Written by Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría | Translation by Art Sierra
Illustration by Gutti Barrios
Length 5285 Words
Highlight to read content warnings:
Dead animals, parental abandonment
“03 10 58 05 LMP (Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.):
Boy, that sure is eerie looking.”
APOLLO 11 - Onboard Voice Transcription - DAY 4
The sudden, dead-animal stench is so strong we have to run to close the windows of the common room.
Of course, it’s not really animals—it’s just better if we pretend it is. The key words are: “stinks like a dead dog,” and we rush to close the air-tight windows. Nobody wants to hear “smells like an open tomb.”
Like always, after the smell comes the wind. The fury of each gust whistles through fissures in the security seals. They seem to scream what we have known for years: their integrity has been compromised.
As a boy, I used to believe it was all due to some ancient spell. That an excavator had accidentally bored into an old wizard’s grave and the soul within would escape as a raging wind.
But that rage was brief, as was the wind, so we were safe. Just a couple minutes and that was it.
As I grew into a teenager, while I waited for my mother’s return, those “bad airs” had caught me more than once wandering the huge piles of chamusques, as we called anything that looked burned-up. Back then, I used to hide in the remains of some ceramic bubble, imagining that the bad air was, in fact, the ghostly return of the legendary Southern Soldiers, the rot of Death marching ahead of them, the cold hate of their oblivion close behind while they paraded through the launch fields without sparing a glance at us.
None of that was true. Reality is oftentimes more pedestrian: no mages, no ghosts, just the ships launching for some relativistic flight.
As the wind dies down, I run out of the room. Behind me, my colleagues are left arguing for the umpteenth time about what they will do when their parents return. We are one of those odd-though-common groups of people in their thirties, forties, and even fifties, who miss daddy and mommy and spend time together while we wait for their return. Confirmed orphans sometimes call us “preschoolers.”
The excuse to get out of the bunker is the usual one: to search for a dead rabbit. Gorging on fresh, warm rabbit meat after a launch is as well-rooted a custom as drinking homebrew-mead at funerals or wearing the color of yerba mate at birthdays. I sometimes say I’m going out to search for a piece of metal or valuable rock that might have surfaced between the rubble of chamusques during ignition; a find among the burned, melted, and reheated rubble of a thousand launches. Other times, I come up with whichever absurd justification comes to mind, one that everyone pretends to believe.
After all, none of us really know why the other goes out, whoever it is. So it’s better to let everyone imagine what they will. For my part, the only reason to go outside after a launch is the “new air.”
With each takeoff, the propellers heat up the air inside the protection dome to the point where, in a matter of seconds, a whirlwind is formed. This may be to compensate for the difference in pressure or density or because of Saint Coriolis’ will, or whatever... and it may not be any of those. If we’re lucky and the wind has been hanging around for a few days, it might bring along the aroma of far-away lands. New airs, like olfactory postcards from the rest of the world. Or at least from the other side of the launching fields.
On some occasions, the new airs carry the perfume of salt and iodine from distant oceans. Sometimes they carry the smell of resin from hundreds of pine forests, or they bring along the aroma of moist earth, or of gardens with freshly-cut grass. Although none of those scents are real. They’re just my mind’s interpretation based on a set of unknown substances which I can’t specify. Oh, my imagination! It’s always weaving landscapes of places that have long ceased to exist and I have never seen.
I breathe it in. The cold is almost as invigorating as a shot of adrenaline. A sense of euphoria makes me vibrate inside. Then, suddenly, there’s something different. In the back of my mind, an alarm rings out, or a flash of joy. I’m not quite sure which it is. All I can comprehend is that this time, something is different. Something unexpected… Of course!
Could it be a real smell? I haven’t felt it in decades. At least, not since before mom went away.
Tears flow instantly. With ease.. After all, crying is something I do frequently.
She was twenty-three when she left, and I, barely eight. She had fulfilled her quota: leaving a child behind, in case she didn’t return, and I was about to be admitted to the training camp that all the other pilots’ children attended when their parents went away. She kneeled beside me. Since the day I was born, she had been coming to the nursery to visit on Fridays and holidays. This would be her final visit. Her face was lit up because she was finally heading out to space, into one of those ships that burn everything during takeoff and graze the forbidden speed to fly further than the previous pilot, but closer than the next one. Space called to her and a powerful call it was. More powerful than mine, I guess.
