“The War on Space and Time” by Octavia Cade (6797 words)
This is a rather strange and slow-moving story about war and about family, about identity and space. The piece is broken into two different areas, both key to World War II. In the first, Bletchley Park, Helen is working presumably as a code breaker with her twin, V. In the second area, Los Alamos, Frank works on the nuclear bomb project with a woman named Doris. In both locations the characters must navigate grief and loss, as both are entangled with the war. In both, the characters are twins, which is something that defines and complicates both branches of the narrative. In Bletchley, though, the world is contracting. The beds are moving closer together, the walls closing in. There is a wall of force that is slowly constricting everything, and the claustrophobia grows as the story continues. In Los Alamos, the world is stretching out, the rooms expanding. Everything seems so far away from everything else, becoming stretched thin and delicate. It’s a great contrast and it lends to the story a feeling of both pushing inward and pulling apart.
And really what makes the two situations so different has a lot to do with the war and what the war has done to the two locations, to Frank and Helen. For Helen, being in Bletchley is like being home, crowded and noisome and productive. She even has her sister to share this space with. But the war intensifies everything, and it creates a sort of isolation there, a resentment brought on by so many people sharing the same space and the same hurts. The war is compressing these women into a single point, all of their uniqueness being bled away as part of the war effort, as part of their shared sorrows and common sacrifices. And those things that are solely theirs they want to protect, they want to keep close, but they can’t in the face of what has happened. They want space, want to be individuals, but have been sworn into this situation where it’s not allowed. Where they are so suffocatingly close to one another.
Meanwhile Frank’s situation is much different, separated from the war by this huge gulf. Unlike the women in Britain, Frank in the American desert never feels the presence of war, never really knows it. His dreams are of the battlefield where his twin brother died, his consciousness having to stretch that far in order to feel the connection even as Helen and V. try to shrink to avoid each other’s intrusiveness. Frank’s adulterous relationship with Doris is something that he uses to try and ground himself, to try and stall the spreading out that’s happening, but even that’s not working, because they are being dragged across the great distance between where they are and where their loved ones are. The war has pulled them out of the isolation their work keeps them in but without human contact. They are spread thin but still only have a population of one, whereas those in Bletchley are blurring together.
And in the end this is a powerful story about war and the cost of war. About family and place and space and grief and violence. About how these characters are all shaped and defined by this war, which compresses some and expands others. And how neither represent a cure to the war. Both Frank and Helen are victims here, have lost and continue to lose. And even through everything they’re still desperate for compassion and humanity, desperate for something to hold to in the darkness and the uncertainty. It’s a beautiful story that you should be sore to read!