The Last Voyage of the Maniwantiwan
Somebody grabs my hand. The sweat between our palms is all the introduction the moment requires. I want to slip away—to spend this time in private—but the crowd at the old Kalibo International Airport mingles festivity with sorrow, hope with dread, and each emotion is an excuse to clutch at something tangible. I have had so many entreaties in the past hour, anchoring me to this space. This hand, it turns out, is part of a prayer chain that refuses to let me go. Now and at the hour.
Everyone is looking up at the night sky. The launch has taken hours, the inevitable delay wearing down any urgency left. Parents who had earlier wailed at being parted from their children now stand solemnly in the early evening, their tear streaks dried by the waiting. The local news crew leaves Camera 1 focused on the vessel and pans Camera 2 for another reaction shot, impatient for activity from the lifeless ship. The priests lead their congregations in another prayer. The Japanese are in whispered conference by the terminal, alternating glances between ship and sky. Only Abe turns towards the crowd. Towards me.
I wonder about you, about what you would say later when I describe this to you again. You have cared little for my job since the countdown started, only asking after your old friends whose names have ended up on my list. Your hands choose to work on the knobs of your telescope, as much part of our conversation as my one-sided reports to you. But it has been the same scene for the past week. The only difference today is that the crowd has swelled to constricting numbers, the well-wishers and the desperate.
Finally, when the Marikudo rumbles and heaves itself off the ground, bringing with it our young and our talented; our scholars and our farmers; our measly treasures for an unknown life off-world; the people cheer. The heat from the launch is too intense but the crowd does not mind. The woman beside me claps and lets go of my hand. You with your eyes in the air, are you seeing this?
I turn away.
I do not see the initial spark, the sky flickering to life with a sudden pulse. I only see the shock on the faces in front of me, illuminated by a flare of orange and when I look back, it is to catch the glare where a ship once was, hear the boom that follows. There are shrieks and cries around me. We all recoil. Some turn and hide. Others rush to the tarmac as if they can save the burning ship by sheer will alone. I stay right where I am. The sound that escapes my throat is half-gasp, half-cry because neither of us is on it.
You are trying to find the story in the sky, how the world will end. A speck of light where there was none. Shadows across the navel of a planet. The Twins, you point out, Al Tau’aman to the ancients, the brighter horseman and his brother the boxer. When you are obsessed with something, you stay fixed to a spot for nights without end; Gemini is merely the latest on a long list. “I like it this way,” you insist, navigating the sky in an organized route one constellation at a time. Castor, 07314n3200. Pollux, 07423n2809. Alhena, 06348n1627. Delta Geminorium, 07171n2205. You forget everything else: dishes to be tidied, water to be filtered, the mundane and the minute.
For the first time in months, I leave your mess alone. I am done with messes. My phone has been ringing nonstop but I only answer when my superiors call and even then I tune out and focus on the need-to-do nature of their instructions. Everyone else, I ignore: families whom I have been in contact with for the past two months, friends who demand answers as bodies and debris fall to the earth. I leave the cleaning up to those who know more than I do. But you do not come down to ask me about Marikudo, though there is no way that you have not heard by now. The transistor relic of Papa’s that you bring with you upstairs would have been squawking away with the names on my list.
You had five friends on board. One of them was the governor. The others are a smattering of people that you seemed to have forgotten after you embarked on your armchair astronomy. A mah jong partner. A former history teacher. Tita Silvia and her second husband, the one who owns the hardware store chain. Doc Martelino. Luck of the draw. I knew about 13 of the 800 on board, or at least I know them personally before they were drafted. Their families have called and I do not know how to apologize. To Ingrid’s father, the one who drove us to our college assessment tests in Manila. To Paulo’s wife, who worries about not finding a hazmat suit for their five-month old son. To my ex-boyfriend Joey, the one you like, whose brother was one of the youngest passengers and whose father is expected to be one of the head engineers in the new world. Nights like this, I wish you would trip down the steps and find me with my head in my arms. You never do. My weaknesses pass before you even know they exist.
I am a light sleeper so I stir when you come into my room an hour before dawn. Your hands are cold as they close over mine. When I was younger I used to pull away from your embarrassing displays of affection but tonight the coldness is a comfort. I try to return to the dream that I was having and you follow me there.
I am Duracotus in Kepler’s Somnium. Is it a blessing or a curse to be carried to the moon by a daemon? You are Duracotus’ mother, in this dream and always. The daemon covers us with a blanket and like infants we curl into ourselves as we shoot into the atmosphere. We fumble to breathe. The daemon eases our bodies into sleep but I am consciousness hovering at the edge of the shock, the edge of escape. We seem to ignite upon exit. The blanket covers us from the cosmic rays that seem to puncture the air but it may have just been a waking corner of my mind making sense of this journey. You feel nothing. Your hand is already slack against your side.
The moon is far away and my eyes are getting heavy.
When we wake, the world has changed.
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