art by Ron Sanders
Falling From Earth to Haphazard Sky (Tadpole Remix)
by E. Catherine Tobler
E. Catherine Tobler is a Sturgeon Award finalist and editor at Shimmer Magazine. She can be found online at ecatherine.com.
Coming back to Earth isn't anything like he thought it would be. He's not entirely sure what he expected; he doesn't anticipate that the air will be as magnificent as it is, for one.
Spring now and this city by the lake explodes with allergens: pollen, seeds, leaves, and petals. Normally, his body would puff up in response: running nose, watering eyes, a sinus that has forgotten how to move air. He breathes deep, uncomplicated droughts of the pollen-saturated air; he tastes the distant snowdrops and daffodils and the strands of saffron in the crocus--crocin, diester, disaccharide gentiobiose!--he can speak these words, he can break each down and how it applies to the aroma, the flavor, but he cannot tell anyone why it matters. He breathes so deep his sinus is coated golden, his lungs are burnished gold; he should expel the color for days, he does not. He keeps it inside.
He turns barefoot circles in the greening grass, the sedge and the rush, and spreads his hands. In the wind, he can feel the seedlings sway--sway is one letter from away, he thinks--and can feel the thrust of the tender shoots as they pry their way from their shells and claw through the dirt, desperate for a taste of sunlight, as desperate as he was in the beginning. He can feel every grain of soil in every fingerprint he possesses; in every crook of his toes.
He feels everything and has no context for it.
They say there is a rabbit in the moon. They have told him to look, much as they told Aldrin. He looks every night.
If he sees a rabbit, he cannot say. He sees mountains, valleys, a crack in the moon. There are tranquil, vacant, desolate seas. There are broad, sweeping plains, countless places no one will ever step. If he sees the curve of a cheek, he cannot say. He thinks he sees words written in the silt of the moon: come, stay, hush.
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The moon is a woman, full and round and anchored by gravity yet floating even so. He cups his hand against the window and she balances in his palm for a breath, until the station falls away. At seven point seven one km/s, he never holds her very long, but he studies her motion, the librations she rocks through the sky over the course of a month. He studies the way she blushes, pale to dark and back again. He dances her, unseen.
There is no rabbit.
There is, however, a man in the moon.
The press ask questions he has no way of answering truthfully.
(They don't want the truth, he reasons; they would not be able to understand.)
What is it like to sleep weightless; what does it feel like to urinate without gravity; can you cry in space; what is it like to float everywhere you go; what color is the bottom of the world; what does the moon look like beside the world; did the bees make honey without flowers; what were you hungry for; can you see the stars from the station; can you see Mars from the station; in seven hundred and thirty days, did you ever--
He saw Mars. Dreamed Mars, a deeper more isolated space than that which he occupied. He dreamed of sepia skies and chasms that would swallow him whole. He woke disappointed it had not happened, that Martians hadn't ferried him away in their ships of metal and light in the night. He unlaced himself from his sleep bag and floated and filed the idea away. It didn't go under D for "disappointed." It slotted into U, for "unrealized."
He doesn't tell them this. Yes, you can see Mars, he says. It's not much different than the way you see it here. You aren't so far removed from where I was. This is what they want to hear--you were close the whole time, and we are not so different--even though they were not close and are wholly different. Now.
And did he ever? Of course. Weightlessness has a curious effect on that, too. They wouldn't want those details.
The stars look different. Current perspective tells him there are fewer stars; if he is lucky, he will be able to pick out Ursa Major, but the glow from the city swallows so many others. Andromeda has been erased, M56 never discovered, Cassiopeia has no throne. No dots to connect into human stories. (Where don't we litter the universe with our beliefs, he wonders. No place is untouched.)
Barefoot circles in greening grass, turning and turning because he's still moving to a rhythm outside this place. He forces himself to stillness--still feels his blood running like rabbits through his veins, pressure restored, restoring. He silently begs the haphazard sky to move in a similar fashion--run, rabbit, run, show me something I know--but it rests in darkness above him.
He cannot see them, yet he can perceive every spectrum of every star, can feel the motion of the light through darkest space and doesn't understand. On the station, there was always ever motion and here there is always ever stillness, but he feels the drag of the stars across his skin. In the albedo light, the precise motion of a shooting star, of an edge-on galaxy, cuts him open, exposes nerves and veins, and he can only watch.
There is no one to bring him back inside; he stands motionless for hours, until at last he sees the spin above him, until the spill of the Milky Way swallows him, and he feels again that he is falling. Nothing orbits--everything falls without cease, galaxies plummeting until they touch one another: collision, consumption, chaos.
The moon is there to catch him; he slides off her silvered edge, libration sending him head over heel, toward the dark side where there are mountains unhoused.
He isn't adjusting well, they say.
They want to observe him. They want him to come in, so he isn't always so alone in the house he called home. He's walking the meadows to mush, his neighbors say. Spends all night spinning circles in the grass.
