The Sky Goes Quiet
After the astronaut leaves again, for space, the astronaut’s wife trims off all her hair, shaves herself bald, takes to covering her head with crocheted scarves — all she can make is scarves when she crochets, longer and longer and longer.
Oh, your pretty hair, says her mother when she comes to visit.
The astronaut’s wife touches the top of her scalp. Already she can feel the stubble of growing hair.
I made you a scarf, she says to her mother.
Her mother says: It’s the wrong season. It’s too hot, now, for scarves.
The astronaut is a thousand miles away, a million miles away. Her wife thinks of the distance between them as a series of steps, up and up and up.
She says to her mother: I wonder how many steps a hippopotamus has to take in its life.
The astronaut’s wife goes to the hospital with her mother. The hospital is a rectangle with space in the middle for an atrium, with hallways and corners and elevators and nicely waxed floors. The hospital is filled with a kind of heavy quiet that isn’t really a quiet at all, but a pause before clamor. The astronaut’s wife looks out the window at the atrium, sees purple-leaf plants, orange-face marigolds, shimmering pines. She thinks of the daisies in their yard, gone stick-bare now their growing season is done; she thinks of the carnation bouquet from the neighbors sitting on the kitchen counter beside a salad fork she forgot to put in the sink.
Your father is waiting, her mother says. You shouldn’t dawdle.
She says again: Oh, your pretty hair, and the astronaut’s wife tugs her scarf around her head.
The astronaut is in space with three other astronauts. One is from China. The shuttle hangs like an apostrophe in the sky.
The astronaut is telling the others her most sacrilegious joke about Jesus.
It ends with I can see your house from here, and they all look out the window at the blue, blue earth.
In the hospital, the astronaut’s wife stands beside her father in a bed that makes her think of caterpillars, the way it is hunched in the middle. Her father seems very small in the bed, snail shell-curled there. His eyes come open, then go closed.
There are white whiskers on his chin and tubes in his arms and his legs. The astronaut’s wife is afraid he will get tangled in them; the astronaut’s wife remembers he would smoke a pipe at the neighborhood barbecues when she was a child, he would stand in the far corners of green-lawned yards, smoke, watch the birds.
Her father’s eyes come open again.
You’re a good girl, he tells her.
When the astronaut and her wife were girls together, they shared bowls of ice cream at the neighborhood barbecues, one bowl, two spoons. The astronaut liked to spoon the ice cream upside down into her mouth, smoothed the hem of her future wife’s checkered skirt.
It wasn’t crooked, though, said the other girl, empty spoon in her mouth.
I know, said the astronaut. I just wanted to touch.
In the hospital, the astronaut’s wife’s mother has brought an album of old photos, shows them to her husband, says do you remember, do you remember.
The astronaut’s wife sits in the stiff-backed chair, thinks of the paper touch of her father’s hand in hers, thinks of hippopotamus steps, one, two, three, four, thinks of the hush of the sky at night.
She says it’s always dark out there, isn’t it.
Her mother says, shush, says, shush, shows her father another photograph.
Do you remember?
The astronaut presses her hand against the shuttle window, says to no one in particular, I can see your house from here.
The astronaut’s wife flips through the photo album while her mother cuts up pieces of gravy-covered turkey, feeds them to her father. The astronaut’s wife rubs at her bare scalp with one hand tugs at one end of her scarf, finds a picture from when she was young, she and the astronaut knee brushing knee at a neighborhood barbecue, says, oh, says, oh, I remember.
Cathy Ulrich tried to learn how to crochet, but it never stuck. Her work has been published in various journals, including Parentheses, Longleaf Review and Atticus Review.