I had never called her “mother” because, well, she wasn’t. She was the girl who birthed me when she was just a teenager entering the Pilot’s Academy. A mother is something else, something more. Only, deep inside my mind, I think, I wanted to be wrong about her.
She opened the package wrapped with a grease-stained brown paper and pulled out something warm and fragrant, placing it in my hands. It smelled like the best delicacy in the universe and felt like a heart beating with affection. While I chewed on the sweet potato muffin, I looked into her black eyes, at her skin—dark as wet yerba—and at her beautiful face that no longer smiled. A tear watered her gaze and I was happy: if I wasn’t loved, at least I was wanted, and I had never felt that before.
It’s that same sweet potato smell that now reappears, thirty seven years later, suspended in the freezing wind. And it’s absolutely, inarguably real, not just a trick of my mind. Or at least I want to believe it’s so.
A bakery, many kilometers away, must be opening its doors early in the morning. A place where mornings still flush pink and gold with normal people who live real lives and wait for the place to open so they can buy freshly fried pastries. But, are there any bakeries left? The answer comes to mind immediately, in the form of another question far more ironic and caustic: “Isn’t that a ridiculous question?”
Someone told me once that there are no normal people left, or that the concept of “normalcy” never existed. I can’t remember exactly. For me, normal is the way I imagine myself, without longing for the affection I never received. In other words, a world with bakeries that make sweet potato muffins every day.
The girl with the dark-green skin and black hair has left my life long ago. Too long ago for me. Too little for her, if she’s still alive. All I preserve from her is the scent of greasy sweet potato muffins that’s embedded in my memory and the only trait I inherited: the shape of my eyes, always scanning the horizon.
I once asked her why we looked so different if I was her kid, and she laughed a lot. She said I was a special boy, one with Moon-white skin and Sun-hair, with blue eyes like the distant expanse. That’s the day I stopped having a cognomen. She took me by the hand to the archive room and had them change my file’s title, which up until then, had been a simple nickname. Now it was the name she gave me that very day. And her last name. I was actually more excited to learn her first and last names than about getting my own. What she never revealed to me was the particular kind of in vitro human I belonged to.
While walking through my memories I stumble upon a group of charred rabbits. Why do those stupid rabbits insist on living here? I rummage through the animals’ chamusques and find two or three that still have some cooked meat left on them among the carbonized remains. They’re the smallest ones.
In my room, right next to my bunk, I have one of those maps of the Moon we had at school. I must have stolen it from a classroom, but I can’t remember which. The craters and seas’ limits are well defined on the photograph’s tired gray color, and the roads and tracks are highlighted in resplendent colors. The mineral farms are still represented by the icons of businesses or corporations that no longer exist.
Well, none of that really exists.
I leave the rabbit meat I’m eating on top of the chair and wipe my hands with a blanket. A tiny bit of grease stains the poster when I place a finger on the immense, pure white and circular building that’s the Apollo 11 Museum. I think my mother named me after that museum, or something of the sort.
The authorities say that the Moon was once up there. But the Moon is gone. Neither she nor I had seen it. For our entire lives, we’ve only known of a limpid night sky sown with stars, of an Earth that’s probably unrecognizable to those who crafted that map of the Moon, or to those who made it up. The Moon’s departure turned us into a planet that was devastated by history’ s greatest catastrophe.
For us, the Moon is an impossible legend, a distant invention more unreal than wizards and ghosts. A pale white disc that tamed oceans, appearing and disappearing only showing one face to humankind. A period where months and years were shorter and regular. A time where there were more than two seasons.
I burst out laughing at that corny story… How had they come up with that poster? It was probably created to cover up the disasters from the two-thousand-year war. But who had come up with the story of an immense, natural satellite that had been torn from the sky and happened to be the cause of all our problems? What a magnificent imagination!
All of a sudden, the small rectangular window turns pitch black, like the space between stars, that place where she, my mother, so desperately longed to go. I don’t understand it. I can’t understand that attraction to the absence of everything. I don’t get why she preferred eternal darkness over me. I let out a despondent sigh; I’m surrounded by darkness again. The buildings across the dome fade into their own shadows. We are the only ones who get electrical power at night, so the launching field is the sole light source within thousands of square kilometers. Power is strictly rationed in a world that has always had one single goal: to travel to space and find a world like the one we lost when we lost the Moon, which is the same thing as losing a myth, or perhaps, a dream.
Out there, huddled under the night’s total darkness, there are almost no farmers or lawyers or professional artists left. There are only scientists and engineers dedicated to space and the activities that help us achieve that goal, but nothing else.
