Finalist for the 2021 QUT Allen and Unwin Writers Prize
Donna ripped my New Scientist up into pieces for kindling and told me that the moon was an alien spaceship from Jupiter. She said that it had set out millions of years ago to destroy earth, but hadn’t had enough fuel to enter the atmosphere. Gravity had sucked it into orbit like a bead threaded onto a string, while the aliens slept inside, waiting. When Neil Armstrong landed, the moon’s mouth would open, and the aliens would suck him in with their squelchy green tentacles.
Donna was kneeling in front of the fireplace while she talked, trying to get the wood to catch. Her feet were bare, and her hair was parted across her neck like the sea. There was a bite mark on her left shoulder. I wondered who had bitten her, and when, and if he was the reason she was smiling again.
“Apollo 11 isn’t a fairy-tale, Don,” I said. “This is real.” Donna put down her lighter and turned to me, hands empty.
“I was just trying to make you laugh,” she said. “I didn’t mean to offend you-“ “You didn’t offend me,” I said. “Really. It’s fine.”
She crossed the room and sat down beside me on the floral upholstered couch. She’d developed an odd way of moving lately; as if her skin didn’t fit her body, as if she was just learning how her legs worked. She bit her fingernails and looked me over, studying my arms and shoulders.
“Do you think the astronauts are scared?” she said.
I nodded. “My uncle is scared shitless,” I said. A house wren started singing in the maple outside the window. “That’s what he told me.”
“I’d be scared too, if I thought I was going to die.” Donna reached out and placed her hand on top of mine. I was reminded of the way that my mum used to touch my dad. I saw us when we were in our fifties, wrinkled and going grey and still not remembering how to talk to each other.
“It’s not just that he’s scared of dying,” I said. “He doesn’t mind dying, if it’s quick.” Donna squeezed my hand, then let go to fiddle with her dress. “It’s about having put all that effort into it, and then failing anyway,” I said. “He’s spent seven years on this one dream, all of his breath and blood on making the landing.” I was looking at the fireplace, but I heard her breath catch, as if from sudden cold. “And to want something that much, and know that you might not get it…that’s hard, for anyone.”
I felt her thinking, trying to choose her words. The house dimmed and brightened as the trees in the garden swayed in the wind. She swallowed to wet her mouth and moved so that our shoes were touching.
“What are you saying, Jase?”
“I’m saying that I wouldn’t want to be him right now.”
The moon still hung in the branches of the maple tree like a baby curled into a womb. I knew that it orbited the earth at a rate of two thousand, two hundred and twenty- eight miles per hour, forever turning on a path that led nowhere. The planets spun, while Donna and I stood still.
It was fifty-seven minutes since they had left earth, and still the Lord had not spoken.
Buzz Aldrin anchored himself in the gently rotating Columbia by holding on to a crash couch seatbelt, looking out the side window like a child witnessing his first dawn. The sky outside was darker than iron, so dark that it drowned the sun. He held his free hand up to his ear, half expecting to hear the Voice saying, this is me. This is what I look like. Ever since he was a child, he’d heard the Voice in his head, repeating prayers and Bible passages, sometimes babbling nonsense. He knew that it was the Voice of God, that he was chosen. It was a blessing, until the Voice went silent two weeks before the launch, leaving him wondering what he’d done wrong. He turned to the window and threw off an air force salute. Colonel Buzz Aldrin, reporting from the shores of the universe.
Beyond the glass, the earth rolled by like an ever-cresting wave. Down there, people were cooking dinner, making love, planting landmines in playgrounds. Up here, you could forget that humanity even existed. It occurred to Buzz that most wars were fought over borders. But from space, the borders that men had died for were invisible. He stared out into the blackness, where part of him believed that the Lord was waiting. Are you watching this? he asked it. Can you please tell me that you’re here?
Mike was at the nose of the command module, checking the inertial platform alignment with the sextant. Neil was gripping a seatbelt beside Buzz, adrift on his thoughts like an astronaut with a cut tether. Buzz caught his eye and tried to smile.
“How’re you feeling?” Buzz asked.
