Cassini Looked Back, But We Weren’t There
The two-part unmanned spacecraft Cassini-Huygens was launched on October 15, 1997, from the Earth and traveled through space for seven years before it reached Saturn. On July 19, 2013, the Cassini spacecraft turned back to capture an image of the Earth—a lonely blue dot hiding beneath the rings of Saturn.
I hold my hands above the campfire, fingering the smoke charring my chipped manicure, frowning at my partner as she skewers a marshmallow.
“Are you sure you don’t want one?” Michelle asks, “They’re ah-MA-zing when they’re molten like this.”
“No, thanks,” I force a smile, holding up my hand and showing her the graham cracker. “I just like the cookies.”
“Suit yourself, but one of these days I’m going to make you try a proper S’more and you’ll thank me for opening your eyes and showing you the world you’ve been missing out on all these years.”
Her moth-eyed glasses reflect my face back to me over the flames.
I hate marshmallows. They’re potbellied and squishy, headless grub worms, and they taste like horse hooves. I bite the cracker and nod, allowing the sugar to glitter on my lips for a minute before I lick the tiny stars away.
The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are slowly colliding. In four billion years, their stars, worn out from spiraling around each other, will fall together—cosmic marbles melting into each other in universe-time.
Before the Earth’s planetary system is laced between the fingers of another star’s gravity, our own yellow Sol will become too hot for life on Earth and the desperate humans scrambling on the surface of the planet will be forced to look further into the solar system. The wealthy and the lucky few will blast from the Earth at sunset, gouging white scars into the smooth pink sky, shrinking smaller and smaller from view so quickly the children left standing on the beach will have to pinch their eyelids to see the silver specks as they blink out of the atmosphere. The people left behind with the other discarded things will find their freedom swimming among the stars.
I met my first girlfriend at the YMCA pool. We wove laps in the water for an hour before she followed me into the shower. She sang seven rhyming words when I told her my name was Alice. Later she showed me a video of a slaughterhouse when I asked why she was a vegetarian. Afterward, all marshmallows tasted to me like bone and teeth. Her name was Mya and she had short hair and soft shrugging shoulders, and I still sometimes taste her saltwater skin when I can’t fall asleep.
Michelle burns the marshmallow until it’s black and crusted. It glues to her fingers and the corners of her lips as she tries to fit it into her grinning mouth—making an awful wheezing whistling noise to show me how hot the marshmallow is on her tongue. She smiles at me, sticky and sweet, glowing warm before the campfire.
“Want me to put out the fire now so that our eyes have time to adjust?” I ask.
“Sure,” she says, “I’m so glad you took the time off from work to come with me out here.” She takes my hand in the dark. “This means a lot to me. I feel like we’ve been coming apart, and I think this is just what we needed. It’s been ages since we spent a night sky watching.”
I nod, even though she can’t see me.
Soon after meeting Mya I became a vegetarian. I called my mother on Thanksgiving and told her that I couldn’t eat with a family that celebrated murder. I spent the holiday alone with Mya, groping atop an unmade bed like two swimmers swept out to sea with nothing but flesh to hold on to, drowning in each other but still afloat when the sun seared through the window the next morning.
Two years later, our frail gravity freed each of us back into the world.
The once-worshipped sun will expand to fill the unrelenting daytime sky. Its radiance will bleach the greens and blues of tidal waves and bedroom eyes, fade the reds and violets of sighing lips and silk dresses, homogenize the planet milky-white.
Steel transmission towers will stand, legs spread and arms akimbo, stretching silent wires over dry fields. No one will be left to remember the whispered bedtime stories, or the songs sung to soothe crying babies, the cookies baked in warm kitchens, or the way aproned mothers swayed along with the clothes hanging from the line. The homes so carefully cleaned will curl into the ground. The lives so many fought to create will be snuffed into the wind by a solar flare.
We had been together for three years when the Cassini camera looked back at the Earth. Michelle had read about it in the news earlier that week and wanted us to meet for lunch so that we could stand together and smile up at the sky.
I spent that morning training my new graphic designer and I learned that, like me, her favorite color was ultramarine blue and she also disliked marshmallows. I was almost too late when I arrived on the street to meet Michelle. She thought the blush in my cheeks was from running.
We held hands and squinted into the bright noon sky. She smiled, huge and white. I couldn’t bring myself to smile, and I wondered how much of it really mattered—Cassini was too far away to see our faces, and besides, was this really the family portrait I had wanted?
The planned completion of the Cassini Solstice mission will end with the spacecraft entering Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017. Billions of years later when Andromeda closes in around the Milky Way all that will be left of the human race will be memories hidden on castaway planets, frozen skeletons on forgotten spheres. The survivors clasping to the guttering flames of the last fire will die more surely than the dinosaurs, but no one will come afterward to rewire their bones. Andromeda will conquer and, as in every successful merging, one body must surrender.
Michelle wraps her arms around my waist. We’re waiting for the planets to align as we watch the meteors rain down. I liked us best before we were entwined, when we were two separate beings staring across space. I was a whirlpool, drawing her in, and she was the sun who threatened to temper and tame my restless currents.
A fiery meteor, bigger than the rest, escapes across the sky from left to right.
“Did you make a wish?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she says, “I wished you could have all of the things you want. What did you wish for?”
“I wished that you and I would last forever.”
Audrey Knight is a writer and illustrator living in the greater Los Angeles area. Her writing and illustrations have appeared in The Rumpus, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Maudlin House, and on the windows of various cafes and barbershops.