And of course, here in the light there is us, the remains of those who travel, the broken promises of those who left.
If the Moon’s pretty tale were true, there had once been a white, pale light, almost ashen, lighting the night. Now, outside the launching fields, all that shines are the flames of the stoves inside people’s apartments, and the hopes of a more habitable world.
How did we make it so far on this boulder plagued with rifts and valleys of lava, subject to nearly constant hurricanes and earthquakes?
Of course. The missing Moon!
I smile alone because sometimes, I like being sarcastic with myself. I turn on the record player. The black circle spins and spins hypnotically. Suddenly, John Coltrane starts talking to me, with his music, about a sad train or a blue train… I don’t quite know…
“03 11 44 15 CDR (Commander Neil A. Armstrong):
I don’t think that would be too horrible sleeping down there.”
APOLLO 11 - Onboard Voice Transcription - DAY 4
I’m falling asleep and I don’t want to.
If I sleep, then I dream of her. That’s the final word on that conditional proposition. Everybody knows that the only way for an implication to be false is that the antecedent was false and the consequent true, right? Well, that never happens.
Besides, if I sleep, the day becomes shorter and the abhorred work starts sooner.
I have to stay awake.
I recite in my head: “Blue fantasy, blue infinite, blue far, blue cold…”
The album cover for what’s playing in my room reads “The Blue Note,” next to the names of those who are making the train blue. The image of a golden saxophone with blue patina shines in the hands of an equally blue John Coltrane.
It’s strange; Coltrane has my mother’s same skin color, and besides, today they both look blue: one in the album cover, and the other in my mind.
Is that why I dress in blue? Is that why I like the color blue? Is that why my eyes are blue? Custom designed with the color that was in fashion when I was conceived and reinserted into my mother’s womb?
I don’t fool myself, or, at least, I think I no longer do that. I know I’m just a perfectly ordinary in vitro; with nothing particular about me other than the traits from my mom’s genetic material imprinted onto a standard base.
A normal guy. An almost vulgar man. No major deviation out of the norm other than a perpetual sense of abandonment and too much anxiety to be admitted as a pilot. Nobody wants a panic attack on a ship travelling close to the speed of light, right?
The stars draw closer to me from the window. Needlepoints of light that can barely compete against the blackness of space. They surround me and get tangled among my fingers and the floating music that surrounds me, visible like vapor. And the vapor carries the stars in diverging swirls to form patterns that look identical to the burning gases spewed by the rockets. And in those rockets they go, the pilots, to meet the real ships, the subliminal ones, who float in orbit, stationed up there in their shipyards.
I know I’m falling asleep because I’ve never been able to see music, and I’ve never felt the stars twinkle like they were tiny fleas biting at my hands and feet.
I read the album cover and read it, among the fog of my tired eyes: it says Coltrain sounds like sadness and sophistication, refinement and visceral. Like something essential. Metaphysical. Something alcoholic, streetwise and suffered, and that’s the reason why he’s exquisite, complex and elegant…
That’s what the cover says, but I think Coltrane sounds like me, crying over my mother.
When I yawn, I feel the blue enter my chest. It’s a little cold and rigid. The chill and the expectations make me shake. I shake with frozen hope.
A blue like my clear-sky eyes, filled with infiniteness, distance, coldness, and fantasy.
I stretch and move the needle. I carefully remove the record and put it back into its blue cover, placing it along with the others. I only own three records. I take out another one.
After some creaking, Miles Davis begins to play the trumpet. I like the color of his music: it’s blue, but also violet and orange… it’s a surreal fantasy of wandering ideas. It’s On Green Dolphin Street, pumping rhythm into my heart.
My eyelids are heavy.
I think, I think… They say the further something is, the bluer it gets.
Remoteness tints everything in blue, but only in Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why mountains look blue at a distance, why old paintings had a blue veil over the things the artist wanted to portray as distant. I read something like that in a book.
But on the Moon, they say, there was no atmosphere, and therefore no bluing. Things that were far away could be seen as clearly as those that were close by. At first sight, you could never know if something was very small or if it was just too far away. Or if it was something large or if it was too close. Was that why Moon was the ruler of dreams and madness?
I make an effort to think, but I can no longer keep track of my own ideas. I only know there’s a part of my head frantically screaming: “isn’t it a brilliant invention? A fantastic idea! Things on the Moon would constantly surprise you, because they are not blue.”
