Storyglossia Issue 17, December 2006.

Earthquake Season

by Jennifer Trudeau


Figuring out that earthquakes were predictable was an accident. I didn't see it; my asinine twin did.

I love bad weather and lightning strikes and tornadoes and tremendous storms and acts of God. Last year we went to Yosemite in the spring, and the valley flooded. The river overran its banks. It was late March, early April. The evacuation was orderly; there were no signs of panic. I watched, hopeful, for total breakdown and bottleneck. Not that I wished for anyone to be hurt, I didn't wish for casualties. What did I wish for?

When my idiot sister—who, it must be revealed, cries when the ground moves—when my idiot sister made her infernal interpretation, I was sitting at the kitchen table in the house we share.

"It looks like a tarot layout." She was so close I jumped. She had green paste on her face; it's now in my hair.

"Damn it."

"Sprawling, whoa, look, staggered, look, see it?"

I wiped my hair with a towel, ignoring her. She continued out the back door. I was reviewing charts of events 7.9 and greater on the Pacific Rim, the "ring of fire" over a twenty-six year period when she came through, walking on her heels.

"Holy smokes, it's a big week!" Her finger moved over the calendar backwards as she passed. "DUDE, what is that?" Unintentionally I looked, and promptly saw it: a sequence of seasons, not quite two years long, separating each of the earthquakes on the calendar.

When someone explains an elegant, complicated idea to you—something like negative pressure in your thoracic cavity, or tidal drag—the mind responds with a burst, like little flowers of comprehension unfolding layer by layer.

Over the following days resentment also flowered in me. It caked in me, in fact, like a cancerous plaque. I looked hard for discontinuity, but the largest earthquakes around the Pacific Rim occurred every seventh season.

Magnitude 7.9 or greater earthquakes aren't unusual. We'll have one a year on average, somewhere. The seasons are marked on the calendar, labeled after the equinoxes and solstices and these were the labels she saw, the "big week." At the end of every seventh season the magnitude of a great quake is written. Date, time, GPS coordinates. Every last one of them, seven seasons apart.

I hate her. How could recurrence have gone undetected? What other system's cycles might this one influence? How many more are embedded? They must be embedded with each other if this is a true regularity, because we do have such large earthquakes annually; there must be concurrent cycles, perhaps one for each of the fault systems among our earth's thirteen current known tectonic plates.

I say nothing to her about what she has seen and walk around in a fugue, amazed and resentful. She moves into pressing matters: getting her nails airbrushed, waxing herself. She forgot the idea as soon as it came out of her mouth.

My dad was a bay fisherman, my mom a housewife. Daphne was an effortless Homecoming Queen and It girl. Identical twins are supposed to be supernatural beings, close and psychic and attached to each other but instead I've always been nerdish, nose in a book, ashamed of Daphne. At age ten I was "caught" reading Catcher in the Rye; Dad took it away from me, saying ""Ain't that a bit much for the likes of you?"

It didn't take me long at Stanford to recognize my humble origins for what they were. I knew, going in, that I was raising the bar in the family. What I couldn't have foreseen was the alternate universe: a world which takes its own superior status for granted, a world of privilege where university affiliation opens doors to other departments, to professional schools, to conversations with famous faculty, including access to the current Secretary of State. Or prestigious institutions in foreign countries. It took me a couple of years to recognize that I was as arrogant as Daphne was clueless. So what? I'd been cheated. Where was my intellectual other half, my confidant? How could I be stuck with this jackass? I couldn't hide my contempt. At Stanford I finally felt sanctified, set apart like royalty. My achievements, barely acknowledged at home, were at last admired, lauded, even amply funded.

I felt compensated for the great indignity of my family.

"Reputable" geologists think earthquake prediction is hooey. I know how researchers in this field think and work because I surrounded myself with them for two advanced degrees from Berkeley after Stanford. By graduation I was hotly eager to distance myself from answerability and prestige. Academia had left me determined to escape its cronyism.

The publication of my dissertation on magma tremors brought me enough attention to garner a grant to continue my research and this grant exposed my work to reviewer Dr. Yoshimura, a visiting professor from Fuji City who shared my interests in volcanology and seismology. He generously offered me the resources of his lab, a private institution in Japan.

