by Christina Leo
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At the tilted pole of a distant planet on the date of the summer solstice, the eyes of a young astronomer reflect the faint glow of a radio-sized machine which measures the countdown to sunrise. This far north, it will be the only daybreak of the year. Four minutes of morning. Wilted logbooks lie beside her in the snow, open to her notes and weighted with shards of sea glass. She glances briefly at them, at the penciled calculations of parsecs and parallax, and despairs at the neatness of her penmanship. No one demands her data or commands her to be swifter. The dispatches she receives from the southern posts—from the teams of scientists scurrying to report on new medicines, new weapons, new morals—arrive dimensionless to her computer screens with rarely a spot of handwriting. Their world hurries to repair itself. To repopulate, replace. No one craves the mathematics of the sky’s unblustered canopy.
And so she is alone at the pole. She had wanted to be. She uses time to write slowly, to linger in the trails of her numbers, her words. Meridian. Aphelion. Obliquity.
Years ago, when the astronomer stood no taller than the heads of dune grass, she had lived above the cliffs of an island on the wider side of the world. The sands there jostled underfoot, black and porous and rough—lapilli stones, her father had called them. Volcanic remnants of an earth on fire.
Once, after dinner, the astronomer and her brother had slipped out the back gate of their mother’s garden and into the shade of the woods, a damp and quivering jungle which sprung from a river and led to the coast. They sometimes brought their records there, and listened to music by the sea. This time, they carried a net, stalking the thin crustaceans which scurried up the bark of antler-torn trees, watching for the larger beasts which hid, impossibly, out of sight. They stained their shoes with moss. They mimicked the caws of feather-crowned birds, pocketed the sun-bleached skull of a shrew. Bare-shouldered, red-kneed, they made their way to the beach, where night appeared with the blue ringed planet and its two twin moons. Where they realized, in the dark, that they had forgotten their lanterns on the kitchen table.
They wandered, lost, for what felt like hours. The sky had merged with the sea.
As they rested in the sand with their backs to the tide, the astronomer lifted a piece of the lapilli stone just above the line of the bordering cliffs, cradling a low-hanging star in the groove of the stone’s imperfect shape. She did not know the constellations, then. She did not know that the star she cradled was among those clusters which showed the way north, and whose names appeared in all the annals of the old explorers. She did not know that the stars of her island were also the stars of the pole, and that they led to the everlasting night at the cattycorner of the world.
Her chosen star winked in the darkness until, from around the edges of the stone, the blackness of space began to pale. A spot of brilliance gathered behind the grass on the cliff, growing into a haze which swallowed the star and began almost to solidify. The astronomer recognized the effect as she had recognized the glare of lighthouses through mist and rain. A beacon.
Her brother shook her shoulder, told her to stand and wave her arms. And when the astronomer brushed off her knees and looked again toward the bluffs, it was the beam of her parents’ lanterns which emerged fully formed at the ridge. It came with a hum like music—one long, high-pitched note, one low—until the sound of her name grew rich on the wind. She squinted into the glow of the mantles cresting on her cheeks, her nose, and even, as she cried back, in the palate of her mouth. A taste like honeysuckle, soft and fleeting.
From behind her, she thought, the gasp of a porpoise broke the surface of the sea before silencing once more, and diving away.
These are the rules, her parents said afterward: If you get lost again, stay put. Don’t move. Wait for us to find you.
Many years later, the astronomer stood again on the beach of the lapilli sand, in the stench of brine and sea-rotted scales. In the shadow of the cliffs. No one at home. Only the survivors, their bodies still clean, unblemished by illness, wandered the coast. They stood in the surf as if searching for a single particle of scattered ash, one lonesome fleck of memory, to pass over their bare feet, to cling to their skin. Wait for us to find you.
She couldn’t bring herself to stay. By then, the astronomer had learned that lapilli stones don’t always come from the earth. Some of them, indistinguishable by sight, arrive from the opposite direction. From the plummet of meteors crashing from space.
In the sky above where she crouches in her coat, and astride the long horizon between the low icy crags in the distance, thousands of stars flicker in the guise of their former selves. Their effervescence arrives too young, hiding tendrilous nebulas or expired white cores behind the slow tide of light-years. They seem to the astronomer, on her loneliest days, like airborne embers from a blanketed fire. Or snow on the lashes of unblinking eyes. They are so orderly. They do not move as planets move. They look as if they might last forever. But the astronomer, watching the numbers of another year’s countdown, knows the ulterior truth of physics: that everything beyond the earth rushes imperceptibly away from it, and the earth from everything else, all the universe speeding away toward its unknown boundaries. Even the moons and the blue ringed planet which hang always in view, tethered by gravity, slacken their ties with each year’s revolution, party guests escaping a conversation which has run its course and now drifts lazily onward, aimless.