Neil gave an ugly grin and scratched his arm. “Let’s just say that I’m glad about those faecal containment garments.”
“Too much information, mate.”
Neil laughed. “Just thought you needed to know.” The earth had spun out of sight with the rotating of the ship. Neil was still grinning like a cover girl, his piggy brown eyes as bright as a boy’s. Buzz glanced over at Mike, then leaned in closer to his friend.
“Can I ask you a question?” Buzz asked.
“Sure,” said Neil easily. He assumed the posture of a teacher, frowning, his hand resting on his chin. “Ask away.”
“Do you think…” Buzz paused and breathed the canned air of the ship. “Do you think that God ever grants our requests?”
Neil scrunched up his face. “I believe God speaks to us through nature,” he said. “But you’re a Christian, aren’t you?” His eyes searched Buzz’s face. “Or have you had a change of heart?”
Buzz bunched the seatbelt up in his hands. The Columbia felt smaller than it ever had before. “I believe in God,” he said finally. “But I don’t believe He answers prayers. The Bible times were the age of miracles. He doesn’t do miracles like that anymore.” He said it like a challenge, hoping the Voice would respond. But it stayed silent. That was typical. Never there when he wanted it, always there when he didn’t. “This mission isn’t a miracle,” he said. “Humans did this, not God.” Neil was silent, thinking. Still, the Voice said nothing. Outside, the world spun past, blue and green and white.
After lunch, Donna put on Magic Sam and tried to make me dance.
She’d changed into her green dress, the dress she’d been wearing when I first saw her in the park. I’d watched her sitting with her cheek to the bark of a tree, murmuring to herself as she turned the pages of her novel. She’d looked like a blade of grass, sprung up from the earth. When I’d seen her holding hands with a boy in the supermarket before the hailstorm, she was wearing the same dress. I’d taken it like a man, smiled and shook his hand.
Now it was summer, and the garden was smiling in the rain. Donna was smiling with it.
“Get up and dance with me,” she said. “If you sit down long enough, your legs will fall off.”
I thought about the Apollo 11 spacecraft, spinning round the moon like a three- legged dog chasing a rabbit. Columbia was tiny, he’d said; too small to hold memories of Joan and the kids, memories of things you’d almost said. Buzz Aldrin, film star, American hero, dead man, looking down at the moon’s leprous grey skin.
I got up off the couch and started towards the TV. Donna caught my shoulders and held me back. Her dark hair was loose, stirring in the breeze from the fan. There was a scar on her left arm.
“You’re not going to help him by obsessing over it,” she said. “You’re only working yourself up.”
I twisted out of her grasp and went for the TV, but she beat me there. “We can turn it back on when the Eagle is due to undock,” she said. I looked into her eyes and imagined the Columbia going up in flames. She pressed her lips together and blew air out through her nose. I’d never stopped noticing how beautiful she was.
“I don’t want to find out he’s dead an hour after it’s happened.”
“So you want to see it as it happens?”
“I don’t want it to happen at all.”
Donna’s eyes were the blue of the earth, seen from space. There were mountains in those eyes, clouds and continents. She shook her head at me. Then she wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me into a hug. I stumbled backwards and I nearly fell over the coffee table; she held me up so that I didn’t fall. On the record player Magic Sam was singing about how bad his luck was. The rain kept falling outside, and I imagined the rivers and hollows and dry places of the city filling up with water. At some time, I’d stopped believing that my arms were strong enough to hold her.
She let me go abruptly and stepped away. She held her hands out like she was asking for money.
“The way we act around each other now,” she said. “Is that my fault?”
“It isn’t anyone’s fault,” I said.
The phone rang upstairs, but neither of us made a move to answer it. In the quiet of the living room, I let my breath unravel.
On that dead ground where no voice had spoken since creation, he broke bread and gave thanks to the Lord. He looked out the window as he said the verses. The lunar surface looked like soup boiled down to a crust. Neil smiled at Buzz; he was none the wiser. Buzz could feel the Spirit inside of him, like something physical; an aftertaste that lingered for days, perhaps, or his first grey hairs, or his bones returning to dust.