My work in Fuji City, on the northwest base of Mt. Fuji, was rewarding. I was there eight months and would have stayed longer, but the grant called for data from another part of the ring of fire: Hawaii, beginning in the summer.

I hadn't been back to San Francisco since Grandma died, when my sister Daphne and I—the only grandchildren—inherited her house in Pleasant Hill. Daphne's lived here since. She wants to keep the house in the family; I want to sell it.

When I asked her about staying with her for a few weeks on my way to Hawaii, Daphne said she'd be glad for the company. I wasn't looking forward to spending time with her. In the Bay Area, though, I'd have access to labs and potential earth movement. While I'm there, maybe I can convince her to sell the place. I could use my share of the money.


                           * * *


At the time of the creation of our moon, the moon was a lot closer to the earth and the new moon's gravity affected the speed of the earth's rotation. Earth's surface roiled with hurricane-level winds. A full revolution, or day, occurred every six hours. The moon figures largely in my thoughts: I imagine the seasonality of earthquakes to be gravity-related, like tides. I dream of two earths hanging in a starred void, one with its single moon, revolving, the other with two moons. The earth with two moons spins four times for each spin of the other. The moon's involvement in earthquakes has been speculated upon for years, a theory long dismissed and ridiculed by mainstream science. Even so, lunar-influenced regularities chime logically with other recurrences: tides, revolutions of the planet, the seasons which are our evidence of earth's revolution around the sun. I think the seasonality of earthquakes must be orbital and gravitational.

I scan and upload charts, diagrams, text files, and everything else to my student webspace on Berkeley's servers. Students and faculty members get permanent accounts. Organizing data this way is a habit. I've used mine for years. There's a forum feature for online coursework where you can discuss classes or leave notes and questions. I discovered I hadn't placed a security lock on any of my data. It was publicly accessible; a passel of helpful "peers" had located the seasons stuff.

Scientists run in little cliques that they guard jealously. Their habitats are small, impervious communities I call "prides." Professional acceptance hinges on perpetual, hostile hazing or "peer review" in publications, in research programs, and funding.

Eight or ten individuals were holding forth in spirited debates on the foolishness of earthquake prediction theory. I was irritated but couldn't blame them. In the midst of it the level arguments by "fumar0le" intrigue me: "fumar0le" considers points and counterpoints in a balanced way. Over a period of several hours I read and follow his posts.

Most of the rest of the posts were standard academic displays: nothing to do with real information exchange, just ego and position. I went to the member's list and clicked on fumar0le's user information, found an email address: and made a note of it, then created locks for my documents. I turned off access to everything I'd posted, encrypted it all and then deleted the forum, posting no notice. Good riddance. God, I hate academics.

I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my eyes. Sunlight streamed around the drawn shades. Mariah Carey filtered through the window, reminding me of the origin of all this drama. Clueless. Pure, you might say, in her utter lack of education, her absolute innocence of any thought life. I stared at the computer screen, disgusted by her and her Mariah Carey, for a while, before I became aware of something. I'd been thinking about this, developing the idea, trying to tear it apart, seeing it stand up under examination, even involving other seismologists, an idea her observation brought about. Without telling her anything about it.

Hauling myself to my feet, I forced myself to the backyard.

She was on her stomach, arms hanging over the sides of her lounge chair, her bathing suit top untied, radio on. She didn't hear me. I sat in front of her in the grass, turning down the radio. She lifted her head and faced me, eyes closed. I began telling her my thoughts about her "big week." After a minute, she opened her eyes.

She didn't grasp much but was proud that she'd helped, pleased I included her. She wanted to reciprocate somehow, so I ended up with my first pedicure in twenty-seven years of life and afterward, a leg wax, during which I screamed.

"Eww!" she answered joyously, holding up a strip of linen covered with wax and hair and dermis.

My calves burned obscenely. She slathered my tortured legs with some kind of oil. My feet had become little silky nubs, without rough edges or calluses. I'm not sure how she did it: she required music and no talking. There were powders in the soaking water and pumices and creams and tools. She painted my toenails.

"Do not move from there!" She pointed. "I will tell you when you can walk. If you know what you're doing you can do it wet but you have no idea, you'll just wreck it so stay there." She disappeared. It was easy to stay put; I wanted to admire my feet.

