Ashley Lin Wong, BFR Staff
Let me tell you something about the Horsehead Nebula.
It’s what scientists call an interstellar absorption, a configuration of dust, clouds of effervescent smoke holding crystals in the air. It just so happens that those gas clouds managed to fold themselves over into something that, from 1,500 light years away, looks like a horse’s head facing right.
The Horsehead Nebula is what scientists would call a miracle. What shouldn’t be there is there. Billows of stars and light angled just so, 1,500 light years ago, that they managed, at one point in time, to resemble a horse. It probably doesn’t even look that way anymore, they say, because what we’re seeing now has been over 1,500 light years coming. Could be a penguin or a tree, but that’s for the next generation to discover.
The first time I went to see the Horsehead Nebula with my dad, I was seven years old and skinny, shivering in the wet grass and damp of the night from Dead Man’s Hill in Hines. My dad was two beers in, whistling softly as he set up the telescope.
“What’re we looking for, Dad?” I said.
He just kept whistling to himself, twisting the stand into the base.
“You want a beer?” he said, pulling a Bud from the cooler.
“Dad, I’m seven.”
He stared at me and my silence, his eyes glistening, luminescent as the sky above our heads.
“You wanna see something amazing, Mikey?” he whispered, coming in very close. I could smell the beer and his 9 o’clock cheese sandwich on his breath. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him this excited.
“Mikey, come look at this,” he said, his eye pressed fervently to the viewfinder, his outstretched hand beckoning for me. I pulled the viewfinder down gingerly until it met my eye level, and looked in.
He wrapped his arms around me like a python and guided the telescope in my arms until the stars went from pinpoints of light to flaming orbs of energy, whole other worlds screwed into the black canvas of the sky.
It was my first glimpse of the Horsehead Nebula, and it felt like all the air had whooshed out of me, like I’d hit the ground falling.
“One day, Mikey,” my dad whispered, his hand holding the telescope steady, “one day, we’re going to find a way to get there – humans are gonna find a way to get there – and then we’re going to be first in line to see. Just you and me, away from here, in space, and we’ll never have to come back.”
“But what about Mom? And Nick? Won’t we need them too?” I said, my voice high and reedy.
My father said nothing, the pupils of his eyes swimming in the starlight.
* * *
When I was twelve the teacher put a picture of the Horsehead Nebula up on the overhead.
“Does anyone know what this is?” she said.
I raised my hand and said yes, said that I had seen it before.
“Really? When did you go see it?” she exclaimed, her wide rubbery love-me smile painted firmly over gleaming teeth.
I said that I had seen it with my father, when we had gone stargazing a while back.
“How lovely,” the teacher cooed, raising her voice over the class’s rising snickers. “Has anyone else ever gone stargazing?”
“You fucking pussy,” Larry DeSoto snarled at me during recess, flanked by two of his rats. “Going stargazing with your daddy? You and daddy go stargazing a lot, drink tea, and play with little teddies and pony balls?”
They all hovered over me menacingly, only scattering when Nick came out.
“See you later, dipshit,” they laughed, grabbing my nipples and twisting hard.
“You okay?” Nick asked when he saw my watery eyes. I said I was fine, that DeSoto and his gang had just roughed me up a bit. I didn’t tell him how my dad had been out of a job for weeks, had been gone for days then returned like nothing happened and that now I could hear him yelling through the walls, both my mom and dad crying every night. They always began in whispers, harsh words passed back and forth under their breath, but inevitably one of them would snap and the argument would ignite until they were practically burning the house down with their charged insults. My father started sleeping in the basement.
I never asked why, never wanted to. I started seeing him every day in the parking lot of the Polish bar on the bus ride home from school. I knew how far gone he was, but I thought life could blot out reality as long as he didn’t say it.
* * *
The night before he left, my dad got drunk and spread himself out like a bear on my bed.
“Dad? What the hell?” I asked when I found him there around 1 am, still clinging to the sheets.
“Don’t complain, Mikey, I’ve had a long day.”
“Right, because every day’s a struggle when you’re unemployed.”
“Shut up.” My dad rolled himself onto his side so he could look at me directly. His eyes were so red and puffy that, for a moment, I wondered if he’d been crying into my pillows.
“You know what adulthood is, Mikey. It’s not getting wiser, or more mature, or any of that shit. It’s waking up in the morning and it’s twenty years later. And you’re married to your first girlfriend with two kids, and the job at the Ford plant you got junior year of high school is the only job you’ve ever had.”
I pulled off my shoes and socks, half-attentive, waiting for him to pass out so I could sleep.
“Remember what I said, Mikey? About the moon?”
“We’re going to be first in line, you and me. First in line to leave.”
I guess some seven-year-old part of me was dumb enough to think he’d actually take me with him. Wherever he ended up going, whatever would happen between him and Mom, I never believed that he would leave without me.
* * *
When I was sixteen, my dad pulled his truck out of our driveway and never came back.
* * *
The Horsehead Nebula is what some people refer to as a miracle.
I say it’s just fucking clouds of gas, people, get over it. You can make that stuff at home.
* * *
Let me tell you something about miracles: they don’t exist.