Night of the Celestial Colander
Appeared in issue 12(5) of The Ester Republic
I’d arrived late in the afternoon. The surf was blown out, but I was pleasantly surprised to find I was the only person in the park. I set up my simple camp: just my tent and a folding chair, a box of cheap red wine and a tin cup from which to drink it. Cold food from the esky (Aussie-speak for an ice chest). I had no fire, not because I was unable to light one but because I was at the time under the mistaken impression that fires were not allowed where I was camping. Thus, I was enveloped in darkness at day’s end.
It had been raining all day in the blustery off-and-on manner of lands whose climate is dominated by the influence of Antarctica and the Roaring Forties. First would come fifteen minutes’ deluge of quarter-sized raindrops with wind you could lean up against, then fifteen minutes of sunshine and light beams streaming down from the heavens. It cleared off late in the evening and the wind slacked. I walked out to the jagged limestone promontory at sunset, the very edge of the world. Nothing between me and Antarctica but miles of stormy ocean. To the west was the broad scimitar of sand that was Pondalowie Bay. Saltbrush and low, scrubby eucalypts clinging to the patchy soil and sand. The gray-white limestone cliffs eroded into lumpy jagged dripping pores, all of it bathed in a light the color of old parchment as the sun went down with the air still wet and heavy from the rain.
Now there was only the blackness of the Australian night, the vague, dark shapes of the gum trees across the clearing. The distant sound of heavy surf smashing into vertical cliffs.
The unfamiliar stars of the southern hemisphere were unsettling to the mind. Nothing about them was known to me. Until just a couple months prior, I’d lived my entire life in Alaska, and the Big Dipper, the centerpiece constellation of the northern hemisphere, was such a part of my upbringing as to hardly even cause conscious thought. Of course, anyone from the northern hemisphere knows the Dipper, but because it’s on our state flag the Dipper becomes a special symbol to Alaskans. It’s a part of the cycle of seasons. In the spring, you look up and see it fading with the rest of the stars into the coming summer. But you know it will be back, and in September, you look up again at some random moment and there it is. There is a deep comfort in knowing this.
But in Australia the Big Dipper quite literally was vanished from my life, leaving me aimless and adrift in an alien world.
My first night in Adelaide I was able to pick out the Southern Cross, the Dipper’s southerly equivalent. It shone down against the southern horizon, just above the band where the glare of the city lights segued into the dark sky above. The Southern Cross, symbol of Australia. I smiled as I watched it, wondering what the future held for me in the Antipodes.
But now, down on the tip of the Yorke Peninsula, I couldn’t find the Cross without the city glare as a reference point, a disarming notion in and of itself. The stars winked at me from a sprayed-out pattern of utter chaos. It was breathtaking nonetheless and it occurred to me for the first time how fortunate people who live outside the Far North are to be able to sit out of doors and watch the night sky without freezing their asses off.
I took a slug of wine from my tin cup and tilted my head back a little further. The Moon was new and there was no light but what the stars provided. I shrugged a little deeper into my Carhartt coat. Knowing nothing of the southern constellations, I made up my own: The Musk-Ox Mother. The Giant Halibut. The Bull Moose. The Porcupine, bristling his quills against a curious dog.
This of course was utterly provincial, naming these stars in a foreign land after the things I knew from home. As if I was the first human ever to see them, the first human ever to set foot in the southern hemisphere. But every single person who sees a new hemisphere and the night sky that bounds it is also the first person to ever see it. This was a moment of nakedness of the soul, and my naming of constellations was a profoundly human act. My names held far more meaning for me than those of long-forgotten Greco-Roman demigods. What are constellations after all but random groupings of stars? Who gets the authority to determine which particular stars comprise a constellation? The connect-the-dots figures that comprise the standard constellations such as Orion, Draco, Gemini, or the Dipper for that matter are pretty abstract to begin with, but these groups had no meaning whatsoever for the four billion or so years they shone down before Homo sapiens entered the picture. So what makes the standard constellations any more legitimate than mine?
I pondered this for a while, sipping my wine and watching the Giant Halibut suck in a hook baited with cut herring. Then it came to me that I sat on the edge of a continent that had been settled something like forty thousand years ago by the Aborigines, and they likely had done the very same thing I was doing. They’d probably never seen a halibut, but they had seen giant man-eating crocodiles that lived on dry land and shambling marsupials the size of delivery vans. No doubt these people have their own constellations, a thought which makes my attempts seem feeble indeed.
I gulped some more wine and as the sky pulled my gaze back upward I froze and my eyes went wide. It was the Dipper, my old companion from home, or something that looked an awful lot like it, albeit skewed and stretched out of shape. I blinked and gawped, startled to see it. Then I took another drink and suddenly realized what a fool I was. This was no Big Dipper. It was the Southern Cross, perfectly formed and shimmering but an arm’s length away. Its nearness brought to mind Italo Calvino’s story The Distance of the Moon about the days when the Moon dipped so close to Earth on its orbit that you could prop a ladder against it and climb on up, feeling your perspective do a massive somersault when you transferred from the Earth’s gravity to the Moon’s. That’s when it happened. The compound lenses of the camera of my world clicked into place. The hourglass was flipped. I can only compare it to two other moments in my life: The first time I woke up in a tent on the Arctic plain above the Brooks Range, and the first time I saw the Indian Ocean.
Suddenly the world was round and I was on the bottom with my head pointed downward. I marveled that my hair didn’t hang down into the sky, that my wine didn’t spill from its cup. I clutched the arms of my camp chair as the Southern Cross and its brothers and sisters zoomed in even closer, revealing to me that the night sky was actually a giant colander supporting the bottom of the world, the points of light below me just the meaningless pattern of so many drain holes. Then I was falling, tumbling through the space between our world and the celestial colander with my mind reeling at what I might find.
I landed with a thud and groped around in the blackness for one of the drain holes. I wanted nothing more than to slip through to the next dimension, but I couldn’t find a portal and in the end I gave myself over to eternal residence upon the dark metal of the night sky. My last conscious thought as I closed my eyes was that some other traveler many years hence might find himself looking down into the night and his eyes might trace my shape, thinking, “That’s The Navel-Gazing Surfer, a new constellation in these heavens.”
I woke the next morning with the rhythmic pulse of rideable surf filling the air. I opened my eyes and to my great surprise found myself back on the mundane Earth, sprawled on the ground next to my toppled camp chair. My fingers were still wrapped around my empty cup and a cheap wine headache pounded the backs of my eyeballs, a fate no doubt preferable to being canonized with all my vanities in the night sky.
© Kris Farmen