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Naomi

“One of the craters of Venus is named for her.”- Marie-Aimée Lullin

“Strangely, Venus shows no record of the heavy bombardment period. Either it didn’t get struck, which is unlikely, or some process resurfaced the planet, removing all traces of the impact craters.”- Fraser Cain, Craters on Venus

All of Venus’ craters are named for women. There are about a thousand of them, and sometimes when I watch the golden planet’s surface from the telescope in my lab, I imagine their namesakes surveying the terrain. Aurelia, mother of Julius Caesar, lounges on a settee in the center of her allotted portion of desert sand, the hems of her toga trailing in the dirt beside her. To the west, Ruth and Naomi stare over the lips of their impact sites hoping to find each other across kilometers of barren rock. Ruth jumps atop the crater’s edge and waves her arms until her hair flies around her head in the warm wind. She shouts Hebrew words I cannot decipher. Naomi does not see her. She circles the edge of her crater then bitterly slumps down against the rocks.

Venus’ surface temperature is about 464°C, more than enough to boil your eyeballs and leave your heart a crispy mess. I wonder how Naomi and Ruth can stand to walk through that truly scorching sand. These are not the deserts of Moab. Their sandals should be seared to their feet. Ruth, though, still dances on the edge of her pristine crater.

*

My mother calls most nights and leaves a message on my phone. I never pick up and I never listen to her messages. I don’t know what she says. Driving between work and home I sometimes hear her voice float to me from the radio DJ, scattered among the news and weather reports. Sometimes I just think I hear her breathing, hoping that this time I have answered the phone, that this time she will hear my voice at last. Once, I could find my way to her in the dark just by listening for her gentle inhalations. She soothed away the red man who lurked in my dreams and encircled me with blankets. If I searched for her now, would she snore? Would her breath rasp?

*

The really odd thing about Venus is its tectonic activity. Instead of having quakes to release heat built up at the planet’s core, the crust gradually cooks from the inside. It doesn’t have plates like Earth does, so there are few cracks in its surface. As the mantle’s heat rises, the crust grows weaker and weaker. Eventually, the entirety of the crust subducts and a new layer of crust forms over a period of 100 million years. Looking through my telescope I see below Naomi, Ruth, and Aurelia a sleeping phoenix waiting to swallow them up. They aren’t touched by the sulfuric acid rain clouds that evaporate 25 kilometers above their heads or smaller debris pulled in by gravity that disintegrate in the dense atmosphere. Venus is a fortress. The craters stand as fresh as the day they were gouged into the warm golden dirt.

*

I am waiting for Robertson to call to tell me the cytherean conference dates. Robertson doesn’t own a computer, and he doesn’t seem to understand voicemail. He is the old man in the lab coat and inch thick glasses with far too much ear-hair who runs the bureaucratic responsibilities of the department’s business. If I don’t pick up the phone when Robertson calls, he hangs up and vanishes into a labyrinth of laboratories and authorization forms. I pick up the phone on the first ring.

“Hello?”

There is no response on the other end. I hear faint breathing. Then: “Hello! You answered! I’m so –” I cut her off. I jerk the phone away from my ear and grip the end call button. I drop the phone on the table beside me and wait for Robertson.

*

The voicemail icon is flashing at me from across the room. For the past hour, since Robertson called, I have kept my back to it. Ruth is flailing excitedly at the brink of her crater. She sees the top of Naomi’s head in the distance. Naomi lifts her eyes and turns toward the bright speck desperate for her attention. I tuck the phone into my bag and lock the lab door behind me.

*

“Tomorrow will bring blue skies and sunshine!  There might be some cloud cover, but temperatures should reach at least eighty degrees. Prepare for a nice balmy day.” The weatherman’s voice is tinny, just hollow enough through my stereo to make me wonder how many times he has had to say those words in his career.  Has he ever actually believed them? In the three years I’ve lived here, I can’t remember a day like that. Sunlight and heat, pants and shoes that aren’t soaked from walking through the staff parking lot are all relics of a time before Seattle. Tomorrow will probably be exactly like today: buckets of rain streaming down, rushing through the gutter and crashing into unsuspecting pedestrians as cars race by under a gray sky no one has bothered to look at for weeks.  Each of them will curse the man who advised them not to bring an umbrella, just like I did when I arrived.  I don’t know why I listen anymore. Every night he gives the same report with the same empty cheer ringing out at me and this damp city. But maybe he does believe it. Maybe every time he convinces himself that he is right.

