CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|The Great Beyond, The Great Hereafter
“The Andromeda galaxy ranks among the brightest Messier objects. If the human eye were as photosensitive as a moderately powerful laboratory telescope, the galaxy would appear six times larger than the moon and dominate our night sky. Its spiral arms include more than one trillion stars, twice the number of the Milky Way. Observations of its blueshift lead astronomers to estimate that it lies 2.5 +/− 0.54 million light years from our own galaxy. Every Hi-Bounce Pinky hurled in its direction has vanished long before the 1.7 million light year mark.”
A diner the colors of a Kathmandu spice market—sulfurous yellow, yak-crap mauve, glowing turmeric oranges, the brown of tea dregs at the bottom of the bowl. A row of seekers spin on their anchored swivel stools, whirling themselves dizzy until Ponlop Rinpoche comes with the menus:
For ENLIGHTENMENTYou can make an order, but Rimpoche knows best. Takes your hands, rolls up your sleeves, rubs his thumbs over the veins. He reads the telling blue swirl of blood beneath, resolves it into pictograms right there on your arm. A one-legged peacock caught mid-squawk. A snake entwining a forked branch of coral. Two bulls stomping on a conch shell. What you need. You want to ask, “Can I get that without the bacon?” Rimpoche glares. Rimpoche knows better. Behind the boomeranged laminate counter, a blue-green Ganesh—celebrity guest chef in a Kiss the Cook apron—whirls and dives a spatula with his trunk, flipping grilled cheeses on pumpernickel. Out from the kitchen window, hustled forth by ever-solemn lama waiters, fly plate after plate—Thanksgiving-on-a-Kaiser-Roll, double-thick tuxedo milkshakes, oozing scrambled eggs dished up on lacquered foot-wide Babylonian butterflies. Butter on the side in powdery scallop shells. We eat and contemplate the painting above the row of quaking toasters: a life-size portrait of Magellan in the sumptuous garb of a female opera singer, gilt eyelashes, snakes for writhing hair, astrolabe held pinned between his ankles. A smashed abacus, its candy beads spilled across the dark Oriental fabrics behind our Lady Explorer, a few scuttling under the painted screen. His beard is a screaming wolverine of Spanish moss. Its tendrils twist into the cursive of the incantation for the release of a dying animal soul—ommanipadmehum, then the guttural spit, spelling approximated as pttht. Ambrosia comes from the kitchen. You toss off quick shots with the freshman mendicant wobbling on his stool, and swirl your finger in the belly of the cup to swipe up the last clinging gold drops.
“A “green valley” galaxy, Andromeda’s celestial brightness and mass locate it just below blue-cloud galaxies on the galaxy color-magnitude diagram. High levels of interstellar dust and the extreme tilt of Andromeda’s spiral arms relative to the axis of Earth’s rotation make precise measurement of its luminosity difficult. Even when observed remotely as from Earth, Andromeda’s luster per spaceinch is unparalleled this side of the abalone brassiere of a preteen mermaid.”
A stage flanked by slatted veranda doors that let in a view of purple-lit slices of canopy, the malarial, ferine buzz of the jungle at night. When the curtain rises, the dancer appears for a moment etherized in the spotlight, contorted in her first pose for “Mata Hari before the Sikh.” Two tigers are trained to respond to the reveal of a sliver of moon-white thigh, the teasing up of the muselet’s satin slip, the flop of her python-skin bolero when let fall, spent, onto the stage. Each ankle is shackled with bells, a gigantic, ripe ruby ready to be pried from her navel. A miniature stuffed crocodile, arm tucked like Napoleon, stands erect in her hair, grinning, ready to offer pronouncement if not for its star-stitched eyes. Only Mata Hari knows he’s been stuffed with the coded message, a love poem encrypted in Caesar Shift. The tigers pace the length of their cage, paw out between the bars at the mossy black air between the curtains. Blinded by the pianist at birth, they have been trained to love only Mata Hari. From your seat in the audience, you hear the ring of claw on iron and think of the cyanide capsule secreted in the velour of your hat band. The satin slip and that triangle of flesh creep upward with each step Mata Hari takes towards the Sikh. The pianist hesitates as Mata Hari draws out a spring-loaded dagger and the Sikh gazes offstage. Wonder if he should keep going, if you should keep going. Turn the page to Eric Satie’s Gnossiennes, the slow and eerie build of notes, and the tigers sound restless. A lady in the front row unfolds her thin, gilt alias of a fan, then snaps it shut again. Did she see the tiger that escaped during rehearsal, that perched in the scaffolding above the stage, a languorous moon-white paw dangling, narrowed plotting eyes obscured by shadow? If you reach for the capsule, who’s to see?