They wonder at his pat answers. His time in the station--two years, he is reminded, reminded of investments in time and money--should have left a significant, perceptible change upon him. They slide him back into the scanner to look inside every nook and cranny.
He recalls with chilling precision the way, in school, a frog upon a black wax tray was placed before him. Spread upon its back, the frog's legs pinned to the wax, belly pale and bulbous. Swollen with preservative fluids. He closes his eyes and he can smell that smell, can taste it in the back of his throat. Closes his eyes and can remember the tug of frog skin perceived through the length of scalpel. They don't cut him open, but he feels the same tug.
They slice him into monochromatic layers, thread-thin. Sagittal, coronal, transverse. They disassemble and reassemble and ponder and question. He is no different, they say. But he must be! they say.
He feels the motion of the galaxy (falling, one into another) and the slide of one planet through the gravitational plane of another--so far distant it impacts nothing, nothing but him--and he cannot tell them. He feels the endless suck of a black hole, feels a speck of debris caught in the event horizon; this debris possesses a desire to be at long last swallowed whole yet holds the knowledge that it never will be. Forever suspended.
They ponder his brain and his heart, but never his courage. He wants them to ask the questions they don't, the questions he cannot put into any kind of proper words. Those words have not reached this planet yet, but are streaming ever closer. Light year by light year, invisible through space, but en route. He feels that tug, too.
Tell us what this tastes like.
Perhaps the change is within his tongue, though it has been examined, scraped, measured, and found seemingly normal.
He tastes the apple and it is only that: an apple. Flesh and skin, torn easily apart by teeth, though they have cut it into sixteen precise slices for him. The seeds spill upon the plate from their core. He presses his finger over one pippin until it sticks, until he can bring it to his mouth. No one stops him. He shatters the seed between his teeth and it tastes--like Christmas. This answer is as surprising to him as it is to them.
But it's spring, they say. Spring and the birds are courting.
There are no seasons on the station. There were well-meaning crewmembers who sought to make Christmas when the calendar told them it was so. Their tree was construction paper (sent up on the last supply shuttle, courtesy of Charlie Caru, aged eight, Miss Peggy's class, P.S. #42), decked with tinfoil garlands and a hard cinnamon candy for a star. This tree is taped to the wall and small gifts appear beneath it every day: a package of new socks, a crumpled package of vintage Tang (they say this is a joke and why doesn't he laugh? His mouth curls into a smile for them--isn't this a laugh?), a packet of letters from school children other than Charlie Caru, but still in Miss Peggy's class.
The crewmembers never really change, even if they do. They are French and Russian and American, and they should be more different than they are, but he sees only the same faces, telling him to keep on keeping on. They ferry supplies, stay for two months, and are gone, leaving him to his solitude once more. He briefly balances the moon in his palm and when she glides free, he floats deeper into the station, to monitor tests, to determine weights gained or lost, and moistures gained or lost, and to measure the growth of the honeybee hive. It is the frogs that give him pause.
Tadpoles have returned to Earth with the latest shuttle crew, tadpoles that have been born on the station, tadpoles that spent time wriggling in the weightlessness. He knows they stand no chance--they will not know up or down. They will never find the water's surface in order to break through and breathe. They will drown.
His vision takes the longest to right itself. For months after, he feels the need to wash the film from his eyes so that he might see clearly, but eye drops don't help. Only at night can he see the way he remembers; he gets away from the city lights and Andromeda blossoms bright like a lamppost in a forest, showing him the way deeper through the universe. And then, his vision changes again.
He can see distant things with clarity; it's the closest objects that require a different focus, glasses briefly perched on his nose. Distant objects--the other side of the grocery store, the traffic light down the street, the moon and oh Mars--he sees these with absolute clarity. He walks more circles in the grass and sedge, because the heavens are what he sees so well. City lights no longer matter; he can see Vega, Capella, M99. He speaks of comets, of distant worlds yet unnamed, of an asteroid following a precise path to the Marianas Trench. It will someday deepen it by a factor of two. A crack in the moon, a crack in the Earth--they don't listen. He isn't improving, they say. He's worsening.
Nor has he changed, even if he is unable to explain. Charlie Caru, aged ten, visits him and neither can he explain to the boy. The press is there with cameras and reporters and isn't it touching, they say, astronaut and boy meeting. Why, there's the construction paper Christmas tree sent to the station, faded into something less than green, but definitely The Tree. Charlie presses a finger against the cracked cinnamon candy.
What do you miss most, Charlie wants to know. There is a list:
The moon's libration.
The apex of the borealis.
The star-blossom of Andromeda.
The abrupt consumption of the sun by the earth.
The bloody glow of Mars.
But these are not the items Charlie Caru wants to hear about, and they are items the press will not write down--how do you spell borealis, someone always asks. Another list is spawned to fill the space that might otherwise arise:
The warmth of sun.
The spring breeze that brings rain.
Fresh cut grass.