*

Ruth had promised never to leave Naomi. She swore never to part from her until one of them died. Naomi hadn’t been sure she could believe Ruth’s promise until they had travelled all the way from Moab to Bethlehem together. Now, stranded in a land she does not recognize, Naomi is convinced Ruth is gone. She can’t see Ruth searching for her so far away. Any sounds she hears are merely her own thoughts playing tricks on her, auditory mirages. But sometimes she pretends that the distant cries she can’t truly be hearing are heartfelt pleas to find her.

*

Message 28: “Hello! It’s me again. Just calling to see how you are. It’s been so long since I’ve heard your voice. Call me sometime, okay?”

At the beginning, they’re all like this. Simple, conversational, immaterial. She still doesn’t want to talk about the important things, so she tries sneaking back in niceties.

Message 53: “I found some pictures from your graduation in the cupboard today. You look so beautiful. Why don’t you come visit this weekend? The rain’s supposed to stop by then.”

When I was fifteen, I tripped in the hallway at home and twisted in the air at high speed, landing on the carpet with a barely audible thud. My foot cracked a gaping hole in the thin plaster wall, exposing a messy internal web of wiring, pipes, and insulation. Ten years later, the hole’s still there. She never actually replaced the plaster. Instead, there’s a floor length mirror covering the gap in that wall. The last time I walked by it, I could still feel a draft and hear the rush of water behind the glass. I don’t see myself in that mirror, but I’m sure my mother at least pretends to see her reflection.

*

Aurelia was the ideal mother in ancient Rome, a pinnacle of beauty, decorum, and good sense. Tacitus and Plutarch praised her independence, intelligence, and strictness. Her husband, Gaius Julius Caesar III, was usually away on state business, leaving the care of their three children to her. I can picture her watching her two daughters crawl along the Venusian soil, smiling as she rocks a tiny son against her shoulder. Aurelia’s guidance made Julius Caesar what he was: the Roman everyone knows. But now, Aurelia is alone. Not even her daughters join her on that planet of women. I never see her move from her settee and her toga is coated with a fine layer of reddish Venusian dust.

Today would have been my daughter’s birthday. My mother doesn’t know that a year ago today I held a crying newborn in St. Vincent’s maternity ward or that the next day I was sent home with a therapist’s phone number and a vague awareness that I’d heard of sudden infant death syndrome somewhere before. As soon as she heard I was pregnant with a fatherless child she stopped answering my calls. Soon enough, I stopped calling.

I hadn’t wanted a child. I never asked for what happened nine months before.

The red man came to me in nightmares when I was small. His skin and eyes burned crimson in the darkness, always watching, leering deviously.  “If he ever bothers you, come to me. I won’t leave you alone,” my mother said, and she always could chase him away.

He came back to me almost two years ago, when I returned home late one night. I could see him leaning in an alley as I walked to my apartment. I heard footsteps behind me and a jolt of pain exploded in my head. When I woke in the alley, my wallet was gone, my clothes were ripped and dirty, and bruises were forming along my body. The police couldn’t find the man who attacked me. The only face I can imagine him with is red and fiendish, emanating a primal dread that still makes my shoulders stiffen.

Despite it all, I chose to keep my daughter. I would not dispose of her and pretend she never existed, an accident to be shoddily cleaned up. I deserved more than nightmares and I could have taught her to watch the stars. Of course, my apartment’s still empty. The only difference in my life a year later is an overflowing voicemail box, a new parking space, and a supply of pepper spray burying spaces where pictures and toys should be. Tonight, the constant rain feels right. I keep my phone off.

*

Message 98: “You know I never meant to do that, dear. It was all a mistake. I never would have left you for so long. Things just piled up.” I’ve heard this before. It’s never her fault. It’s not as if picking up the phone would have been easy for her. “I’m sorry.” She pauses. “It’s been a while since it happened, but I want to say it. I really am sorry.”  Her voice cracks. “I was so stupid to do that to you.” This is new, unprecedented. But maybe, just maybe, she means those words. As the rain slows to a drizzle, the sun slips past my window, and light reflects the sky in the tears on my face.

*

Naomi has climbed down the exterior of her crater and is about to set her feet upon Venusian soil. Ruth has already scrambled down her own slope and is making her way across the sands. The ground beneath their feet shifts and settles.

*

I pick up my phone and dial her number. The ringing is bright and artificial before she answers.

“Hello?” There is a faint edge to her breathing and it is enough.

“Hello,” I say.

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