Abort the mission, the Voice said. It is not for humanity to explore the planets. Buzz had to swallow twice to get down the wafer of bread. He chased it with a sip of wine, cold and sour. The LM crew compartment was tiny. Neil could see his face, see how he moved. Be calm, Buzz, he told himself. Still your shaking, slow your breath, like the NASA shrinks taught you. You’ve sinned before. This is no different.
“Do you feel like you’ve done this before?” Neil said.
“Done what before?” Buzz asked. Sinned, said the Voice. Sinned again and again and again …
“Walked on the moon,” said Neil. “I feel like I’ve been here a thousand times before. I know what it’ll feel like. I know exactly what I’ll say.”
“Can’t say I understand that,” said Buzz. Neil nodded.
Buzz felt as if he was out on the moon without a spacesuit. He could nearly feel the air in his lungs expanding, tearing at his lung tissue. Water in the soft tissue of his body vaporising, and his skin swelling like it was infected. His blood bubbling. But there would be no unconsciousness after fifteen seconds. He might have had to live like this forever, screaming, biting pillows. Bad Christians don’t go to heaven. They burn.
“Hey, Neil,” Buzz said.
“What is it, mate?” Neil was cracking the knuckles in his hands, like he was getting ready for a fight. Facing the night like an enemy.
“I…” He tried to step on the anxiety, crush it down. He had to walk carefully, not seem too insane. “I’m having conflicting messages from God,” he said, “About whether or not we should complete the mission.” He stared hard at the exit hatch. It was out there now. The truth sweetened with a lie.
Neil waited an unbearably long time before answering.
“Mate,” he said, “Are you still feeling okay about doing this?” Buzz could see from Neil’s face exactly what he thought of Buzz’s little comment.
“I’m fine,” Buzz said. He said it calmly, evenly, added a laugh on the end. He said it as if saying it aloud would make it true. “I’m just…you know how religious I am. God does talk to me, but sometimes it’s a little hard to distinguish his voice from my own thoughts.” Another lie, a big one. He hoped Neil wouldn’t want him to joke about it. He imagined himself burning and couldn’t smile.
“Oh, sure,” Neil said. “I was worried that you were losing it there for a sec.” Neil turned to face Buzz, with an expression that demanded his full attention. “Before we go out there,” he said, “I need to know if you’re okay to do this. I need to know if the mission is going to be compromised in any way.”
Go home, said the Voice. Go home while you still can.
“Well?” said Neil.
Buzz looked into his friend’s eyes and nodded.
When the sun set, the house wren stopped singing.
We sat on the couch and watched the grey shape of Neil Armstrong descend the ladder. The footage was so indistinct that we could barely make him out. A man of smoke descending into the shadowlands. Behind him, the moon glowed grey. He came down the ladder as slowly as an ant crawling along a razor blade. Afraid of falling, still.
At the foot of the ladder, there was a pause. “One small step for a man,” he said, and Donna gripped my arm. “One giant leap for mankind,” he said, and I let go of my breath. All over the world, people let go with me. All over the world, we leaned forward, watching the Boy Scout from Ohio swim across our television screens.
When they returned, my uncle told me what it was like. Watching Neil take those first steps, knowing that he’d done what Buzz would never do. Managing to be okay with that. Watching Neil collecting the contingency soil sample. Thinking of wanderers kissing the soil of a foreign land. Remembering the list of things that could go wrong: ice accumulating in the engine fuel line, further damage to the ascent engine circuit breaker, a storm over the Pacific Ocean landing site. He spoke to his God and heard only anger. He’d imagined his life as a mountain, sloping up to this one choice. A pinnacle to stand on, or a height to fall from. But now that he’d arrived there, at the critical moment, he realised that he’d already made the decision. That he’d known all along.
Buzz took a last look at the view through the hatch, at the moondust and starlight. He put his foot on the first rung of the ladder.
And he followed his friend into the dark.
Hannah Vesey is a second-year creative writing student with a passion for eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. She wants her work to create connections and help engender kindness and understanding for people who are ‘different.’ This is her second published story. Follow her on Instagram @hannah_vesey_