The Treachery of Recollection

This is not how I had imagined things would turn out.

I keep trying to tell myself this isn’t the ending, but then I can’t see it going anyplace, either; not without Miranda. Nice sendoff she had, though. Very nice funeral. Terry did a great job, as usual; everything in its place, on a tight schedule. He always reminded me so much of her. Maybe that’s why they didn’t get along; too similar. They each had a detailed plan, and didn’t brook alteration. So she just planned that kid right out of her life, and he returned the favor. But he sure gave her a nice funeral. Good music, although the bagpipes gave me a headache after a couple of minutes. But really, Terry did a great job. She’d have loved all the Birds of Paradise he put out, although they looked a little alien in that little chapel. The pastor did a very nice job; very solemn. Sounded like some good prayers, though I’m not one to judge that sort of thing. Neither was Miranda, come to think of it. What would she have thought, seeing all of us there, in a church, saying prayers over her in her little wooden capsule, trying not to miss her?

Did Miranda pray? Strange that we never talked about it; after all the conversations about God, and religion in general; and what happened, and all the papers we drafted, the tapes we pored over, all these years. I know I never prayed, that I can recall; sure, there was the occasional bit of bargaining with God, trying to get out of a tough spot. But I never read the Bible, or said any rosaries. So I guess that means I never prayed.

But did I think about God? I don’t know. There were times I’d think back to the mission. Being in space felt so strange; the few moments we had to just stare out the capsule and watch, to let the silence wash over us. People always seem to expect me to say I was frightened, or felt very alone or cold. But somehow I felt very safe out there, in space. Even the lunar surface was inviting, in its way. Even there, I never really worried about drifting into space. Miranda once told me it was all she could do not to have a panic attack. I just didn’t feel that way.

Of course, I didn’t feel safe the whole time; when we entered the…structure, I didn’t feel safe. It wasn’t like in those space movies, where the crew’s scared because there’s an alien on the ship and they’re afraid it’s going to jump out and eat them or something. I was afraid like an ant might feel next to a horse. But there was so much more than that…like I said, I don’t know about praying and all that, but I felt so intensely aware in those moments, in that silence. It was like water; you could move around, look anywhere, and not think a single thing. For a long time, I didn’t even like recalling it, because, hell…well, I didn’t want to jinx it. I read this article that said that the more you tell a story, the more likely you are to get the details screwed up. As if, exposing it to light distorts it; the neurons get heated to the point of plasticity; or was it the temporal lobe…dammit, I used to know that. But I didn’t need a neuroscientist to tell me that recalling an event makes it fragile; that’s why we wrote everything down. Several times. Miranda would write something, then she’d send it to me, and I’d write something different, alter it a little bit; or sometimes a lot; then I’d send it back to her, and on it would go.

At first, these exchanges went on frequently; we’d mail manuscripts to each other several times a month, sometimes several times a month, be calling each other up at strange hours; back then, we really thought they’d be sending more people up to the moon, any day. We wanted to tell our story, to at least let our CO know what had happened when the radios went quiet. I guess we should have known when Watergate hit that no one really cared about the moon anymore, but we kept writing to each other. Those were hard years for Kelly and me, and the kids too, I think. The department kept me on, and occasionally I’d get asked to give a speech to some college or corporate group. The first few times I was afraid, like I had this secret; after a while, I learned that they didn’t really care what I had seen. They each had an agenda, and wanted me to tell a couple of stories about zero gravity and hard work, throw out a couple of their catchphrases like I’d thought ‘em up myself, and they’d just go nuts. I really hated speaking publicly.

Kelly, God, that woman has put up with so much shit from me. For a while she thought I was having an affair with Miranda; the letters, the phone calls, the weird hours I was thinking, the evasive answers; I never knew how to tell her what had happened. She did notice that I started telling the kids to say their prayers before bed, although she never connected the two things. See, lots of people assume that just being out in space makes you believe in God, that it’s this big religious experience. What they don’t realize is just how cold it is. It is so goddamn cold and quiet out there; I’d never thought much about God, just sort of assumed he existed, but I left him alone and he paid me the same respect. In training we spent a lot of time with guys who had this sort of need to disprove religion, and so I learned to not think about God at all, came to associate him with church and home, small things, things I wasn’t paying much attention to at that time. I was focused on physics and g-force and the burn rate of liquid oxygen, and there was no room for prayer. I guess there never really is a need for prayer; if there was, we’d all be doing it. And hell, after all I’ve been through, I couldn’t tell you how to pray if you asked me.

