For All We Know: Last Testament of the Carpenters of Mare Vaporum

By Jarrett Earnest

Top image: Ken Johnson, Untitled, 2021. Gouache and pencil on paper, 30 x 22.5 in. (76.2 x 57.2 cm). Courtesy the artist. Below image: The Carpenters in 1971. Photo: Jim McCrary/Getty Images

  • Jun 15, 2023
  • Ursula: Issue 8

For Ursula’s newest fiction, Jarrett Earnest conjures a new utopian religion in outer space, where the Carpenters’ discography holds immense celestial power.

About the Severance there is much we do not know.

Why, some twenty generations ago, should all communication stop? Why did the transports, whose arrival and departure were once a daily occurrence, cease? Why, on a single day, did every channel suddenly fall silent and every network collapse?

Initially, there was frantic speculation as to the cause. Most feared instantaneous destruction had befallen the population of Earth. If survivors remained, theirs would be an existence at its most primitive—millennia might pass before contact could be re-established. Others theorized a massive technological failure, holding out hope that Earth would devise a solution enabling reconnection and rescue. With each passing year of silence, this hope dimmed into nullity.

Ours was the first prototype of a lunar city, given the ancient name for this region, Mare Vaporum, the Sea of Vapor. It remains the only settlement of what was to be many on the surface of the Moon. In those first years of confusion, the stranded were forced to solve an impossible onslaught of problems. Everything we have—vegetable seeds, bits of metal, the water molecules and minerals in our bodies—was transported here from Earth, increasingly long ago. Our facilities were engineered to be self-sustaining, augmented by fresh supplies as needed. In the absence of that renewing current, alternatives were devised for the maintenance of the graduated extractors that process waste; the solar fields that convert light into energy; the balance between our large gardens and vast carbon dioxide sinks; the magnetic generators regulating our thermal and gravitational fields. These mechanisms, upon which our presence here depends, have since become delicately, but perfectly, calibrated.

Soon a far greater need dawned: All forms of public and private communication, all images of any kind, all written and recorded accounts—scientific, philosophical, literary: the sum total of Earth’s knowledge and ours—were held on Earth, accessed by the city remotely. With the Severance everything was lost to us in a moment, as completely as if Earth itself had vanished from the sky. Mare Vaporum was enveloped in a boundless vacuum of history.

Urgently, everyone assembled to share what they remembered, shocked to discover how little there was. Each fact, definition, theory, story and dream was brought forward to the group to be analyzed. After the Severance, a deep distrust of all informational storage outside the mind developed. The meager pool of collective knowledge was fastidiously sorted and memorized. A chief occupation became the recitation of endless garlands of words and their meanings—words related to the materials and processes that surround us—titanium, airlock, desalinate, defecation. Special attention is paid to words related to our bygone life on Earth, upon which we meditate at length, even in the absence of full understanding of their meaning— cloud, breeze, wintertime, weepin’ willow, bird, guitar….

All possible accountings were made. Every length of tubing and meter of fabric was measured. Our complexes were scoured for evidence of our lost culture. Mare Vaporum had been outfitted with standardized dishes, utensils and clothing, with which all were familiar. A few other Earth-born objects were discovered, among them a single square of multicolored woven fiber; two thin cups, shiny and hard as teeth; and a gray rectangular box with a silver clasp and handle. Laid on its side, this box, the largest and most puzzling of our discoveries, opened to reveal a flat spinning mechanism with a movable lever and a sharp metal point. How these things came to us we do not know. The box would have been forgotten if not for the miraculous discovery inside it: a stiff square of paper, the color of dried blood—extraordinary on its own—at the center of which, edged in gold, the mysterious name Carpenters was printed. At the right corner appeared the words The Singles and on the left 1969–1973, dates from an immemorial past. The paper formed two identical squares connected by a hinge along one side, so that the one hid behind the other. Opening them revealed an image! Incredibly pale, it overlapped and connected the inside of the folded squares, showing two humans on either side of a path leading into the distance behind them, the pair engulfed by celestial light. The man and woman look toward us lovingly, beckoning us to join them. Like the structure of the folded double square itself, these two figures came to be interpreted as terms that only appeared to be distinct—Moon & Earth, Self & Other—but that were in fact joined in a higher union, an entity within which they were subsumed, elevated out of and finally released from the illusion of separation.