One day in the far future, when the light of all the stars and the orbs of all the planets retreat too far, a person could stand on the pole of this planet, look up, and see nothing. Nothing at all. As if the earth were the only object in existence.
The green radar screen beside the countdown displays the fine lines of a digital globe divided into quadrants, a small blinking pulse marking the zone in the top right corner, the place where the astronomer kneels in the snow. And though the cosmos has no direction, and she may just as easily consider herself south or east or west, at night—or rather, during the sleeping hours of the pole’s constant darkness—in her bed, she has felt the pull of the cardinal north from her toes to the tip of her head, which on her pillow lies in the direction of the polar constellations. In those instances she feels mineral, electric. As if she has been born of iron poured from the core at the center of the world, and retains its elements in her bones. Even now, the observatory station some long strides behind her glows with the lights she keeps always burning.
The countdown clock in the little machine is almost out of time. About thirty minutes remain until all units read zero.
The astronomer contracts the antenna, gathers her notebooks and the machine into her arms, and turns back to her home where the eye of a telescope at the cusp of the still, domed rooftop reflects all but one of the eastern stars.
Inside, the downstairs studio weeps with electricity. It comes from more than two dozen lamps of two dozen shapes on the countertops, the desks, the upside-down boxes, and from tall torchieres blooming in poppy splays, all golden and ruby and budding-white. It comes from mismatched sconces—frosted glass and cast-iron lanterns—screwed into the walls between tall, narrow windows like those in stone cathedrals or castle ramparts. It comes from dozens of cords plugged into the walls, and from paper-shuttered bulbs and a lone chandelier hanging low on long wires from the ceiling. The astronomer’s supervisors, when they arrive with the quarterly shipment of supplies, always suggest that she raise these higher, but she ignores their wishes. She likes the feeling of revolution when she moves around the crowded stations, from the computers to the mapping tables to the drafting desks, and to the charts which curl up the walls in waves. She has traced upon these, some nights, the passages of old satellites known only by their earthly records, for they receive no new signals, and send none out in return.
The astronomer removes her boots by the salt-crusted floor mat, hangs her coat and gloves and hat on a peg. A sprinkling of snow descends from their fabric at the slightest of her movement, at her breath when she sets the machine down on the floor. She does not want the seconds ticking down beside her while the spin of her planet prepares itself. She likes to be surprised by the potential moment, the larger moment, the prolonged instant at the upstairs window when the countdown to sunrise must almost be ending, could end at any second.
Dressed in her socks and sweater, the astronomer looks at nothing in particular. It is her hand, instead, which moves to a trio of switches on the wall beside her. She presses all three at once, slowly, and the hanging bulbs, the sconces, and the low chandelier fizzle out without a sound. The remaining lamps glow like minuscule galaxies about the room, culling dust motes from scents of cedar and pine.
In their spectrum, the veins beneath the astronomer’s skin flow green like jungle rivers viewed from a rocket’s height, and she has been known to sit, wrists up, under a curtain of lamplight, and recall in them the colors of her mother’s old garden at the line of zero latitude.
But for now, she moves on. Her notebooks she places into a tray on the closest table, beneath a lamp textured in the golden scales of the many-finned fish which swam in the waters of her old home. Atop an old music player, a stack of records languish like sand-dollars pulled from a pool, catching moonbeams in their ridges. A generator in a neglected corner struggles to maintain a trill, growing quieter and quieter, and then only whispering once the astronomer pulls the cord under the shade of the lamp. When the scales turn to silver, then slate.
She wishes sometimes that a doormouse could survive the long winter, that it might scurry out in the darkness and tap on the floorboards when she finishes her day’s work. Instead, the only rattling comes from a dram of tincture and a bottle of anti-virus pills stamped with a government seal which sit beneath a lamp in the shape of a pond-side willow, with light in each leaf. She barely looks at the thick hardcover book peeking out from the darkened outskirts—Chemical Warfare, Vol. 2—nor at the mess beside it, at the vials of Vitamin C and D spilling across a petri dish. The astronomer pushes a tab beneath a knee-bent root, and the filaments expire.
She passes, next, a half-opened shoebox overflowing with old envelopes, each labeled “No-Entry Zones: N Hemisphere,” under the light of a lamp as crystalline as an icicle. The message repeats itself on a large map leaning against the wall behind it, where thick, inky “X”s cross out huge swaths of land and sea, leaving only small patches unmarked. A thinly drawn circle encompasses a small patch of tundra where the observatory stands. A twist of a knob, and the icicle melts into shadow.