Anyway, the ride up was cold. It was beautiful, sure. I think it may have been the most beautiful thing I ever saw; but there was so much to do that the trip seemed to fly by. In the couple of times when I could stare out that tiny window, I felt so detached from everything. All that training, they didn’t teach us how to handle the quiet, the distance. Aldrin, Armstrong, I never heard them say too much about it; I guess they figured out pretty quick the sort of stories people wanted to hear, and left the rest out. We studied the controls, the science of it all: yaw and pitch and roll, escape velocity. When we started to get philosophical, we turned to charts. And you know, it worked. We didn’t really think too much about the cold. Which was good, ‘cause that’s one hell of a place to quote Melville when you’re supposed to be manning the rudder.

So, this isn’t where I thought I’d be. I really hoped Miranda would write the final draft, polish it off, and send it in. She always insisted that it should be me, that there were still enough “good ol’ boys” in the agency that a report like that, coming from a woman, would be chalked up to hysterics and filed in the round file on the floor. I always thought that…well, I guess it ain’t worth saying what I thought, now. Her days of getting bylines are over. And me, I’m left with all these drafts, and the handful of tapes we made. I’ve been listening to the tapes; it helps, actually. It helps to hear our recollections, back when they were fresher. Talking about those walls, the strange, curved aisles forming a sort of nave, leading up…well, I couldn’t really find words back then, I can’t find words now. I guess I could say “terrible.” I tried calling it “awesome,” even “awe-inspiring,” but Jerry and his friends always use those words; I think I heard him say a song that his little Denise sang was “awe-inspiring.” This wasn’t like any song I’d ever heard, certainly anything Denise could sing. Sweet kid, she just doesn’t have much of a voice. But this was real awe.

We’d been out collecting rocks and soil samples; and we were kidding around, having long jump competitions. We’d been cooped up in that little shot glass so long that we couldn’t wait to get out in the open, even if we were in pressurized suits. We were laughing so hard we could hardly breathe. I remember laughing, on the moon. Sure, we looked back at the earth, thought all the noble thoughts. But it was fun, being up there, with the low gravity, and in those snowman costumes. I hadn’t seen her smile much, since I’d known her, so when I first got her to laugh after we’d stepped onto the lunar surface, we just kept going. But we wore ourselves out after a while; we’d switched our radios off, said something about interference, I don’t remember what we’d told control. I bet they knew we were a little loopy by that point, wanted to let us shake the cabin fever out our bones. So we did all of our reconnoitering, got our samples, took a picture next to the other Apollo plaque that we managed to find. Then Miranda asked me if I wanted to take a walk; I remember that. Didn’t occur to me to just wander around the surface of the moon, and I was surprised it had occurred to her, she was always so cautious. But I agreed.

I couldn’t tell you, to this day, why I did it. It’s tempting to think that there was something calling me; but then, that could be the years and sentimentality talking, so I won’t say it. Kelly might say it was my rebelliousness, my incessant need to stir up a little danger. She was furious when I told her we’d gone for that walk, which I think was why I never told her what happened. That poor woman was so scared, sitting at home worrying herself sick about me, and here I am, meandering around like a kid in a low-gravity environment with a thin blanket of oxygen around me. Anyways, she’d worried enough about my body, I never wanted her thinking my mind was cracking up.

It was exhilarating, at first; climbing over little ridges, sliding down into shallow caverns, getting further and further away from the capsule. We didn’t intend to go far, although we never made a plan. But we were close to a huge ridge, and we just sort of walked towards that. As we approached a base of a peak (reaching, I’d guess, 45 or 50 feet up) we noticed a flash of light, as of light being reflected off of something metallic. We approached from, well, to be honest, I don’t know the compass direction; it doesn’t matter anyways. But we came at the peak from the left, the steeper side; the far side was bathed in darkness. Total darkness like there isn’t on earth; the closest I’ve ever felt was camping in Juneau in October, back in ‘88. But this was a deep dark, like a tarp of black, draped over something. So we continued our approach until we came to the edge of the shadow; setting foot into the shade of the crag, it almost looked like that foot had just disappeared. But something (and this we never put into the notes, but I can recall it) seemed to reassure us; it sounds crazy, but this darkness wasn’t threatening, it was inviting. But we were keeping our wits about us, we moved slowly into the shadow. It was strangely warm; I had expected it to be cold, like shade usually is. This wasn’t. And so we entered the shadow region and stood still for a moment, letting our eyes adjust to the dark. And as they did, we saw it. In talking about it, we called it “the cathedral.” Although, since I’ve been back, I’ve never referred to an earthly building as a cathedral, even when Kelly and I were in Paris in, was it 1997? I don’t remember. But I kept calling Notre Dame a chapel, and she kept trying to correct me, and so I just shut up about it because I knew that I’d seen a real cathedral, even though I didn’t really know what that meant.