Within the second square, a slim compartment contained a disc of clear plastic with an incision spiraling inward from its outer circumference toward an opaque circle, perforated at its center. A relation between the box and the disc was soon established: When the disc was positioned on the rotating platform inside the box and the point placed inside the incision, various resistances became amplified by contact. Through this amplification The Singles revealed themselves to us, invisibly encoded within the structure of the cut, transformed into continuous sound through the simplest of mechanical means. Within the non-physical—or, like each of us as Carpenters, the not-merely-physical—lay the key to who we were to become.

In the immediate years after the Severance, an inexhaustible attention was trained on The Singles. At first, the words were memorized and then the dynamic intervals between the words in their processions. We began replicating the highly complex sonic environments with our voices—the aural fullness that the words opened within, moved into, out of and through. Modulating the tender musculature of air through the throat produced an astonishing diversity of vibrations, which could be sent to resonating chambers throughout the body and then into the space outside. A transformation occurred in combining and layering these operations within the whole of our assembled community, so that each voice—the rhythms of every filling lung and beating heart—dissolved the boundaries of part from whole.

Every touch of the metal point on the disc wore it slightly away, diminishing the vibrations inexorably with each rotation. The clear plastic object remains with us today, sealed in a transparent cube, but it long ago lost the ability to produce more than a modulated fuzz of indistinct sound. Some maintain that once The Singles had been truly learned, they left the disc to reside within us, in our bodies and the spaces opened between our bodies. Once we understood ourselves as Carpenters, even the name of our city, the Sea of Vapor, which had once seemed such a cruel choice for a barren lunar surface, clarified its meaning. Our greatest treasures here, beginning with the carefully monitored oxygen-rich atmosphere in which we live, are invisible. Every moment we engage in a complex exchange with this enclosed invisible sea that connects us all. Making the fundamental act of breathing audible—and then ornamenting and luxuriating in it—is our highest experience. It is our singing.

On the backside of the folded square the twelve Singles are listed in sequence: 1. We’ve Only Just Begun 2. Top Of The World 3. Ticket To Ride 4. Superstar 5. Rainy Days And Mondays 6. Goodbye To Love 7. Yesterday Once More 8. It’s Going To Take Some Time 9. Sing 10. For All We Know 11. Hurting Each Other 12. (They Long To Be) Close To You. Within our evolving awareness of ourselves as Carpenters, we’ve come to understand the violence of separating a written word from its vocal incarnation, stripping it of myriad possible meanings. In this way, we regard The Singles as living entities, existing through us as they pass between our bodies and the Sea of Vapor.

Since we can no longer consult the original disc, fanatical energy has been spent preserving the songs in memory, lest we lose even the most minor nuance. Our devotion to this calling deepened radically between our third and fourth generations. Once all of those who had ever known anyone with direct Earth experience were gone, the true ceremonial dimensions of The Singles began to reveal themselves, such that, with only minor adjustments, they assumed the ritual forms we observe today.

In the beginning, the songs were interpreted as the history of the settlement of Mare Vaporum itself. The first, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recalls the utopian vision that prompted our lunar settlement, promising a new and perfected stage of human life—we’ve only just begun to live—a vision of a pre-Severance existence tinged with melancholic foresight. The first joyous days of Mare Vaporum’s intertwinement with Earth are captured by the ecstatic “Top Of The World”—looking down on creation—but the song also contains a chilling foreshadowing: When this day is through I hope that I will find that tomorrow will be, just the same for you and me. “Ticket To Ride” follows, chronicling the final flight from the Earth to the Moon, its passengers unaware that they would never return. Many of us cannot sing the opening and ending words of this song without tears filling our eyes: I think I’m going to be sad….