The astronomer powers down the sear of the computer screens, the petal glow of the torchieres. With each extinguishing her skin grows paler, more alien. She presses her shoulders back when she feels herself growing heavier, when her neck begins to bow. But still she moves delicately through the studio. She knows her pupils are expanding in the dark. They will gather what remains.
Every lamp she touches—the broad one in the flat curve of an umbrella, the soft ones puffed like mushrooms, the slender necks of silver and gold—fades into its drained surroundings. The moonlight from the windows cuts into the work tables, leans against the handmade map of the solar system as broad as the southern wall. The astronomer weaves past it to the back of the room, but the silver ink of circumnavigations flashes once against her face, as does the cobalt blue of the drawing of the ringed planet, of the sketches of the moons, of the gas giants too soft for landing. Her supervisors have yet to notice the inaccuracies of the map, failing to comment on the few extra constellations, the handful of pulsing quasars, and even the spare green planet the astronomer has painted into the orbits of the galaxy. Little things all her own. A different world.
One last layer of light comes from a wooden staircase ascending the back wall. These steps lead up to the second-story apartment, to the base of the observation dome where the great telescope stares into the sky. Somewhere, thinks the astronomer, someone must be looking back at it. Unknowingly, and unknown, much too far away.
She grips the railing as she climbs, rising along the wall where several framed photographs and government documents hang in uneven rows, lit by a trail of holiday lights like mourning lanterns floating upstream. In one photo, her mother and father wear outdated clothing and bright white smiles in front of their small wooden house, surrounded by spindle trees and dew drop flowers. The family home. In another, the astronomer and her brother hover behind a birthday cake, grinning wide enough to force their eyes shut. In a third, a fourth, and a fifth, the foam of a breaking sea on sand suspends its shells with an amber clutch, warm and opalescent. She catches her reflection in the glass covering a diploma in astrophysics, which hangs beside a moisture-cracked sheet of paper—“Relocation Request Approved”—nailed to the wall with its torn envelope, with an address she no longer knows by heart.
The top step creaks as the weight of the astronomer leaves it, and the light of the trail extinguishes, glass by glass by glass.
The upstairs apartment is a low field of fireflies amid a hard beam of metal. These are the dim phasing lights of the machinery along the floor, this the solemn glint of the telescope as it reaches, faceless, into the dome. A small chair on wheels sits empty by the mount, attended by scatterings of papers and pencils like fallen roof tiles, while varnished sheets of space-black astrophotos almost disappear behind their pins on the wall. The room lies in darkness, and the gabled window which looks out onto the tundra gleams like an eclipse in reverse, reflecting the snow.
The hour nears.
The astronomer passes her narrow brass bed to reach the view, passes the overturned crates beside her lopsided pillows where a single lamp with a simple shade sits black and dormant. Her chest thrums. Her fingertips throb with pinpricks. She crawls upon the window seat and looks out, silent.
This is the long instant. The moment of a year.
Outside, the tundra is a ballroom floor. White marble and wax. Even the blue ringed planet pales with its moons behind a thin gauzy curtain which creeps from the horizon like haze from a hearth at the core of the earth. The bulk of the crags harden into coaly imprints, their shadows streaked and extending back and back in slow crescendo while the ocean of snow blooms violet in the swath, the softest of its divots reassembling their shapes. Week-old footprints, here. Tracks from the sled, there.
In true spring, as a child, the astronomer had plucked flowers just this tone and pressed them in the leaves of a long-lost diary. The fields of home had sprung in height and multitudes of texture. She had felt the scratch of the palms, the brush of an airborne seed on the wind, large as a moth in the short, warm nights. How many footprints there would have been had the snow touched down on the island. There would be her father’s, always larger, always one step ahead. Her mother’s, creeping by the sides of ponds for snails with bodies soft as custard. Her brother’s, disappearing at the base of a tree, as if he had spirited inside, his posture in its boughs nymphish with sweat and happiness. The sky to her then was the blue fire of distant stars, and the greatest one of them always above, its light only minutes old, always new. A million light-years an open book before her eyes.
But now, the turn of a page. Here is the first clear crest of the spectrum above the curve of the earth. Feathery down on the back of an infant swan. And here, blooming into the palette of clouds, a match of the sky strikes the slate of the horizon line and flares, flares red like a holiday sparkler once given to the astronomer by her brother so carefully, so beautifully dangerous on a warm summer night. The snow, too, bleaches after so long in the blue of the moons and the many-ringed planet, pure white as a star on the brink of its death. But the astronomer is here, and the sun is breaching, and she still has time, for the world is turning, and her blood in her veins is the heat of momentum, is traveling breakneck through space to catch up to this moment at the top of the earth.
