Those Peculiar Galaxies
On the telephone, I was absently looking at the 1981 calendar you had bought for my birthday. It had just, this year of our Lord 2015, become relevant again — same months starting on the same days. The month was January and it was a photograph from the first space telescope of a peculiar arc of light bridging two galaxies two hundred and fifty thousand years apart called ARP-295. In a column, through all the Mondays and Tuesdays, with a red felt pen, you’d written:
These are light-years we’re talking about, so
even traveling at top speed
on that ice-rutted road to your
faraway ranch in my old blue Jeep
with the busted AM radio, even
in a super-sleek spaceship at
186,000 miles per second
(that’s the speed of light)
I would die a million deaths
and never bridge that gap—
So I called the last number I had for you, a 207 area code from the late nineties — you’d been in Maine, off the grid, but kept a cell phone for emergencies. So many times I wanted to call, but the heartache? nostalgia? ennui? regrets? of a middle-aged man never felt like an emergency. Maybe that was the problem.
Unsurprised, the number didn’t work, so I called Zen, that stable basecamp for your life’s excursions. He said you’d gone further off, and I couldn’t tell if he meant the grid or what. Said you’d joined up with that Arcadian commune — he half-said cult, but caught himself — up where moose outnumber people. You didn’t have a cell phone anymore, but there was a communal landline in a hut like the Amish use. Zen and I exchanged some news — I’d just retired and he was back in California with a baby on the way in the spring — then said our goodbyes.
So then I called you and it rang and rang.
It had to have been, what, ’79 or ’80, at the Algonquin Radio Observatory in Ontario when I met you — out there in the deep of the woods where the night skies were clear, dark, bright. You were new, there to do work on quasars — some theory about galaxies acting as lenses, bending and refracting light. You’d been there a few weeks but we hadn’t met yet, which was remarkable because there were only a couple dozen researchers and grad students living and working in the middle of nowhere.
It was at the weekly bonfire I hosted at the ranch I was renting off Achray Road, backed up against Lake Traverse. It must have been early spring because I remember Sirius, low on the horizon in the southwest, shifting sketchily through whites and blues and violets. The ground was bare, but the driveway was muddy and would freeze up overnight. I saw your Jeep before I saw you, shuddering up the sloppy ruts past the grazing horses, headlights cutting through thick forest manicured thin — the caretaker said he kept the trees cut back so the bears couldn’t sneak up on the animals. The dogs barked, curled up on their blankets on the porch, at your arrival.
Word around the campfire was that you were awfully pretty with your Joni Mitchell bangs capping that heart-shaped face with the tiniest handle of a skislope nose. But no one wanted to get involved — you were in the middle of an ugly divorce and you’d brought your kid along.
I met you at the Jeep with a Labatts and popped the top as you stepped down. You took it and drank deep from the long brown bottle. Zen came around from the other side of the Jeep. He couldn’t’ve been more than three or four at the time. He held up a little green man in a brown jumpsuit. “This is Greedo,” he said.
“Where’s Han Solo?” I asked.
“He’s at home. Mom said I could only bring one.”
You smiled and knelt, rubbing your pale hand in clockwise orbits between his shoulder blades. “Go warm up,” you said, patting him on the back, guiding him toward the fire.
You stayed that night and every night after. There wasn’t even a courtship. More like we’d always been a family and you’d just been away — at a conference, visiting your mother, or down to Ottawa for supplies — and you’d merely come home. We slept through shivering sunrises while Zen poured his own cereal and played Star Wars. I taught him to fish in the cold clear streams that fed Lake Traverse — mostly trout and panfish, some muskies; took him on long hikes through that dense, piney forest — at four he could recognize white pine from jack from yew; to identify all the major constellations — Cetus, Cassiopeia, Draco, Ursa Major, that big brown bear of the north.
On the nights when neither of us had shifts on the array, we watched the Milky Way churn its belt around us, marveled when the aurora borealis shimmered and waved — God snapping his tie-dyed sheets to make his cosmic bed, you’d called it, puffing on a thin joint, sitting on a log by the fire behind the ranch. I felt sorry for people who didn’t want to talk about work outside of work, squares who hated their jobs so much. We lived and breathed the cosmos from sunrise to sunrise. We did that a lot, talked about the universe and deep space, trying to one-up each other with mind-bending perspective shifts, like scientific koans.