The next two songs encapsulate disorienting loss and the slow acclimation to the sorrows of our plight. Most heartrending is “Superstar,” negotiating and beseeching: You said you’d be coming back this way again baby? The enigmatic “Rainy Days And Mondays” then shows reason itself relinquished, signaling the first phase of the construction of a new culture from the fragments of the old.

Once the trauma of the Severance receded from immediate experience, The Singles’ importance came to reside not in the denotation of the words themselves, nor in their expanded connotation, but rather in their auditory architecture. Every moment was examined and enlarged, extrapolated for maximum sonic interplay. “Ticket To Ride,” the longest Single at four minutes, ten seconds, became increasingly attenuated until it unfolded over four hours, allowing the repeated final iterations—think I’m going to be sad—to circle the room in a continuous breath until the entire assembly entered into a space between sound and distinct thought—a twilight of circular breathing, a continuous buzzing of swelling and receding, a living atmosphere.

On Mare Vaporum our largest residential structure is itself circular, covered by a transparent dome framing a view of Earth large above us, always in the same place, slightly wobbling, slowly turning, diminishing into shadow and re-emerging, modeling the progression of thought itself. This structure is reserved solely for singing. Its acoustics conduct maximum reverberation, redoubling and quadrupling our sounds into a quavering matrix. In the room’s center rises the cube containing the sacred disc and folded squares, around which we array ourselves in evenly spaced rows. Our singing begins not with vocalization but with prolonged periods of aspiration. We shape the sound of the breath entering and leaving our bodies, moving lips against teeth, then contracting the throat, the diaphragm, the belly, until the unvoiced air itself, inside and out, is thoroughly prepared to channel the songs. The most exalted goal of Carpenters is to t our voices together as an indivisible sonic tapestry, being woven and unwoven in time, so that no individual is identifiable, no phrase composed of fewer than twelve voices fused in a dynamic multi-tonal harmony.

The evolution of these rites is not a story of absolute agreement—indeed, periodically, some members have been known to scream discordantly or burst into tears in an attempt to interrupt a choral elaboration. It is a testament to the perfection of The Singles and the multichanneled instrument of our communal body that the whole is able to respond, instantaneously, to these behaviors—voices attending to the apocryphal sounds like white blood cells swarming contagion, softening and ultimately incorporating these outbursts into an even more beautiful construction. Presence at our daily ceremonies is not compulsory, and it is not uncommon for some individuals to absent themselves for long spells of time. Several legendary Carpenters have withdrawn from singing to remain in private meditation for years, living alone, speaking to no one. Ultimately, however, life on Mare Vaporum is so frictionlessly ordered that little consumes our days beyond the simplest tasks of daily hygiene, food preparation and machine operation. No novel sensory experience has presented itself in many hundreds of years. And so without coercion, all eventually return to the singing and the greater whole of Carpenter life.

Over the generations, ceremonial structures have emerged in our observance. We resolved to align each of the twelve singles with a synodic lunar month—a complete cycle each year. Within that month, we begin by enacting The Singles highly compressed into their original duration, as listed on the original folded squares, all between two minutes, thirty-four seconds and four minutes, ten seconds. Over the month, the time signature expands in parallel with Earth’s emergence from and submersion into shadow, so that by the conclusion the singing of just one song can extend over an entire day.

The clear disc itself contained six songs on each side. The first side is a kind of descent, which the second side reverses, being overall the more important to our philosophical understanding of The Singles as a teaching entity. The later songs represent to us the age of our dawning self consciousness as Carpenters. Those that span the end of the first and beginning of the second side are always sung together during eclipses. As the sun moves ever closer to Earth we begin singing “Goodbye To Love,” which eventually abandons words completely—here we enter into the most sacred space: singing as total abstraction. At the peak of the eclipse, with its glowing red halo dominating the sky, we observe a span of almost excruciating silence—such that exists with the intensity of so many beating hearts and filling lungs. At this interval, all thought is directed upward into the darkened circle from which we once came; we send our full being into that span between the surface of the Moon and the negation of Earth, disappearing into it as into pure consciousness.