Four minutes. The arching of the light, the fire red on the cold, hard snow. Lips parting for a taste of honeysuckle.
A last goodbye.
A slow descent.
The waning of spectrums back into violet, into the ghost of a damselfly’s discarded skin still clinging to its reed.
The tilted planet had seen many things lost. The astronomer thinks often about one type of loss in particular, one that would have happened in the days before machines, before the great eye of telescopes and the advent of electric light and the knowledge of atoms. She can imagine a child who must have existed hundreds of years ago, maybe on a small country hill many miles from a city, who has just heard her favorite song for the first and last time in her life. Not because she is dying, or because she will go deaf, but because she has come to see a traveling orchestra which will not pass her way again, not for a very long time, when the repertoire has changed, and she has decided just now that this ending of a song—maybe a long, high-pitched note, one low—is the most wonderful, most perfect experience in the world. She is blessed for only a handful of minutes. Only that. They are all the minutes she will know of this music. Of all the minutes in her life. There is no way to capture it, not even if she assembled every musician she knows, for she does not know how to teach them the tune. She will spend a lifetime in hums, trying to recall the moment of such brief time. But the song is forever elsewhere. Four minutes of mourning.
The astronomer presses her palms to her eyes as the stars reappear in the light of the moons. The ringed planet endures. The tundra softens. Her hands come away damp and sparkling.
After a few breaths more of immobility, the astronomer turns from her gable, setting her feet on the hardwood floor. The eye of the telescope peers up and away past the ceiling of the room, the panels of the dome extending downward from its center like gravity’s pull on a dripping firework. It siphons images of faraway galaxies, witnesses a million suns. It is fixed and transfixed. The astronomer approaches it, brushes it gently with her fingertips as one does to the shoulder of a suffering friend who would rather be alone.
She feels twenty pounds heavier, battered as an asteroid, but she moves. She moves toward the bed by the stairs. On the nightstand, the plain white slope of the single lamp covets the blue of the tundra outside, and the astronomer lifts her arm as through the crush of ocean tides, and finds the beaded cord beneath its shade. It is almost too heavy, an anchor on the sea floor, but she pulls. Clicks. And the veins of her hand are green in the golden sheen. And the white sheets are cumulous, and the brass is burnt like obsidian, and the wood on the tabletop is sienna and umber, the colors of her hair. The waves of each lock flow like dune sand, like jungle rivers, when she lays her head down on the pillow. Facing the east gable window. The moons and the blue ringed planet. Her snow-laden tracks. The night-long glow of the lamp.
The astronomer closes her eyes as the yearly countdown starts again in the downstairs corner by the salt-crusted boots. The old pull from the center of the earth reaches for her again, and she holds it against the blankets, against the cold. It brings a snowfall down on the pole with the return of darkness, and gathers the still-cycling satellites to their daily orbit. It suspends every star in unreachable hoverings. Today, it does.
Through the telescope’s eye, a flash in the atmosphere registers on the quiet machines, is recorded by the computers without disturbing the astronomer’s hand. Their numbers describe a meteor, burning and gone. An elegy in signs.
Low is the drone of the generator. Colorless, the night. Slow and steady is the departure of the universe from its moorings, the combing of stardust into the archives of the dead.
The astronomer has underlined as much in the footnotes of her books: a star can burn for ten billion years. But nothing, in the end, defeats its own life. The galaxies will stretch away. The world will one day be alone. And yet. There, in the astronomer’s pocket. She reaches for it as sleep descends. A fragment of collision. Glacial coolness. A piece of her island’s old lapilli stone. She gives heat to its surface from the palm of her hand, fire present for fire past. She mimics the clutch of the mesosphere through which this chip of the universe had managed to slip. A little salvage of a wreck.
Somewhere overhead, the telescope’s meteor turns to soot. But should one particle of its ending land on the tundra at the top of the world, it would see on the black horizon a semblance of its former self. In the distance, the lamp of a gable window persists in the night, and the fireflies of machinery spatter like comet trails, and that returner of the universe would fade in comfort, in brilliance, in wonder at these infinitesimal suns. These small northern lights.
Christina Leo is a journalist from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After earning her MFA from the University of Notre Dame as a Sparks fellow, she returned south to the world of magazine publishing, where she pines for snow but rejoices in not having to shovel a driveway. Her previous fiction has been nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and appears in Salamander as the winner of its 2019 Fiction Prize.