Oh, goddesses. Sometimes I wish the Moon had been real, that it still was, so that I could stand there, where things don’t go blue in the distance.
I wipe my tears. Art Blakey will have to wait until another day.
The silence becomes thicker and I cry uncontrollably. Tears run down, my eyes burn, and the drops hang off the tip of my nose on a thin and delicate face, barely tanned. A beggar’s face, if I’m harsh; an attractive face, if I’m generous.
“Tears of the Moon,” that was the ancient name for silver. Well, my tears look exactly like silver under this severe, artificial, white light.
I turn it off. I have never been ashamed of crying, but I don’t want to be seen by others. Those outside the dome couldn’t understand. They point their telescopes to the barracks, from time to time, to get a glimpse of the good life.
Because people outside the launch fields don’t call us “preschoolers,” like the ones in here, but they call us “cry babies,” and “motherfucking parasites,” and stuff like that. Most of them are insults.
What do I care?
I do care, actually, but I pretend I don’t. I yawn again and slide my hand over my incipient beard and mustache. My hand wanders the face, my eyebrows, the swarm of millimetric scars left by the sight of a thousand launches and the debris they send flying with their exhaust. I slide down my neck and see in my mind my blonde beard, and I notice how long it has grown since I don’t see myself when I look into the mirror.
Then, my hand stops over my Adam’s apple—it would be so simple, so brave, so cowardly.
I wipe another tear with too much force and white dots start dancing in my eyes. Ghosts of a light now gone. .
My mother wore white.
“I don’t want to sleep!” I scream. “Goddesses, I don’t want to sleep!” If someone in the barracks hears me, they won’t mind. We all deal with our monsters in our own way, and we are all too busy dealing with them to notice what other people do; especially at night.
I take a few deep breaths, trying to calm myself down.
I recite a new chromatic mantra. This one, to the color white: “elegance, politeness, neutrality, paleness, insensitivity.”
Black eyes and dark, green skin. She comes closer, in her white-as-the-Moon garb: a long ankle-length skirt and a tight jacket fitting her tall, thin body. The wool of her clothing is white, pure, and soft as the fur of an uncharred bunny and soft as silk, something only a subluminal pilot could afford to wear and don without fear.
She walks with poise and seems to never reach me. It’s a stationary walk, where the landscape around her changes but she seems to stay in place. She finally stops and I can’t figure out if she is close by or far away. I try to calculate the distance, but it’s impossible to tell. She seems to be a statue, no larger than my hand. Her hair, the color of the night sky, hangs straight down and perfectly frames her face. Black geometrical forms are tattooed on her face from cheekbones to chin, and a line divides her face over her nose. She pushes a couple of strands of hair behind her ears and, for a moment, I can see tens of silver earrings dotting them. On her earlobes there’s a pair of particularly long pendants hanging like two simple silver chains.
The chains lose consistency; they flow and begin to drip down like interlaced tears. The line running up her face does the same. Silver and darkness.
Then she leans forward, immense and sublime as a launch tower. I can’t help but feel scared, I’m but an ant next to her! Her waist, thin like the rest of her, is uncovered, like the sliver of skin between the metallic buttons of her jacket. That skin fills my horizon, it’s everywhere, deployed like a sky of burnt sugar over a field of yerba. I feel suffocated by her titanic presence. There, inside, is where she made me!
While she speaks to me, she seems to slip away and come closer, to shrink and grow, like the images produced by an intense fever or the lack of an atmosphere. Her barely pink mouth moves delicately to form silky words. My attention fixates on the straight, parallel lines that run through her face and are just a hue darker than her skin. While I gaze upon her, overwhelmed and in love, I think of the dark stars sprinkled over the bright night and I feel cradled, happy, protected. The ring hanging from her nose looks like a delicate chrome smile..
“From now on, you will be Apolo, and your surname, which is mine, will be Ka’a,” she says to me.
Her voice seeps out of every pore in her green, yerba mate colored skin, and bathes me like an icy wind that carries the scent of sweet potato jam biscuits.
“Do you know my name?” she asks.
And I know it, but can’t utter it, because I’m an adult man, a man twenty years older than her, but, at the same time, I’m a four-year-old child, terrified and moved to tears. I hold a stunned silence.
Suddenly I feel my mouth is too full of the grease-soaked dough and the warm, sweet-potato jam biscuit. My closed throat burns with anxiety and anticipation. She will tell me her name! The sacred name of the Goddess!
