question and didn’t live to hear the answer. Judd was an exception, a mean and mannish woman made of cast iron and hellfire. She asked her first question in her youth, then lived her whole life with the assumption that she would never touch the leviathan again. She married and bore a daughter, because she was bound by tradition to do so. When her baby was weaned, Judd cut her hair short, wore baggy coveralls and grease-stained undershirts, took a job in a factory and didn’t bother to correct colleagues who assumed she was a man.
Judd’s daughter—Darla’s mother—asked her question next. Judd got old and left her job at the factory. Darla was born. The leviathan came for Judd again.
And after all that, after the blessing of being contacted for another question, after the euphoria and pain in her whole body at the moment of contact—
It killed her.
Who was to say that the next exchange with the leviathan would be Darla’s? Her mother had a question of her own ready, for the real and rare possibility that she’d get to ask it.
Or maybe Darla would be passed over altogether. Maybe she’d finish growing up, have children—a daughter, of course, because she was obligated to have a daughter—and the leviathan would speak to her daughter instead, ignoring her completely.
She could only hope.
• • • •
Darla turned eighteen, and curls began to crowd her scalp again. She joined her school’s queer alliance, thought hard about pronouns but hesitated on the matter of asking her friends to try out calling her “they,” or maybe even “he.” Someday, she thought.
Her mother’s voice was always behind her, beside her. Don’t change yourself so much that the leviathan can’t find you. Shaving her head was a reasonable change—it was just hair, it would grow back—but when she stayed up late at night watching videos of trans YouTubers, she thought that changes like testosterone or top surgery would be too significant. Maybe the leviathan really wouldn’t be able to find her. Maybe she would ruin her family’s connection to the leviathan, mysterious and strange, galaxies away.
Why admit to yourself that you want something, when you absolutely cannot have it? So Darla denied the changes that she wanted—changes she felt would have made her whole. She talked about the leviathan with her mother nearly every night. She wore a plaid skirt to school every day. She left the studs in her ears. She thought constantly about her question. She ran. She waited.
The waiting felt impossible. She swore the waiting would kill her.
She kept waiting.
• • • •
She was in Mr. Braithwhite’s history class, passing notes with the cute girl two desks away, when lightning went through her, sharp and bright. A pain beyond words, bigger than speech or definition. A joy so encapsulating she had to fight to keep from laughing. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t hear. She was aware that she’d fallen to the floor, that her classmates were gathering around her, that someone had been sent to get the nurse. She curled in on herself. She felt as though she were bursting open, organs full of light and heat.
Breathe through it, she told herself, her thoughts in her mother’s voice. Remember the answer you’re given. Remember your question.
And in her own voice, she thought: Finally. Finally the waiting can be over. Finally I can be who I need myself to be.
And in her grandmother’s voice, she thought the woman’s last words to the leviathan, as they had been recorded in Phoebe’s Bible—Judd’s last act before she died: I never made a second question ready. It hurts. Please. Why have you come back for me?
And in the leviathan’s voice—for the leviathan’s voice felt as loud and close as her own thoughts—she thought: You are the most like me. You are the most like what I know. You have a sort of . . . I imagine the word you would use for it is male-ness? No, masculinity. You have a way of moving, a way of thinking, that is different from anyone else in your line. You tried to fit yourself into the life of a woman, but that was never your path.
And Darla thought: Fuck. That obliterates the question I was planning to ask. Fuck. What am I going to ask the leviathan? Fuck. Think fast, think fast, think fast.
The pain overwhelmed her senses and she bit her tongue to keep from making a sound. She thought of the illicit things she wanted, the ways she wanted to change herself. A new name, new pronouns, a new body. She thought of the leviathan coming back for Judd, a woman who was somehow meant to be a man. She thought of becoming a man. She thought of the leviathan coming back for her.
The leviathan was going to come back for her, for her masculinity, for her male-ness. Time was slow for the alien, but she/he/it would hurry back for Darla. She knew that for sure.
The stakes were suddenly lower. It wasn’t like she had one chance to ask the most meaningful and perfect thing. She would feel this pain again, this joy again, and maybe it would kill her like it killed Grandma Judd or maybe it wouldn’t.
She formed her mouth into the shape of her question.