Three years earlier, when his wife asked him why he had married and had a child with her, he answered by listing her virtues. They both knew this was dishonest. She had not asked what first attracted him – she was asking why he had bothered, when he had a greater commitment to the stars.
He recalled this now, as he drifted, untethered. His cables had a two-failure tolerance. There had been three. He was gone now, “overboard” they called it, with almost four hours of oxygen left – enough time, maybe, for one orbit of Earth.
The station’s commander was crying as he spoke to the astronaut:
“We have Houston, Jim. They’re linking your family.”
“Are you comfortable?”
“Jesus, Jim. I’m sorry.”
Three nights earlier – in what the crew called “night” anyway – the astronaut simulated in utero suspension. He’d been practising this, practising floating in his darkened cabin, curled slightly, eyes closed, touching nothing. Without weight or friction, his limbs forgot their existence.
In this state he tried emptying his mind, but he couldn’t. He thought about when his daughter was still in her mother’s womb and wondered what week, what day, what moment her consciousness began. What was her first thought? And he opened his eyes, annoyed that he couldn’t abandon his mind like he could abandon his body.
“You can hear me?”
“In the sky?”
“Yes, in the sky.”
Don’t cry, he thought. Not here. But he wept quietly, and with little gravity to drain them, the tears pooled and blinded him.
“What can you see, Daddy?”
“I can see you. You’re right down there, and you live on something beautiful.”
“Yes, I can see your bed. But I can see something even bigger.”
“Yes, I can see our house. But even bigger than that.”
“I can see the whole world.”
“What does it look like, Daddy?”
“It’s a big, round miracle. Oh, it’s beautiful.”
“It’s blue, so blue. And there’s red land and white clouds, and it hangs in this black velvet.”
Friends had always asked him if he’d write a memoir. He had always said no, and he meant it. He didn’t have the ability, he said, and everyone else had tilled the land. He had nothing to add. But now he understood that his final mission was to write a story for his daughter about the tranquillity of his death.
“Is the horse there, Daddy?”
The blind astronaut laughed. “You remember.”
“Yes. The big horse.”
“The Horsehead Nebula.”
“Can you see her?”
“Do they make her race?”
He remembered cutting her umbilical cord five years ago. Holding the scissors, he approached proudly like a senator approaching a ribbon. It was rubbery and surprisingly unyielding. He was too tentative, and it took three tries. The nurses laughed, and then so did he.
“Can you touch the sun?”
“What does it feel like?”
“Yes, like Bear.”
You couldn’t hear the sun. No one could. Not here, not anywhere. He knew this, of course, but he thought about it now. In the infinite vacuum, this colossal explosion was silent – but the voice of his girl could still reach him.
“Is Mummy there?” the astronaut asked.
“Yes,” his wife whispered, but could say nothing more.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Please don’t be.”
“Mummy’s crying, Daddy. She misses you.”
He was calmer now than he was three years ago when she stopped breathing. It was just the two of them, and she’d eaten too much doughnut. He could tell immediately, but he also knew that she would usually spit out the excess. But not this time. Suddenly she looked confused. He had never seen this face before, and he never wanted to see it again. It was a face of angelic fear – a fear without understanding or context – and then she turned white, or blue, and time dilated.
“What can you see now, Daddy?”
“A meteorite shower.”
“It’s like a shower of stars.”
“Mummy says you will be a star.”
“But do you have to stay up there?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Because that’s where stars live.”
“But I don’t want you to be a star.”
“I know. I’m sorry. But you can always see me up here.”
“How will I know which one is you?”
He paused. “Mummy will show you.”
As the oxygen gently ebbed, he thought about how memorials were usually discrete places, but now, cruelly, the whole night sky would become one for his family – permanent, encompassing, unavoidable.
“What can you see now, Daddy?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "Tether".
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