From what we could make out, the structure was easily 600 feet wide; I could never get a good sense of the overall shape, as were seeing the formation from only slightly above ground level. Calling it a “structure” isn’t entirely accurate, though I don’t know what word to use; it wasn’t entirely closed, and the shape, what we could make out, is hard to describe. It was very dark there, and the materials all seemed to be of some sort of very dark, highly polished stone. There were walls, of a sort; and arches reaching at least 20 feet into the air, although not all of the arches were complete. Not that they looked dilapidated; all of the lines seemed sculpted, as though it was intended to be irregular. We were just setting up the camera to take some pictures, when we heard the voice. It wasn’t a voice like you’d hear my voice if I were reading this to you, but it was clear, and easy to understand. It sounded almost like listening to an old radio; it sounded far away and filled with crackles and pops that meant we missed a word here or there, but we certainly understood what was being said. To this day I have no idea whether Miranda heard the same speech I did; but we both heard the voice, and it held us in our places. It spoke to me of so many things, and then it drew us deeper into the cathedral; it led us away from each other, but we obeyed willingly. There was just something reassuring about this voice. It wasn’t that I ever said “I don’t want to separate from Miranda” and it said “don’t worry, you’ll both be safe.” Nothing like that. It was just a very beautiful voice, and I guess we really wanted to hear more of what it had to say.

I never wrote down what the voice told me; neither did Miranda, and we never spoke of it, either. I promised the voice that I wouldn’t. I will say that, as I heard the voice speaking to me, I somehow was able to see the entire universe, in process, each piece in place, and it was the most incredible thing I have ever seen. I can’t put it more plainly because I can’t see it anymore, can’t call it to mind; as soon as I rejoined Miranda outside of the shade, the details were gone. I simply knew that I had seen order, and that I believed in that order, and that was enough. Strange that having a vision of order should throw my life into confusion for so long. But I saw it. So did Miranda. But how could we write a report about that? “At 1750 hours, Captain Costello and I achieved Nirvana. The enlightenment lasted approximately 2 hours, with no observable aftereffects.”

There have been a handful of times when I’ve been able to call that feeling back, of listening to the voice. Not the words. Just the feeling. It’s been marvelous. Like I said, I don’t pray. But I do think about that day sometimes.

I’m going to burn this, tomorrow. Now that Miranda’s gone, I can’t trust myself to come up with an accurate account. Besides, who’d read it? Who’d want to? Someday, if humanity ever returns to the moon, other people will see the cathedral. Who knows. I don’t know. Part of me hopes everyone else gets to see it; part of me hopes no one does.

I just remembered one last detail; I took a souvenir. When I was walking from the perimeter of the cathedral into the middle, I nearly tripped over a pile of rocks; I bent over and picked one up, and brought it back with me. It wasn’t easy to get it past the prying eyes of the department, but I got it home, and I kept it with me for years. It was the darkest rock I have ever seen, and I got in the habit of keeping it in my pocket. The strange thing was, it was always warm, even in Juneau; I had brought a sleeping bag that wasn’t really rated for anything below 30 degrees, and that night it got down to 5 degrees; but I kept that rock in my hand, and I swear to you, I never got cold, clutching that thing to my chest. I’d cling that rock close to me in times of turmoil, like when Kelly and I were seeing that doctor, Nibelungen, I think it was? That crazy psychiatrist. I didn’t want to be there, but I held that rock, in my pocket, and it kept me from really going crazy. And then, a few years ago, we were hiking in Utah, and I lost the thing. I swear I had kept it close, it was usually in my front left pocket; but after hiking through those red rock arches, we stopped for lunch, and I realized it was gone. Oh well. Maybe it’s keeping someone else warm now.