She caresses my golden hair and I feel in turns like an adult and a child. Her eyes get lost in my hair until they become two golden embers. The sun has left my hair and set on her eye sockets, duplicated.
The voice, her voice, comes from everywhere at once, from the Universe itself. “Jasy… the Moon.” And Jasy sounds like infinite thunder, with the j slowly rolling into an I, and a y so dense and guttural that it embeds itself into my throat and mind without a single echo.
And then she shatters into a million pieces: parts singed like chamusques, bloody bits, whitish bits, bits of dark green. Every part of her anatomy, of her interior, floats like fragments of a cosmic cataclysm, like a torn-up satellite. Little by little, the asteroids that make up my mother spread away, they turn blue in the distance, and vanish. They disappear.
I wake up terrified, with a jolt that leaves me sitting up in bed. My heart resounds in my ears and bangs on my chest. I swallow a howl, covering my mouth with my hands. The silent crying turns convulsive, shaking all of me, pouring out of my eyes, out of my nose and mouth. It slips through my fingers and covers all of the bright dots that fill up space, there where she could be.
“00 00 45 02 (CMP Command Module Pilot Michael Collins):
/.../ Okay, proceed to Menkent. There she goes - Menkent.
00 00 45 31 (CMP Command Module Pilot Michael Collins):
Menkent - God, what a star.
00 00 45 35 (LMP Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.):
Nobody in their right - -
00 00 45 36 (CMP Command Module Pilot Michael Collins):
Menkent’s good - -
00 00 45 37 (LMP Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.):
- - nobody in their right mind would pick that one.
00 00 45 38 CMP (Command Module Pilot Michael Collins):
- - Menkent’s a good star...”
APOLLO 11 - Onboard Voice Transcription - DAY 1
“En aquel entonces la Luna bajaba a la Tierra.”
[Back then, the Moon came down to the Earth]
Guaraní Legend, Jasy and Ka’a (La luna y la yerba mate)
I run as fast as I can, but I’m no silver unicorn, I’m merely a wooden horse. Perhaps that is why I run faster than all the others.
I am the first to arrive at the first ship to return. The first ship, the first pilot.
My hands tremble as I climb the railings around the huge return module. The voices on the PA say my name for the first time in my life, to warn me that I’m breaking security protocols. I don’t care: the ship’s number is 8107. My mother’s ship!
There’s a flutter of activity down there, while people debate whether to follow me or set up a perimeter to isolate the module. Since no ship has ever returned until today, they must still be dusting off the protocols that had been forgotten for centuries and no longer hoped to use.
It was a relativistic return, just like the takeoff. There were no announcements or proximity alerts, because no one was expecting it. Now, the chaos is turning the launching field into madness. Every second there’s more people, and even the residents from across the energy dome are pouring in. If this ship has returned, perhaps it has found a safe place we could emigrate to; if this ship has returned, perhaps the others will, too.
No one knows if the people inside are all right or what their state is; all they know is there must be someone because the ships aren’t automated. But only I, and perhaps the archivists and those at the command center, know who is in there. I memorized that number to the point of having it tattooed in my memory, matching the image printed on my skin after her departure.
My heart is bursting out of my chest, my breath is short because of the unforeseen climb. I type in the ship’s access code on the hatch’s surface. There on the landing field, more than twenty meters below, silence has fallen on the crowd. If C&C had been able to speak with her, her voice would already be resonating through the PA.
As if it were a prediction, there’s a sudden electrical snap and a white noise before the voice I hear in my dreams every night becomes audible for the rest of the world:
“This is flight Eight, One, Zero, Seven, Jasy Ka’a in command, Menkent is the solution, Menkent is the solution—”
Then the hatch opens and an idol with a head of glass and a body of silver metal emerges. From inside the suit comes a distorted voice through the comm:
“Commander Ka’a, reporting.”
I stare at her in silence. It’s her! Her, just as I remember her! Wrapped in the spell of relativity, she is still only twenty-years-old.
Then, my chest shrinks: there are too many words fighting to make their way towards her.
I want to tell her I forgive her for being my monster. That I love her for the same reason.
I want to tell her that her round, Moon-Green face and my opossum-like features look nothing alike, but it’s still me! Me! Your son! The price a broken society in a torn world made her pay for her dreams.
I want to ask her to forgive me for idealizing her, and for asking something she can’t give me. And I also need to forgive her for deciding not to get attached or allowing me to do so before I lost her.