I tried a few different ways to describe the recurrence theory for her, unsuccessfully. Like a blind person who had painted a magnificent mountain scene, never having seen a mountain, she believed me faithfully, happily, completely, and entirely without comprehension. It saddened me.


                           * * *


One morning not long after our first talk, after I'd dropped a line to introducing myself and asking him if he'd be willing to look at a few more ideas, she approached me.

"You know the earthquake seasons?"


"What's making them?"

"I'd assumed they must be related to the moon."


"Because of how the moon influences the tides—gravity."

"Oh." Then:

"The sun is all gas, right."


"And the moon is a solid rock."


"And the earth is both and water."

"Is this going somewhere?"

"I just was wondering are there any planets made of only water?"

"No," I said, immediately thinking of Solaris, Stanislav Lem's book about a planet consisting only of an intelligent ocean.


"Not that we know," I said.

"Why not?"

The idea roots in me. Not even water, necessarily . . . there could be fluid elemental compositions we don't have on earth; asteroids have elemental compositions with features not found here and the same could apply to fluids. Perhaps a new element in a liquid state. Of course they'd behave differently. To the point of being undetectable? But we're not looking for them, are we. We weren't looking for the infrared spectrum, either.


                           * * *


I could have looked on her first perception as an accident, a fluke of chance, but not the second one. I began to prompt her, to try to "squeeze the goose." Her ideas were meaningless to her, without currency but I found that when I was watching for them, she might toss one off without a second thought any time, on any subject. Between the two of us, we could hatch at the very least intriguing possibilities.

"Why don't they cure AIDS like they do snakebites?" she said one afternoon from her spot in front of Animal Planet.

"What do you mean 'like they do snakebites'?"

"With your own blood for antidote, like snake venom. Don't they use snake venom on you when you get bit?"

"Blood's where the problem is."

"But it wasn't infected before you got bit," she stated, practical, direct, and right, setting off another cascade of ideas for me. The implications followed naturally, almost organically, as I turned the idea over for a while on my own, with real delight, at last deciding I needed a biologist's input. I branched out into my network and soon I found that there are, in fact, DNA vaccines in testing for the resolution of not only HIV, but other viruses, developed very much after the process that gives us antivenin vaccination.

It wasn't a perfect system, but it still inspired me, enough that I become afraid to let her open her mouth without recording whatever she says. I couldn't make her appreciate the genius. Trees fall all over this forest; she has no idea she's in a forest. God knows what else has been lost in the last twenty years. She's like an idiot savant.

Troubling also was her new, touching affection for me and the attention I began to pay her. I was aware this was sort of horrible, coming around my long-held contempt only to take advantage of her. I'm a thug. A kind of intellectual pedophile, stealing gems from an innocent. She manicured me, lacquered and moisturized me, waxing my eyebrows and mothering me, offering me lemonade, lunch.

My sleep began to suffer.


                           * * *


We weren't always like this; once we got along like sisters do. There was a mountain, Mt. Diablo, practically in our backyard when we were growing up. It's about 3,000 feet and looks like it's tented over a frame of thin bones. Sometimes it snows just a bit at the top, only a fifteen-minute car ride from San Francisco. The mountain sits in a good-sized park with coyotes and wildcats; you can hear the coyotes at night. As kids in Walnut Grove we loved to go to Mt. Diablo and hike the lush angular slopes in April, though it was often muddy it was greenest then, and lovely; East Bay valley heat turns much of the landscape after May a scorched brown. In high school we'd double-date and try to sneak in after dark, but the gates were usually locked. We lost our virginity there the same night (different boys).

We also always shared a visceral affection for the ocean. We loved to go tidepooling, touching starfish and sticky anemones, homicidally feeding them snails. During migrations we'd whale watch further north from Point Reyes, or take a boat out to the Farralon Islands. We once saw a pair of rare tufted puffins out there, bobbing calmly while humpbacks rose to the surface around them.

There was an innocent magic to this part of the coast I felt certain of in youth. Something goes on at fault zones, strange events originate there, channelings of forces from the center of the earth, from hell. The business of any coastline is change: who can know what other borders are met where time moves differently, and gravity, and the moon?

She did well in high school; she liked theater, was a thespian, was Ado Annie in Oklahoma! She wrote rhyming songs ridiculing our teachers. She never once accepted money for babysitting, not from anyone. She had a sense of humor. She'd literally give you the clothes off her back.