“We’ve never been in the same place twice,” you’d said, pulling a pink, frayed quilt around your narrow shoulders, “even sitting right here night after night.”
“Because,” I puffed, thinking. “Because, not only do we rotate around the sun, but our solar system rotates around the galactic center, and even the Milky Way orbits an even larger formation of galaxies.”
To which you’d reply something like, “Okay, okay — it’s my 14-billionth birthday.”
“Because,” I answered, “matter can be neither created nor destroyed.”
“So we’re the same age as the universe — smart, smart,” you’d said, tugging playfully on my beard as if you were praising a puppy.
And sometimes Jerry — the what? caretaker? ranchhand? He did the maintenance and upkeep, raised the animals, trained the horses — would join us. We’d see him alone in his house across the clearing from ours and we’d invite him to dinner. We didn’t know what he ate the rest of the time, but he always seemed grateful for a homecooked meal. And we’d be sitting around the fire, playing our little game while Zen burned marshmallows, trying to rub the charred goo off the end of the stick so he could try again.
You said, “We’re all time travelers.”
“Moving in one direction a minute at a time?” I speculated.
You had this infuriating half-smile when I’d get one wrong. “Think about it — the light that hits our eyes, some of it is new and fresh. The sun is only eight minutes away, but some of those stars are hundreds to thousands to millions of years away, so we’re not experiencing a singular moment, but this wide spectrum of time stretching from the Big Bang until now.” You smiled so wide, so proud of that one, a straight flush when the rest of us were bluffing.
Then Jerry said, “You’re not wrong.” He pointed a black-nailed thumb behind him toward the paddocks. “You see that filly back there? The Fresian? I had this lady friend who wanted to learn to ride. So I bought that horse as soon as she was weaned.” The horse cantered toward the fence and nickered like she knew we were talking about her.
“See, you got to walk a foal pretty regular when they’re young so they get used to you. And Leslie was already coming ’round most nights. At first it was good, but before she was big enough to ride Leslie stopped coming by. And now I got an extra horse I don’t need.” He slurped a spoonful of beef stew and wiped the excess from his mustache.
“So what’s that got to do with time travel?”
Then you said, “Every time he looks at that horse, it’s not just that horse now. It’s that whole spectrum of time. All of Leslie, their whole time together, and even the potential of what might have happened, through that horse — all that light from different times hitting all at once.”
“That’s about right,” he said.
I offered him the joint but he waved it away. “Why don’t you sell her?”
He shook his head. “That’d be like amnesia, wouldn’t it? Blindness, maybe. And why would I do that to the poor horse? It wasn’t her fault.”
I turned to you then, to see what you thought, but you were already halfway back to the ranch, just a thin strip of white shifting amongst the saplings.
“You know why she left?” I asked Jerry.
He shrugged, head nodding toward the filly. “She ain’t really left.”
Zen sat on the ground with ash and marshmallow in smears from one cheek to the other, looking at us with flames reflected in his dark eyes, nodding sagely.
You weren’t gone the next morning, but may as well have been. After three years, your grant was running out and we’d been talking of where to go next — the Cornell people were wrapping up a big project on that massive dish at Arecibo and Puerto Rico was looking better and better. We’d been writing grants together and, though our work didn’t really overlap, I was finding your research more interesting than mine.
But you grew ever distant. And when I pressed, you said, “I just feel like you’re the moon and I’m the sun.” But I didn’t want to feel even less in your eyes — too stupid, too dense, too unenlightened — so I ate that answer and nodded as if I understood.
But you know most of this. What you don’t know: the ranch the morning you left. Pink light through morning windows striping the sheen on hand-scraped hardwood, Zen’s shadow stretching long from the window across the floor. He held a bowl of cereal in the crook of his arm, his gaze lingering out into the forest, the driveway, the paddocks. He took a bite. I don’t know how long he’d been there, if he’d watched you go, Jeep retreating down those deep ruts. I could only think of this as one of your koans, watching Zen’s shadow burn into the grain of the hardwood — light that had traveled ninety-three million miles to reach Earth, stopped only inches from its goal by that little boy, standing in your retreating light.