Beyond the veranda, lightning flashes through the scrim of insect bodies and roiling cloud. When Mata Hari stabs herself, from the wound gush tiny rubies that glitter and wash down into the floorboards of the stage, where below, in the empty orchestra pit, the missing tiger laps them up.
“Messier objects take their name from the eponymous astronomer, a stifled comet hunter who kept finding instead other super-luminary galactic events. Objects in Messier’s original catalog include only those that could be seen in the night sky from his observatory at the top of Paris’s Hôtel de Cluny. Later iterations of the list would include the Magellanic clouds found at latitudes invisible from his northern latitude. Room service was never comped to his suite by the management. It wasn’t that kind of hotel.”
The spandrels of the cathedral glutted with slaphappy saints who cling to the carved marble faces of cross-eyed disciples, each projecting ear or crook or staff a fingerhold. “Just hoping to get closer to the Big Guy!” one cries to you as she tries to gain purchase on the stages of the cross in bas-relief. The whole cathedral splashed over with the Lite-Brite candy colors of the clerestory windows, smudgy scenes of Appropriate Touching and Godliness Next to Cleanliness and Peter and the Seven Earnest Girl Scouts. In the front row of pews, Sweetie McGuffin eats pack after pack of Chuckles. Saves all the licorice ones for her dad, so thoughtful, stuffs them down the sides of her socks for him when she gets home. She’ll whip them off when he looks up from his Reuben with extra dressing in front of the game shows and hold up his surprise confectionaries, “Ta-da!” He knew there was a reason he sent her to that church school. Meanwhile, the saints keep climbing. One’s got mountain-goat skills and has made it up into the tritorium. She sits there huffing with a sandwich of her own—strawberry jelly and cucumber, hint of dried parsley—to wipe her righteous sweat and survey the terrain to come. Sweetie McGuffin hurls her up a Chuckle for dessert. In the nave, an overalled farm girl passes out guinea pigs in gingham-tucked baskets to the impoverished and the lame. “Aw shucks!” says Tiny Bobbin, still lisping at nine. “The best thing since mom didn’t die of the dropsy boils!” Tiny Bobbin so moved by the farm girl’s generosity he gives half his guinea pig to Sweetie offstage. “Wine and Ritz for everyone!” says the priest, and it’s almost enough to make the nuns forget who’s up there beyond the Skittles-and-Treasure-Troll windows and jump on down. Putti detach from the fine work around the stained glass and whip out waiters’ trays to offer up the snacks for all, guinea pigs included (wine in cherubic thimbles). Beyond the cathedral, two lovers run in slo-mo and unite in a most perfect tongueless kiss.
“Blueshift calculations indicate that the Andromeda galaxy is accelerating in the direction of our own Milky Way, putting both galaxies on a collision course in 3.75 to 4.2 billion years. Because the galaxies are believed to have originated in the same generative cosmic tide, the collision may represent a remerging of space materials long separated. Astronomers predict the galaxies will reshape upon collision, forming a single, glowing elliptical form, a bear hug of stars and dust and us.”
Behind you on the boat, a deck of moony fellow travelers munch popcorn from glittered paper sleeves, some sleeves shaped like octopus arms, others like the weird heads of squid. Behind the embarked, the captain’s quarters and the enormous, chalky blue baobab that springs from it. Roots pour around the cabin, helixing the weather instruments, the lightning rod, the lizard-drying poles, the flagpole for the captain’s colors—Old Swedish? Eastern Mauritanian? Who’s to say? The roots buttress when followed ascending, turn to drink-seeking snakes as they dip and vanish into the river below, its murky, ancient fisheries.
Kids seeking Yeah Yeah Wilderness Maven badges have stolen the baby rescue nets and use them to scoop peachy water lilies the size of motorcycle wheels from the soup, each clung with a toss of smiling newts, eager to be harassed. All the treeweight means a paddle on each side of the boat. They’re less effective for the tracework in the scoops but twice or three times as glam. Upstream, in lieu of paddles, they’ll harness up the sharks. Captain’s fresh from a stint on the River Styx, tattooed to prove it. Ask him to pull down the vee of his llama-wool sweater and get the pipe out of his mouth long enough to do it, and there it is in fifty-four-point Iskoola Pota: “Hell and Back, Motherluvas!” with a skull and crossbones and a bony thumbs-up. Each night he beats you at high-stakes Mongolian rummy, has won three sacks of cat’s-eye marbles and the last nub of pencil from a minigolf game you played some other lifetime ago. Still, maybe that’s for the best. Maybe best not to lose to the man steering the boat. He calls, “Mark twain!” and you look back out over the water. A whistling moonbeetle songbath rises around the boat, their pink, bloodless, next-worldly light. The glow like galaxies, like the wonderlit heavens, pulling you on, on.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky’s work has appeared in Bookforum, the Story Collider, and Hunger Mountain, as well as in Tin House, where she is an assistant editor. She teaches writing at the New School.