The summer before eleventh grade we went to Camp Mahngotasee with an academic youth group in July. We got the usual attention identical twins get. By that point there were already signs of trouble between us: I was on the honor roll, taking AP classes. She laughed too loud, showed too many teeth, was perpetually excited. When she became a cheerleader, it was the final dishonor. An irreparable chasm formed between us.

I drank too much wine the second night of camp on the beach with Addison Martin and Domingo Cortez, seniors at the school across town. It was the first time I'd ever been drunk. The guys snuck in the booze; my friend Wendy and I snuck off with them at dusk when the bonfire was lit and the rest of the camp gathered around it.

We had a fine time, sharing two bottles, talking and playing truth or dare. Three hours later I spewed all over myself: bathing suit, shorts, t-shirt. Bare feet.

If I'd been caught I'm sure they would have sent me home. Puke was in my hair, everywhere. Wendy found Daphne and brought her to me, sitting in the dusk on the beach a few hundred yards away from everyone, covered in sand and my own vomit, then Wendy and the guys high-tailed it out of there.

Daphne looked down at me for a minute. "God," she said. She took off all her clothes, down to her bikini, folding everything.

"Come here. Come on, Danny, up." She stuck her head under my arm, hoisting me without flinching. She half-led, half-carried me down the tree line away from the bonfire, further into the darkness. Crossing the sand was tricky; I lurched.

"Come on. God." When we were far enough out of sight of the others she led me across the expanse of beach to the water, where I got wise.

"Uh uh. It's cold," I dug my heels in.

"Come on! God!"

"No!" I leaned back and landed on my rear end three inches into the water, pulling her down on top of me. We splashed.

"Okay," she said, rinsing herself to rinse off the puke I'd transferred to her. "This is fine I guess." She splashed me while I shivered. "Close your eyes." I opened my mouth to holler. She clapped a hand over it.

"Shishh! I have to wash you off, ass. You're totally full of yak. If you don't want to get caught shut up."

She rinsed me. The moon was enormous, low and golden. She peeled off my vomitous clothes. When I was clean she dried me and left me sitting bare-assed in the sand while she ran back to get her own clothes. She dressed me in them, and took mine back into the water.

I don't remember how we got back to my cabin but in the morning she was in the other bed instead of Wendy. My clothes were drying on the lampshade, the chair, the bed frame. I was still wearing hers. I threw up again, this time in the bathroom.

Camp Mahngotasee was a regular camp that had a special biology AP program for credit. It was part of a workshop that I won a prize in later, evaluating water specimens from the lake. If I'd been kicked out, as I deserved, I wouldn't have won that prize.

I wouldn't have won the prize, and I'd never have gone on to the Science Finals, and from there, to the state championship, which was a big part of my acceptance to Stanford.


                           * * *


I monitored the USGS site. Every seven seasons an "event of magnitude," a very strong earthquake, occurs somewhere along one of a sequence of fault systems in the world, including ocean beds and mountain ranges. There appear to be as many meta-calendars as there are fault systems.

Dr. Yoshimura's lab publishes an extensive geology site with bottomless resources in Japanese. I renewed my study of the language. Finding me in my books one day, she pulled up a chair and rested her head against my shoulder.

"Why's there three kinds?"

There are, in fact, three classifications of Japanese characters: kanji, katakana, and hiragana. I still can't tell them apart. Happily, though, I can answer her question.

"They're different alphabets with different properties, like our vowels and consonants."

"It's pretty."

"It is pretty."


                           * * * responded to my original email right away. Professor Norumbu Alighieru has an Endowed Chair of Volcanology and Geothermal Research The University of the South Pacific, doing research at Cal Tech. Cordial and happy to have been contacted, he indulged my ideas and asked provocative questions by email for weeks. Eventually we moved our correspondence to the phone. He's from Niger; I struggled a bit at first with his accent.

The faults of a system under the Greenland Sea appeared to be closing in on the end of a sixth season. If there's anything to this recurrence theory there should be something major in that vicinity this fall; their last was late spring, two years ago. When the professor wrote to let me know he'd be coming to the Bay Area for a conference, we arranged to meet for lunch. It seemed natural to invite Daphne.