Pillows that stays put.
These Charlie Caru laughs at, especially the grass, because fresh cut grass makes him sneeze, and his mother never lets him blow bubbles with his gum, but toast! Yes, toast. Charlie Caru doesn't know what it is to miss the sun's warmth, but he understands a squirming pillow. Charlie's is never beneath his head come morning, either, but wadded in a corner, wet with tears. Charlie understands what it is not to fit into the spaces offered to him.
What happened up there? They all want to know.
Nothing happened, he says. Every record supports this answer, but doesn't please them. There was nothing on the films, the transmissions, the constant recordings. No sound, no incident, no perplexing encounter with an alien that left him a mutant.
He turns their perpetual question over, studies it the way they have studied him: from side, top, bottom. The question remains the same from every angle. What happened happened, what is is. He cannot explain two years lived within the space station any better than they can explain two years lived within Earth's sphere. They went to baseball games, took boats out onto lakes; they hiked mountain trails, read books, had birthdays and funerals and rainstorms. And he?
He learned that the sound of his heart in the vacuum of space matched the sound of the stars on the farthest edge of the galaxy. Not the edge you know, he says. There is another.
This answer does not satisfy. He tells them he did his work; experiments, photographs, reports, interviews. He played music, he spoke with children on the Internet. He dreamed of Mars, and of Europa, and of places even more distant. Places that have no name.
You have changed, they tell him
I am ever as I was, he tells them.
This answer does not satisfy.
Gravity is troublesome. He cannot convince himself he isn't falling.
Every step is halting, no matter how much physical therapy he endures. He cannot unravel the riddle of stairs, always falls up, crawls up, sits and tries to work it out. He can adjust a solar panel while traveling eighteen-thousand miles an hour, but cannot persuade his legs to work stairs.
He is always falling.
They are sending people to Mars. For the first time since returning, he feels something. There is a tangible weight within his chest and arms; beyond the noticeable rhythm and motion of his heart, there is something else. Something he cannot yet name. If these words are yet approaching Earth, falling through space on a collision course, he wants to go out there to meet them, to gather them up before any other can.
They won't understand. He will.
Mars is the next step, the next big thing, the place to go because no one has gone there before. Ships and rovers and cameras, yes, but no humans. Not until now. And yet, the process lags. Stalls. Everyone they speak with is so contrary, so human. Why do you want to go? There are no good answers--no, you cannot go to Mars to avoid your in-laws, your income tax, your teenagers. There are no good answers until they ask him.
He doesn't have to apply to go; they know his credentials well. He paces barefoot circles in the grass and they ask him why. He doesn't have to do more than look at them in answer and they see him at long last. They see there was no change after all, that being on the station simply brought out what he already was. That being weightless did not transform him any more than a seed is transformed by water and rot and light; what is inside emerges. Flourishes.
He is as he ever was.
He, of all others, can go to this distant, desolate place, and endure.
Teach us, they say. Teach us how to be what you are, so that we too may go, but he cannot explain in any way that satisfies. He can tell them what a pear feels like between his teeth and he can tell them how gravity complicates things. He can tell them that his lungs are so impossibly heavy. He can tell them what the spill of the Milky Way looks like--not like you would ever think, he says; not like you would ever dream, because it's not limited by either thought or reverie or anything human, it just goes and goes and keeps going and you will never understand it--there is no end, least none I have yet seen.
He cannot teach them, but he thinks he knows those like himself, knows how to recognize them. He has seen it in others: the way she cradles her hand against the night sky in an effort to cup the blushing moon, the way he walks circles on concrete or grass or metal, the way she stumbles up stairs even with a handhold. Like knows like, he tells them, and if this answer doesn't satisfy, let it be a beginning.
It's like the tadpoles, he tells them. The tadpoles that came back.
But they don't understand this, either.
Mars is everything he thought it would be. It is so dry his sinus should crack and bleed, but he breathes unhindered clouds of red dust. He breathes so deep his lungs are ombre, streaked with gradients no one will ever record. There is no up or down, but there is a surface and he has broken through.
There is no lake, the air impossibly warm and impossibly cold depending on the arc of the sun. There are seasons he will come to know: seasons of salt, and phosphorous; seasons that bring the tang of solar winds. He does not look for the moon he knows so well, but finds others: Phobos, Deimos, and others far distant that don't have names until he names one Charlie, one Caru. He holds them in turn, studying eclipse, libration, and blush from pale to dark and back again. He walks barefoot circles in red dirt, and feels every oscillation Mars makes in the sky. He feels everything and has no context for it.
He needs none.
This story was first published on Friday, April 11th, 2014
This story emerged after watching Commander Chris Hadfield tweet from the International Space Station. His photographs were fabulous, but I was also caught by the experiments he was doing, and the life he led while up there. What would coming back to Earth be like after an extended stay in space? What challenges might an astronaut face? This story was one answer to those questions.
- E. Catherine Tobler
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