The summer I was nine, my third mother took off, taking most of the house off with her. The night she left, I found my dad kneeling on the floor in front of the open refrigerator, and he looked at me for too long. He was supposed to be at work.
“What’s wrong?” I finally asked, though I didn’t want to know.
“No one’s in charge of you,” my dad told me. “No one’s in charge of anything. Haven’t you learned that yet?”
The cold fell out of the fridge like something solid, and I edged closer, hoping it’d land on me and cling. I was still vulnerable to the possibility that one of the mothers would work out.
“Alright then,” my dad said. He left the ice cream out on the counter, along with the contents of his pocket: three charred sticks, one of them short, two of them long, and a list of dead stars, as in celestial, his specialty.
Then he went to work, driving in the dark up the spiral road to his job at the observatory. It was one of the great mysteries of the heavens that my father had been married three times. He only looked up, and he was awake all night. Each of my mothers had complained about this, and eventually I picked up some things about which direction you should be looking, and which hours you should be keeping if you wanted a woman to stay with you. I practiced eye contact. I practiced sleeping.
I ate the entire carton of Neapolitan, beginning with the chocolate. I visited the top of my father’s closet, removed five Playboy Magazines, and read them. I considered my three mothers, and compared them favorably to the naked women. I turned on the TV, and then turned it off. She’d taken the rabbit ears from the top, and now all we got was static. She’d taken the doorknob too. It was made of purple glass. When you put your eyeball up to it and looked in, it was like you’d arrived on Mars. I’d gotten a black eye that way, when she opened it accidentally into my face. Getting out of the house now required kicking and a coathanger pushed through the hole where the knob had been, and by the time I arrived outside, it was seven AM.
My dad was sleeping at the observatory. There were bunks. The astronomers were like vampires, slinking around under the closed dome until the sun went down, at which point they swarmed out to look at their sky. My dad had once referred to the solar system as My Solar System. He seemed to consider himself the sun, but he was not, and if he didn’t know that, I did.
We lived at the bottom of Mount Palomar, where the spiral road started. If you stayed on our road, you’d eventually make it to the observatory, a big white snowball of a building on the top of the mountain, and inside it, a gigantic telescope. The observatory, with its open and shut rotating roof, was like a convertible car and the astronomers were teenagers in love with black holes. Their sky made me miserable. I wanted humans. There weren’t many of them on the mountain, and my options were limited. I rarely went up. I went down, if I was going anywhere, and that day I went to Mr. Loury’s house.
Mr. Loury’s wife had, two years earlier, gone into the Great White Yonder. That was what my second mother, the hippie one who’d thought that astronomy and astrology were the same thing, had said about it. I don’t think she’d ever seen Jaws. I didn’t know what a Yonder was, and so in my mind, Mr. Loury’s young wife dove into the mouth of not just a great white shark, but a megalodon, every night for months. Then she got chewed up, and at the end she looked like canned spaghetti. My second mother hadn’t had much patience for a year of me retching over ravioli. I was pretty sure that was why she’d left.
Mr. Loury, with his attempt at a handlebar mustache and his short-sleeved button downs, with his sadness, was a human fender bender. I couldn’t stay away from his property. Normally I paced the perimeter, feeling his woe, but today, I had woe of my own and it entitled me to trespass.
He was sitting on his front steps drinking a beer when I arrived, and I sat down beside him, like this was something I did every day. My face was on-purpose sticky with ice cream, and it was beginning to acquire a furry stubble of dust. I was no longer nine years old, but a grown man in misery. My third mother was the one with whom I’d long been significantly and hopelessly in love.
“Hey, buddy,” Mr. Loury said. Not kid. This was progress. “Want a beer?”
I took one. No one was in charge. It was known by men the world over. There was comfort in the shared understanding.
Mr. Loury was an astronomer like my dad, or he had been, until his firing due to an attempted sabotage of the telescope. I didn’t know the details, and didn’t care, beyond the thrilling fact of sirens making their way in slow frustration up the curve of the mountain. He’d been to jail. Again, this called to me. It seemed he never slept. I never slept either. I stayed up all night reading, and during the day, I patrolled the mountain, checking for aberrations. I felt like I’d know them when I saw them.
Together, we watched the goings on of the spiral road, first a rangy cat patrolling, and then Mrs. Yin, our local ancient peril, driving too fast downhill in her Cadillac. I didn’t question the fact that it was seven in the morning and he was drinking already. It seemed reasonable. Some people drank coffee. Others drank beer. I was, I decided, a beer drinker. At last, Mr. Loury stood up, and looked at me for a moment, seemingly noticing for the first time that I was a kid. He waved his hand slightly. I thought he might be getting ready to send me home.
“My third mother moved to Alaska last night,” I told him. “She’s not coming back.”
“My wife died,” he told me. “That’s like Alaska, but more.”
I wanted to ask about the Great White Yonder, but I was worried he’d tell me too much, and so I didn’t. I couldn’t afford another summer of nightmares, the mouth of the shark opening and showing its chewed food like a cafeteria bully gone gigantic.
“Want to help me with a project?” Mr. Loury said. “A dollar an hour. Yard work.”
“If it’s lawnmower,” I said, negotiating, “I charge by the square foot.” Lawnmowers weren’t safe for me. My toes begged to be run over. There was a death wish in me. One of my ears had been the recipient of eleven emergency room stitches. Hidden under the skin of my right knee, there was a jagged piece of gravel that seemed to have become permanent.
“Digging,” Mr. Loury said. “Got a spare spade for you, you’re interested.”
Spare spade. I repeated the words in my head, a triumphant vision of myself at the bottom of a deep, dark hole in the dirt, looking up at a narrowed world.
Mr. Loury had already begun digging. He had a hole the size of a swimming pool, and a huge heap of dirt beside it. After an hour, the sun was high, and I yearned for the freezer, and the rocket-shaped popsicle I was pretty sure was left in there, amid the foil-wrapped unknowns.
“Why are we digging?” I asked Mr. Loury. I had a couple of ideas. One of them involved the burial of the Great White Yonder. I wondered if the stomach of the Great White Yonder still contained the body of Mr. Loury’s wife.
Mr. Loury looked at me like I was very, very stupid.
“We’re making a volcano,” he said, jerking his head toward the heap of dirt, which I’d taken for beside the point.
I’d made a volcano once, in a science class, out of dirt, vinegar, red food coloring, and baking soda. It erupted in the car, and the screams of my third mother, caught in the lava flow, still echoed in my ears. She’d cried. I’d cried too, in mortification. I’d made it to woo her.
“I don’t think real volcanoes are made the same way you make fake ones,” I said.
“This is how they made Krakatoa,” Mr. Loury said, with certainty. “This is how they made Pele.”
I thought about this.
“This is how they made the volcanoes on Mars,” Mr. Loury said, and went back to digging. “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to believe me, but you can look through the telescope and see for yourself.”
Volcanoes made on Mars. Volcanoes made on earth. What if I could be one of the people who made volcanoes? What if this could be my career?
“Who made them?” I managed. I could hardly breathe.
“People like us,” Mr. Loury said.
“On Mars? Martians?” I asked.
“Krakatoans, Martians, same thing,” he said. “I knew it when I saw you. You’re one of us.”
I heard the distinctive sounds of my father’s car coming down the spiral road. The brakes were failing, and so he kept an anchor in the passenger seat, attached to a rope, in case he lost control going downhill. I ignored the noise. No one was in charge, he’d said. If he wanted me home, he could scream.
I looked at Mr. Loury. He was offering me everything I’d ever wanted, and I was pretty sure he was about to laugh and take it back, the way adults always did.
“What are the volcanoes for?” I asked Mr. Loury, a last testing question. He eyeballed me. I swiped at my face with nervous, dusty fingers, but finally he nodded and surrendered everything.
“I wasn’t sure you were ready for this, but you seem man enough to take it. They’re observatories, but better. From inside a volcano, everyone knows you can look up. Almost no one knows that you can also look down.”
It was not as though I hadn’t been warned by my third mother about people who said things like this. It was not as though I cared. I was a goner. My dad, I imagined, would one day walk up the slope of this new volcano, and bend over to look down, startled to see me there inside it, my telescope aimed at the center of the earth. I’d be making charts of the things I saw there, the dark stars and explosions. There’d be worms the size of trains. I knew it, despairing with desire. There were mysteries on the earth, and wonders. Even my own bellybutton, and the possibility that through it I might reach blood and guts, had been known to obsess me. Volcanoes were portals too.
My dad shouted for me from our front door, but I didn’t move. He increased volume and shifted to my full name. I didn’t flinch.
Mr. Loury looked at me suspiciously.
“That you he’s looking for?” Mr. Loury asked.
“Possibly,” I said.
“I thought you were a boy,” he said, and there was an edge to his voice now, a tightness. “You said you were a boy.”
“I’m a Krakatoan,” I said. Finally, with greed and great relief, I knew that I was one of something, part of a group. There was a destiny for me. My life wouldn’t have to be this way forever.
“Your hair’s too short for a girl,” Mr. Loury said, still staring at me with an odd expression on his face.
“It got caught in a pair of scissors,” I said, tersely. It hadn’t been an accident. There’d been braids.
“Shit,” Mr. Loury said.
“Shit,” I replied, and threw another shovelful of dirt onto the volcano. I tromped it down with my bare feet, and spat on the new volcano section.
All the while, Mr. Loury shook his head, and muttered to himself.
“Volcano gods need sacrifices,” he said, finally. “What are you going to do about that?”
“I have thirteen dollars in my piggy bank,” I said. “You have beer.”
“That won’t work,” he said, went inside his house, and slammed the door. “This one only wants boys. Don’t you know anything about volcanoes? Don’t you know anything about anything?”
His voice carried out into the yard, and it cracked at the end, with something I couldn’t figure. I was repulsed by whatever it was. Crying was for babies.
I stared at his front door, kicked it once, and then went home to defrost something frozen. I asked my dad what Mr. Loury had done at the observatory to get himself fired.
“Said the sky was black and all the stars had gone out,” my dad said. “Lost us a heap of funding, which is part of why we’re where we’re at now. Can’t even afford a paintjob. You see how it’s peeling.”
“And so they took him to jail?” I was startled. My dad snorted.
“No. Rick Loury went to jail because he commandeered the telescope, and tried to crash it into the floor. He thinks there’re stars inside the earth. He lost his wife, and then he lost his funding, and then he lost it.”
Whatever it he’d lost, I wanted to find it and keep it for myself.
My dad was making another mark on the wall. There were three of them now, black X’s in the places where his wedding photos had been. He didn’t like the bare spots in the wallpaper.
I didn’t mind them. Sometimes I poked them with a pin, outlining perforations in each pattern. My first mother left right after I was born. She disappeared without warning, and the day after she left, the good part of the story, my dad discovered a new star. After my second mother walked out, my dad’s team spotted an elusive comet.
“Did you find anything last night?” I asked my dad.
“Why would we?
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just thought you might.”
Volcano gods needed sacrifices, Mr. Loury had said. I thought about Pele and her boys. I wondered if other volcanoes wanted other kinds of sacrifices. I wondered if observatories did.
I didn’t know how telescopes worked. I didn’t know what made up the center of the earth. I had muddled thoughts of lava. How would I know what the sky was made of, or that there was not another sky just beneath the surface of the ground? I thought it might be possible.
I knew that Palomar sometimes got angry. The shutters got stuck closed and the telescope couldn’t see out. There’d been days of malfunction that week, things jammed in the works, and my dad had complained to my third mother about it. A grant had been lost because of observatory failure, and there were salary questions. They needed to find something new, something that would attract media. I’d heard a daylight argument.
“Did the roof open last night?” I asked my dad.
“Yep,” he said, and went back to the X on the wall, going over it with his ballpoint. I thought about the picture that had been there until the day before, my third mother laughing, with her mouth full of cake. I wanted the photo back. I wanted her back. I wanted them all back.
I arranged the sticks on the counter into a triangle, the shortest one at the bottom, until my dad noticed what I was doing and took them away, breaking them on the way into the trash.
“Why’d she go to Alaska?” I asked him. “She never said anything about Alaska.”
He didn’t answer for a moment.
“She likes the cold,” he finally said, and looked at me, his eyes wide and bloodshot behind his glasses. “Leave it alone.”
I walked away from my dad, and up the stairs. I cranked open my bedroom window and looked up at the dark of the mountain.
I’d seen a television program about the explosion of Krakatoa, and in it, there was a fact that haunted me. Rafts made of hardened lava had floated up onto the coast of Africa, even a year later, passengered by skeletons. But maybe those people had been sacrificed to the volcano, and their bones thrown up into the air by the explosion. Maybe Krakatoa had exploded because it didn’t like what it was being fed.
I wondered about my mothers. I wondered about Mr. Loury’s wife. I wondered if there was a hole in the floor of the observatory, and if through it you might be able to see things beneath. I didn’t want to wonder, but I wondered.
Later, I snuck out the window, and into the night. Did I even need to sneak? No one was in charge. No one saw me walking to Mr. Loury’s house. I used my sneaker to open a hole in the top of Mr. Loury’s volcano. After a minute, I used my hands. I was a Krakatoan. I stamped on Mr. Loury’s volcano again, and then put my ear to the ground.
For a long time, I didn’t hear anything.
But then, from far below me, I heard something stamping back, a pounding from the other side of the earth. Then a murmuring. I scratched harder with my hands, shoveling dirt away from the top of the volcano.
A light went on in Mr. Loury’s kitchen, and his screen door opened.
“Hey!” he shouted, but I was gone, sprinting up Palomar, because whatever was in that volcano, I’d heard a sound, a ragged gasp of welcome as I moved the dirt away. And something else had happened too.
I had a piggy bank with thirteen dollars in it. I had three missing mothers. I dodged into the trees, and ran uphill, off the side of the road where he couldn’t follow me. This was my territory. I knew how to run in the woods. He didn’t even try, because he was a grown-up, and he had a car. I heard it start.
Trees leaning in, a no-stars, no-moon night and I thought maybe the sky had been swallowed by the observatory draining the stars into its mouth, sucking the darkness dry. There it was, in front of me, its glowing white snow cone looming against the horizon.
I scraped my hands on my jeans, once, twice, three times, until my palms stung, because from inside Mr. Loury’s volcano, someone’s fingers had reached up and touched mine.
I wasn’t sure about breathing. I could hardly see. One of my knees was skinned. Maybe I was crying. I wanted my dad and I didn’t. I wanted my mothers, even the one I never knew.
There was a set of headlights speeding up the spiral road and the observatory was full of astronomers without wives. Funerals, sometimes. Car crashes and cancer. Other times the wives just went away and no one ever saw them again. This was the way the world worked, I’d imagined, but now I wondered if it really was.
My third mother, I thought and my brain got stuck on it. Katharine, called Kit, who sometimes called me Kit too, and sometimes called me Tool, for toolkit, as in a smaller, more equipped version of herself. But my real name was something else entirely. My dad called me Aulax, after a star. “The Furrow,” that star name meant, and he’d stuck a Mary in as my middle name to make me more human.
The door was unlocked. I skidded in on my heels, and felt along the edge of the room. I knew my way around Palomar. The inside was like nothing, no sky on view, just the telescope stabbing through the sphere, but as I stood there, not hidden, uncertain, the shutters began to open to let the telescope look at the sky.
Mr. Loury’s story was horrible all over my brain. Look down, he said in my head, look underground, and as I thought it, I felt those cold fingers again, touching my own, gripping my own, and I heard a car stop outside.
No one was visible inside the observatory. I wanted to look toward the center of the earth. I wanted to find my mothers. I didn’t want to think about Alaska. I didn’t want to think about Pele. I didn’t want to think about who was underneath that dirt in Mr. Loury’s backyard, nor about how far down the dirt went.
I ran to the telescope and slung myself up into its workings. The shutters were open and the sky was there, black. I held my breath and climbed.
Mr. Loury was in the building. I could feel him, making his way around the edge of the circle. The telescope was moving, and I was slipping.
“Kid,” he called. “Hey, Buddy. Where’re you at?”
I twisted my knees over the beam at the base of the telescope. I’d always wanted to climb the Hale. It was the biggest telescope in the world. Not in the dark.
“This isn’t a place for little girls,” he said, and his voice was closer than I’d thought he was. “They’re going to look at the roots of the world tonight.”
Where were the rest of the astronomers? Where was my dad, for that matter? He was supposed to be here. Nobody was in charge, I reminded myself.
I tied my shirtsleeves to the beam, because I felt the telescope moving. There was a sound, a squealing shudder, which I took for the roof shutters opening further, but when I arched my neck to try to look around the side of the telescope, I couldn’t see anything.
I looked down. There was light below me, and the telescope rotated toward it, my fingers slipping on the metal as we tilted backward. I was not inside the telescope, could not see whatever it was they were seeing there in the cage, but whatever they were looking at, whatever it was they were trying to see, it was in the wrong direction.
“You aren’t here,” Mr. Loury said, from directly below me, and I could tell he was looking up at me, trying to reach me, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
“I belong here. My dad works here, and you’re trespassing. You got fired,” I told him, clinging to the beam. I didn’t care about quiet any more. I wanted someone to hear me, and yet, somehow, I didn’t scream for help.
“I tried to tell you,” Mr. Loury said. “The stars are gone and all of them are gone with them. They want boys, and that’s all. She doesn’t want me anymore.”
The telescope completed its tilt, flipping me so that I faced down, and I saw what the open shutters looked into, what I was dangling over.
There was lava below us, a crater full of it, glowing orange and red, and in the lava there were women, stretching their fingers to touch the metal of the telescope, pressing their nails into it.
I saw the incandescent roots of the world, and the way the women were tangled in them, their mouths open, a deafening murmur like wind tearing trees. I saw Mr. Loury’s wife, the Kodachrome version of her, her white skin and bright hair, her eyes big and black-rimmed with fake lashes. The sunglasses she always wore were missing. She was naked, her long arms savaged and blistered, her ribs skinny and her hipbones sticking out. Come here, she mouthed, and her lipstick was perfect. Other mothers were there too, and I knew them.
I’d been to their funerals and gone to school with their abandoned children. I’d seen the X’s where they weren’t. I saw all the dead women in the center of the earth, and then I saw them reach up toward where I dangled.
I saw my third mother, and she saw me.
Somewhere I heard a door slam, a shout, and Mr. Loury, just for an instant, was silhouetted against all that light and fire.
Then, like the Krakatoans, the astronomer’s wives were gone, and my mother was gone, and all that was left were black skeletons, ashes floating on rafts of darkness, lists of dead stars. I heard myself screaming.
The asbestos-tiled floor of the observatory appeared beneath my cheek, and my head appeared on top of my body, sharp pain and dull ache at once, and there was my dad, kneeling beside me, his eyes still bloodshot.
“Can you move?” he asked me. “Is anything broken?”
I could move. Nothing was broken. The roof rotated and where the sky had been dark, it was now all stars and Milky Way. I stood up, bruised, and tried to figure out where my feet were. My dad had me by the arm, and he was moving me out of there, faster than I wanted to move. I looked back at the telescope, and I could feel everything getting taken away from me, forever, and all at once.
My dad carried me to the car, fastened my seatbelt, and drove me down the spiral road, and to the hospital. He told the nurses I’d fallen from something high, and they looked into my eyes and agreed that I was looking out at the world through a concussion. They showed me my pupils in a hand mirror, one big, one tiny, Martian moons in an eclipse, or the sun trying to shine through a sky full of ash.
I put my face into a crisp white shoulder and cried there, but when I lifted my head, I was done, and no one asked.
Mr. Loury’s abandoned house and its volcano got paved over when they redid the spiral road in the late 70s.
My dad drowned in 1984, on a trip to the South Pacific, diving into an underwater cave and failing to equalize his pressure, but he was an old man by then and hadn’t been in touch with me in a long time. There were no more mothers.
The astronomers at Palomar kept finding supernovae and charting galaxies, but the largest telescope in the world was surpassed in size in the early 90s. The last time I drove there, up the spiral road and to the tourist center, it was daylight, and the only person I saw was not an astronomer, but a painter pulleying himself around the walls, rolling white paint slowly over the dome.
When I tried to ask him a question, he shrugged and turned back to his job, pulling himself along the dome, hand over hand.
I stood there a while, watching him spackling the fine cracks all over the surface, the ones that stretched up from the gravel and all the way to the top of the dome itself. The observatory was getting old. I bent down, and put my ear to the ground, but there was nothing to hear. When I stood up, the painter was looking at me.
He reached into the pocket of his overalls, and tossed me a small white rock. Later that night, in my hotel room, I soaked it in alcohol. Underneath the paint, the rock was black and porous, but that was all.
© 2013 by Maria Dahvana Headley.
Originally published in The Lowest Heaven,
Edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin.
Reprinted by permission of the author.