Naming the Universe

Naming the Universe

Naming the Universe 1920 872 Kara Oakleaf

I call Owen outside once I’ve got the telescope focused on Andromeda, a silvery coin of light against the blackness. We’ve had clouds for weeks, and it’s finally clear enough to show him the sky.

I’ve lowered the tripod, but Owen still has to stand tip-toe to bring his head to the eyepiece, blinking and squinting as his lashes brush the glass lens.

-What do you think, bud? Can you see it?

-Yeah. He steps away and looks at me with round, serious eyes. It’s smaller than I thought. But it’s bright.

* * *

Inside the house, my wife lays on her back. She looks as though she’s swallowed the moon, her stomach perfectly round, the skin stretched to the palest white. Our daughter turns inside her, backwards and upside-down and still, for now, immune to the effects of gravity. We’re waiting for her to change the tides of our quiet life, the three of us in our little house blooming into a group of four.

Owen is nearly eight. His own frightening birth scarred Elise’s body in a way that led us to believe no other lives would form inside of her, until now, when the particles collided just so. It feels as though the whole world has shifted on its axis, bending us toward something new and inexplicable.

* * *

-Dad, Owen asks, Who named it Andromeda?

It still surprises me, how many of Owen’s questions I can’t answer. I know Andromeda is a spiral galaxy. Also called Messier 31. I know it’s 2.5 million light years away from us, that it’s the farthest object we can make out with the naked eye, and that it’s getting closer. Four billion years from now, our galaxies will collide, passing through one another like ghosts.

-I suppose the Greeks named it. They had a story about a woman named Andromeda. I think she married one of the gods, I say. In my mind, there’s a vague memory of a painting: a woman chained to a rock at the edge of the sea. I don’t tell Owen this part.

-But the Greeks never went there, he says.

-The astronauts still haven’t gotten that far, buddy.

-So, how did they know that’s really its name, if they never went there?

He’s been concerned with names lately, as Elise and I discuss what to call his new sister. There is no question in his mind that he is Owen, that he has always been Owen, and he can’t understand how his mother and I knew his name before he was old enough to say it himself. Elise tells him that when babies are first born, they have just one word, a name, caught in their throats, and they whisper it to their mothers in the dark of the hospital room in the middle of the night.

-I guess they just needed something to call it, I tell him. So the astronomers knew what they were looking at, which galaxy they were talking about.

-How do we know no one lives there if we’ve never been?

Another question beyond the limits of my own knowledge, beyond all knowledge, and there’s nothing for me but to admit it.

-I guess we don’t know. Not for sure.

* * *

We’re using my old telescope, the same one I looked through at Owen’s age to draw the universe into the center of my vision. The images from a telescope still seem miraculous to me: whole galaxies held between mirrored glass plates. I used to look for the brightest stars and make small wishes—to hit a home run in Little League or for my mother to get my brothers and me a puppy. Sometimes, I whispered them out loud, as if the stars were listening. I must have believed they were.

Owen is still gazing through the telescope, eyes in the sky and searching out something beyond me.

-If anything lives there, they don’t call it Andromeda. It probably has a real name that’s totally different. Maybe even something humans can’t pronounce.

-Maybe, bud, I say. Maybe.

* * *

When the clouds move in, I carry Owen to bed and sit in the rocking chair until his breath has evened.

In the quiet of our bedroom, I set my hand on Elise’s stomach as she sleeps. Our girl rolls beneath her skin and I wonder if she can sense Elise or me, or anything of what is out here, beyond the darkness and faint sounds that move to her through the walls of her small, liquid world.

I fall asleep thinking of the man who named the Andromeda galaxy, of a time when humans threw their own stories into the night sky and they stuck. How easy it must have been to give a name to that distant disc of stars, in a time when we believed those galaxies circled us, that the whole sky was ours.

* * *

In the morning, the sun is brilliant through the slats of our blinds. I raise them to let the light in and Elise turns away from the window, but I watch the tip of the sun strike its long shafts over the hill. It’s too bright, and I can feel my eyes fighting to close it out, but something in me needs to see this particular piece of light now, while it’s still ours. Even as I do, I’m already imagining its passage beyond our world, traveling millions of miles of universe, into a future far removed from us. When it’s nothing more than a distant point in the sky for someone else to wish on, or a single dot of a new constellation: the tip of a soldier’s sword, or a jewel on the crown of a goddess, or the eye of some foreign creature from a story no one has told yet.

I look until I can’t, and still it burns beneath my closed eyelids. A bright echo of light flashing smaller, and smaller, and smaller, still brilliant and already rushing away from me.

Header photograph © S. Schirl Smith.

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