Dr. Alighieru's skin was glossily, richly black. The whites of his eyes contrasted alarmingly with his kind face. We shook hands, I introduced Daphne. He extended his hand, bowing a bit from the waist, but Daphne wouldn't emerge from behind me. She seemed nearly afraid. She kept her hands tucked under her arms, smiling stiffly, eyes diverted, and said nothing.

We glossed past it as well as possible. At one point when Dr. Alighieru turned away I raised my eyebrows at her. It was hard to ignore her distance through the meal. Dr. Alighieru and I managed well enough discussing politics and geology while she sat quietly, picking cranberries out of her salad and lining them up on the tablecloth. She ate nothing.

When the professor excused himself after the entrée, I turned on her.

"What the hell is wrong with you!"

"What?" she pouted.

"Are you a bigot?" Silence.

"Don't EVEN tell me you're a fucking bigot." My heart pounded.

"I just can't be so close around those people," she said meekly.

"Oh my hell. Get out of here!" She was happy to go.

In a few minutes the professor returned.

"Where is your sister?"

"Dr. Alighieru, I apologize. I had no idea she'd behave so rudely or I'd never have invited her."

He seated himself. "I see."

"I'm so embarrassed, I can't apologize enough."

"It is not your fault. Thank you for your kind concern."

"I'm just horrified."

He laughed a little as he placed his napkin back in his lap.

"Danny. In my lifetime as a student of our earth and her creatures, I have found two things to be reliable." The waitress arrived to clear our table.

"The first, she will always surprise you, our mother. You cannot believe you have understood her. She always has more to show you. The second thing I have learned is that her human children will rarely surprise. What one does, another will do. We have only one earth mother, but she has many of the same children. The same few children, for they do have differences, some." He folded his hands. His palms were white-pink.

"Your sister was honest about her prejudice. Everyone is not so. Now let me tell you about my conference, and the reason I am here in San Francisco, and then you tell me. Do you have any interest in marine geophysics?"


                           * * *


At home she was crying. I stalked past her, straight to the bathroom past her sniffling and nose-blowing and carrying on.

I washed my face then stood over the sink, lifted my eyes to the mirror. She'd never been anything but proud of me. She'd done her best to be a good sister, and I knew she loved being a twin. She's always been hurt by my hostility toward her. What else had I done for her? The minute I could get away from home, I abandoned her; I judged her and diminished her and ridiculed her and never tried to influence her. She loved me and wanted to please me. There was nothing she wouldn't try to do for me. So whose fault were her ignorances? Who knew better?

What one does, another will do.

"Do you hate me?" she called in a tortured voice.


                           * * *


We sold the house in Pleasant Hill.

I accepted Dr. Alighieru's provisional position in the lab in Hawaii, not quite a job, just a coordinating position for a few of his own experiments and research which dovetails well with my own interests. We'll feel each other out this way, see how we work together. It's a small step but I've grown to respect him, and I'd like to see what we can do together. My work will be to complete the research for the grant. I moved to Honolulu where I put a down payment on a condo as close to the beach as I could get. People think San Francisco is obscenely expensive; they should price houses in Honolulu.

The first event to be predicted with the seasonal theory was a submarine earthquake in the Greenland Sea registering 9.3. Its epicenter lay six miles below the surface. There were minor tsunamis off the Greenland tundra and no casualties, but the earth's crust now has 14 tectonic plates.

We were ready. Dr. Alighieru spoke to another colleague of his and the three of us I had a number of discussions, then approached Dr. Yoshimura. Together we managed to inspire a state of heightened alertness for the countries in the surrounding region in case there were ancillary events.

Care was given to emergency preparedness, shelter planning, disaster management. When the earthquake did occur in a four-week window on the predicted system there was some interest. And eighteen months later, when the second event series followed on the next predicted system with magma tremors and new volcanic activity, Japan, Iceland, and eastern Europe came to attention.

Daphne lives in my condo's second unit. Her visit to the thermal features near Kilauea inspired an inquiry into the chemical potentials of steam energy when, on sight of an elemental sulfur fumarole—a steam vent where sulfur gas escapes—she said with surprise, "there's steam from other stuff besides water?" The result was a discussion on energy conversion and properties of gases, including combustion. Dr. Alighieru explained fumaroles using a tea kettle analogy.

It was a perfect introduction to a talk on controlled explosions, the hydrogen bomb, and other events of World War II.


Copyright©2006 Jennifer Trudeau