We expected you to come back and acted as though you would, that at any moment you’d return from a conference, from a visit to your mother, from Ottawa loaded with supplies. I had a few years left on my grants, so I stayed at ARO. Zen had started school by then and I didn’t want to disrupt him more. The ranch filled with crayon drawings of night skies and bears and elk, with fudge-handed ashtrays and vases sloppily glazed. Jerry taught him to bridle a horse, how to ride, how to chop down a tree, how to back away from a bear. We sat around the fire, watching the Perseids and the Lyrids shower across the sky as the clockwork of our years.
It was 1987, the first time I recycled that calendar, when my time at ARO was over and the work I was doing required a bigger array than what Ontario had, that Zen and I talked about what to do. Hell, I’d been his dad longer than his father had. He was eleven and we’d both been in this holding pattern, just waiting for you to come back around. I’d made inquiries, hired a private investigator even, but the trail had gone cold. Then a rumor floated our way that you’d taken a position in Sagan’s lab at Cornell, but when I called a secretary said she couldn’t give out personal information. And when I drove down there, they said you’d moved on — had started working with SETI — and I thought that seemed so unlike you, looking for aliens, sifting through sand like that. And when I followed you, you’d already gone from there too.
As you know, I wasn’t the one who found you. Everything comes back around and it was only a matter of time before Zen’s father caught up with us, but that was Zen’s doing. By the time he was sixteen we were in Florida — I was at NASA working with the Hubble, measuring cosmic background radiation to map the universe. Nothing was the same after we left Ontario, emerging from those woods and settling in those Florida sands. Zen grew into a quiet and angry young man and your features melted away from him, revealing a stranger I didn’t recognize. But maybe you’d always seen that hidden face. We’d had our share of arguments — you’ll do as I say, you’re not my real father — those clichés of stepparenthood. But then he found his father — Carl, a biochemist who, I’d later discover, had spent time in prison for manufacturing LSD — and then Zen was gone too, off to New Hampshire or Rhode Island — one of those seacoast New England states. A few months later, he called me, gave me a number he had for you — you’d been in touch with Carl the whole time. But I put the number away and went back to work.
My biggest discovery was a cold spot in the universe — three billion light-years from Earth in the direction of Eridanus. There should be light and warmth and galaxies everywhere, relatively evenly disbursed, all slowly moving away from each other as the universe rolls ever onward. But here, there’s almost nothing. Sure, there are variations — filaments of galaxies and voids in between — but this was by far the largest. The why of it is still a mystery.
The phone kept ringing, eleven, twelve, fifteen, nineteen times, then I heard your voice — God, it was still the same, the bright timbre of your honeyed accent carrying clear across the distance — and I reached out through the phone’s circuitry, followed that signal out into space to a satellite, beamed back down to some relay way up to hell and gone and through to your little phone shack. I tried to explain — the time travel, the moon and the sun, that long morning shadow.
And you said, “I got it backwards. The only reason we can see the sun is because its light has fled from it, ninety-three million miles, and… I’m sorry. How lonely that must be, to be the source of all light, and remain, yourself, in darkness, waiting for that light to return.”
All I’d wanted was to show you that at last I understood. I stood in two places at once — one in that tiny phone shack in the Canadian nowhere with winter wind raging outside around us, and the other in my office, looking at ARP-295. They’d passed through one another, those peculiar galaxies, their mutual gravity exchanging plumes of stellar material — suns, stardust, and sulfur in some celestial alchemy I never understood (though I suspected you always had) and they’d abandoned that bridge of light in their wake. It suddenly seemed so much like you and me — a brief flash of light, for a moment, in the dark.
But in that understanding I saw that some distances were never meant to be traversed, like the moment when I was still talking, but you weren’t on the line anymore.
Jeremy John Parker is a writer, book designer, and fiction editor for Outlook Springs. A recipient of the 2015 Tom Williams Prize in Fiction judged by Kevin Brockmeier, and a semi-finalist for The Hudson Prize, his Pushcart Prize-nominated stories have appeared in The Normal School, Midwestern Gothic, Longleaf Review, CHEAP POP, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere.