This is a story about the purpose of the world.
It is 1991.
Sydney meets Michael in a coffee shop. Soon they are talking about their work. Michael is an accountant. Sydney breeds pandas.
“Pandas?” Michael says.
“It’s my family trade,” says Sydney.
“We used to be corrupt diamond merchants,” says Sydney. “But one day, Grandpa stood up at his desk and exclaimed, ‘Day in, day out, it’s always the same! Why are we murdering men to sate our greed when we could be some lonely panda’s angel of love?'”
“A man of vision,” Michael says.
“It was a midlife crisis,” says Sydney. “I assume. But he never looked back, and we’ve been breeding pandas ever since.”
“I’m in biotech,” says Sydney. “I use my laboratory to invent powerful new panda fertility drugs and then I bulk advertise them over the Internet. It takes about 10,000 messages to reach even one panda, but that’s enough to make it worthwhile.”
Michael holds his coffee cup. It’s warm. He approaches the subject delicately. “Some might not call this fulfilling.”
“Oh,” says Sydney. “But it is!”
“That’s why we’ve stayed with it,” Sydney says. She thinks. “Listen,” she says. “Do you know what it is to have a purpose?”
Michael thinks about it. “I have tasks at work,” he says.
“I would like to consume this coffee,” Michael says. “And process it into energy and urine.”
“I might want to seduce you later,” Michael says. “Hypothetically.”
Sydney stares at Michael. “What do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?”
“Well, that,” Michael says. He laughs a little. He holds a hand flat over the table. “I suppose I want—”
Sydney tilts her head to one side. Michael frowns.
“It’s strange,” Michael says. “But I think that what I want is to manage the books for a firm that breeds pandas.”
Sydney laughs. “Why that, good sir?”
“You just know,” Michael says. “Don’t you. I mean, it’s like when you’re playing a video game, and suddenly everything’s all in line; or when you’re dancing—”
“Yes,” says Sydney. Her eyes widen a bit. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”
“And suddenly everything’s right, and it doesn’t matter how much you have to give up for it, because this, this is the purpose, and you’re flowing through your life like a river.”
Michael is staring off into the distance. Then he gulps down his coffee in a quick, convulsive motion. “I haven’t felt this way since sixth grade, when I decided I wanted to be a CPA.”
“You do understand,” Sydney says. “How marvelous!”
Michael starts working at Sydney’s company. It’s not even too surprising that they fall in love. Eventually, they have a daughter of their own, named Emily.
It is 2004.
“This one’s special,” Sydney says. She looks at a printout of her lab notes. “She’s a mutant.”
Michael rubs her shoulders. “Is that so?”
“It’s the new fertility drug,” Sydney says. “It caused something more than just ordinary breeding. It made a super-agile panda.”
“I told you not to use spider DNA.”
“I didn’t!” Sydney protests.
“I only used a little,” Sydney hedges. “Spiders are very fertile. Their offspring are everywhere!”
“Use spider DNA in your panda viagra, get a super-agile panda.”
Sydney sighs. “Well, it’s not a bad thing,” she says. “We can teach her to dance.”
And so they do.
It is 2005.
“It’s time for the panda to dance,” Michael says.
“I’m nervous,” Sydney says.
“It’s just . . . this feeling,” Sydney says.
Sydney gestures towards the wall. “Do you know that there are hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside this building, waiting for the panda to dance?”
“Surely not that many,” Michael says.
“They’ve been showing up,” Sydney says. “For weeks now. Months. They’ve been camping outside. They’ve been bringing food and water and medical supplies into town. This dinky little town of ours has grown tenfold.”
Michael scratches at his forehead. “What we do here is important,” he says. “I guess people are starting to realize that.”
“It’s not real,” Sydney says. “People don’t show up like this just because there’s a panda gonna dance.”
“How do they know?” Michael says.
Sydney shrugs uncomfortably.
“I mean, this is just a recital you set up,” Michael says. “We didn’t tell everyone. Maybe they’re just here as some kind of subculture thing and it doesn’t have to do with the panda at all.”
“They know it’s important,” Sydney says.
“I asked one,” Sydney says. “Because he was sleeping in my parking space. And he said, ‘It just feels right. It doesn’t matter how much I have to give up for it. I needed to be here. For this. For the panda.’ And I said, ‘But I ran over your leg. You need a doctor.’ And he laughed, and said, ‘It don’t matter none. I’ll live long enough.'”
“Did you get a doctor?”
Sydney opens her mouth, hesitates a long moment, then shrugs.
“He’s right,” she says. “He’ll live long enough.”
Emily comes in. She is a young and demure girl. She is wearing a gingham dress.
“The panda’s ready,” she says. “I just helped her with her stretches.”
“Good girl,” says Sydney.
The three of them go to the panda room together.
“Dance,” Sydney says.
“Do you know,” says Michael, “I think this is what the Earth is for.”
There’s a moaning, a humming, a whispering, a chanting from outside. There are a hundred thousand voices raised in worship outside the building walls.
“You think so?”
“God made this whole Earth,” says Michael, “so that one day he could watch a panda dance. Not just any old dance, but like this.”
“I guess you’re right,” says Sydney.
The panda dances.
“And bless Him for it!” Sydney says, suddenly, fiercely.
The panda bobs in place.
“So do you think,” says Sydney, “that it’ll go on? I mean, the world? After the panda’s done?”
“I hope not,” says Michael fervently.
The panda shuffles from side to side, her paws an expressive counterpoint.
“But . . . I wouldn’t have guessed,” Sydney admits. “That this would be what we’re for.”
“Emily,” says Michael, “if I’d asked you last year what the purpose of the world was, would you have known it?”
Emily nods firmly. “Yes, father.”
“What would you have said?”
“I would have said, ‘I think it’s . . .’ And I wouldn’t have had the words. But it would have been a panda dancing.”
“I guess that’s true,” says Sydney.
The panda shuffles to a halt, flumps to the ground, and falls asleep.
Emily goes to the window and looks out.
“Look, mama!” she says.
The sky is falling, and Emily laughs with a sudden, bright, clean joy.