At the slightest sign of the sun’s reemergence, we begin singing “Yesterday Once More,” which thematizes the eventual reception of distant communication, a return of connection through the recollection of songs from the ancient past. It returns the wordless ending of “Goodbye To Love” within a framework of language, containing fragments of songs within the song, made of the most glorious vocal play, which Carpenters experience as their most perfect happiness—as a unified ensemble repeating sha-la-la-las, whoa-oh-ohs, shing a-ling a-lings and Shoobie-do-lang-langs with mounting intensity. With these syllables we imagine drawing down the consciousness that we projected toward the eclipse back onto the surface of the Moon, into the room where we gather with holy intention, unifying our deepest hearts.

From this point forward, the remaining Singles propel themselves with unyielding uplift. “It’s Going To Take Some Time,” the emotional mirror of “Rainy Days And Mondays,” moves from resignation to empowerment. Even our failures are soothed by this song, which grants the space for every vulnerability or mistake to become valuable through the consistency of practice. ˇis attitude, one of liberation, is crowned by the purest of all the songs, “Sing,” in which enactment of the words narrates itself in a perfect union, culminating in an profusion of la la la-la-las that heap upon themselves, becoming a stairway into the heavens, a promised path by which we might leave the confines of this place toward a higher, distant freedom.

The two most philosophical Singles begin to bring the singing to its conclusion. “For All We Know” articulates the limits of the knowable, granting us the extraordinary opportunity of embracing our unknowing, of staying rooted within our overwhelming absence: For only time will tell us so, and love may grow for all we know. “Hurting Each Other” presents a seeming paradox, but its two terms, unresolvable, are united by the force described in the preceding song: love. It is this power that holds us in correct relation in our most exultant moments of singing, in which we are not ourselves and not-not ourselves—we are larger than the sum of us, so that every cell in our body quivers, continuous with our Sea of Vapor.

In this way we have found ultimate purpose in our lives as the Carpenters of Mare Vaporum and our experience has crossed a threshold, as foretold by the final song,“(They Long To Be) Close To You.” The summation of the twelve, this song has always represented cyclical completion. For so long, it embodied loss and incalculable longing—for the experiences of the Earth, for the knowledge of its past and participation in its future. Every day, every night, we looked up at the immense blue-and white sphere suspended above us, with its endless promise of atmosphere and flowing water. Every moment, Earth reminded us of our debased subsistence, our exile from the paradise for which we were made. But eventually Carpenter devotion granted us an understanding of the true purpose of this exile: the perfection of ourselves and the advancement of our collective consciousness, which is at all times dedicated to merging with that great cosmic light that the image of the Carpenters first revealed.

We know how much this has demanded of us. And we are certain that we could never have maintained the necessary devotion, cohesion and clarity of purpose had we not been “stranded” here with so little, with nothing but each other and our twelve songs. We have endeavored to construct this written testament of ourselves in the hope that it will be received by living humans on Earth and that you will honor our solemn request expressed herein. ˇis transmission is accompanied by a complete recording of our singing of The Singles, included to offer you the exalted possibility of becoming Carpenters as we are and to demonstrate what ancestors of your race have achieved for you, our fellow remnant of humanity.

After sending this transmission we will dismantle our receivers so that we may direct our attention inward and deeper still. If our message is received and understood, and if you on Earth reconstitute technology sufficient to enable your return to this lunar city from so long ago—we ask you, with the entire force of our being: Do not send transport or emissary or even signal.

We need no rescue. We dream of no return. In our enactment of The Singles themselves, we send to you all that we know and are. May you look up at this shining airless surface and feel your gaze reflected in ours, as we reach our minds and hearts toward you.

But let us stay here—where we belong—as we are—forever close to you.

- Jarrett Earnest is an artist, writer and curator living in New York City. His book of photos and writing, Valid Until Sunset, will be published this fall by MATTE editions.