We got into the limo. “Does this thing have a mini bar?” I joked. Nobody laughed. I attempted to flatten the creases of my dress. The car started moving, following the hearse through the wintery streets. It went slowly. Sometimes I caught the eye of a pitying stranger in the street, so I decided to look straight forward. I was still hungover, and my bra was cutting into my sides. When we got to the crematorium the driver told us that he would wait until after the ceremony and then take us to wherever we were going. When the service was over, we asked him to take us to the nearest place that served alcohol. That was the first time I arrived at a pub in a limo.
A boy sits across the table from me. In between us is space. I can see galaxies circling. A comet flies across an empty beer bottle. I try to say something to the boy but I can’t hear my voice. He smiles, reaching out a hand. I see a supernova explode and burn beside his cheek. Above us there is a black hole approaching. It is getting close. The boy does not seem to notice. He glides his hand through a lilac solar system.
“He is in a better place, you know that don’t you?”
We were standing on the pier, throwing handfuls of ash into the sea. This is what is left of my father. I looked up towards the clear blue sky. Clouds floated by. Up there? Is he up there? He was baptised as a child. If God was real and if God cared about such things, he would be in heaven, even though he did not like God one bit. Would God still let him in? Surely there is no better place for him than by my side.
When the Tupperware container was empty, I clasped my hands together. Grit was between them, hiding in the lines on my palms. His skin. His hands. I gazed out towards the sea, watching the seagulls dive. Perhaps he is a seagull now, crowing and plummeting towards the water. At school I was taught that God was everywhere and everything. Perhaps that means that God is a seagull. If God is everything and we are God, does that mean I am the seagull too? If I am made in the image of God, why don’t I have feathers and a beak? Why only this version of Him – the one filled with pain, the one filled with questions? Neanderthals would often bury their dead tied with ropes into a foetal position. People say this is because they knew that upon death, we are born again. We become a new child.
“Pub?” my brother said. I drank until I forgot about the afterlife.
I am walking through the quiet streets of a city that I have known forever, yet recently it seems alien, or I feel alien. At least, I feel there is an alien among us. Sometimes I can see the stars peeking out from behind the clouds. I try to remember the constellations’ names. I try to remember the stories. Remember Orion? When he died he was laid to rest in the sky. We can see him now: after centuries, strong, poised. Betelgeuse is at his shoulder, burning red with flames. A day is going to come when Betelgeuse explodes into a supernova. When this happens, it will shine as bright as the sun.
I am cold. I walk these darkened streets with hesitation. I have nowhere to be, no place to get warm. These streets, once my home, are now a maze with sharp corners and clusters of dark matter hiding behind every lamppost and every building. Occasionally, I nearly walk through a passer-by. I brush past them feeling their energy against my skin, but they don’t notice my breath in the winter’s air. I pass the lake. It is frozen and has been for a while now.
The kitchen is cold. While I prepare my meal, I turn the radio on to blur out the silence. I measure out the beans and the rice and hope I will have someone to cook for again.
Snow fell constantly the entire week he was dying. We walked to and from the hospital twice a day for visiting hours, wading through snow drifts and slush. The walls of the ICU waiting room were painted pale blue and there was a constant high-pitched humming sound. It must have been medical equipment, or tension, or my brain. That week wasn’t real, rather a transitioning stage from one life to the next. A life with him, to a life without. That week he faded from my future wedding photos, he disappeared from my unborn child’s memory. I tried to understand how one minute he had memories and a beating heart, and the next, nothing. I couldn’t figure out where the memories went. Now when I try to go to sleep, I see the nauseating blue walls of the ICU waiting room. I drink until I can see them no more.
He is floating through the universe. Blues, purples and silvers colour the space, creating a ripple every time he moves. He watches a supernova beside him. A tear falls from his blue eyes.
I too am floating, a million miles away. They say space is a vacuum. I didn’t understand what that meant until now. Constellations and black holes fill my universe. Slowly, I walk to work, getting stuck between solar systems as lightyears push and pull me further and further away. My universe is empty, it is expanding. People don’t hear me when I talk. The silvers of the stars muffle my voice, sliding down my throat like medicine to make me mute. I cannot make a sound. Traditional Irish and Scottish communities practice keening, which is the act of loudly wailing for the dead. This is a vocal expression of mourning, which is shared and public. There is a black hole trying to take me away, and I want to let it.
The word death has now become a swear. It seeks me out, it finds me at moments when I pretend to have forgotten. I am washing the dishes, hands deep in lukewarm water, my shirt cuffs getting wet… and on the radio they mention it. I squeeze too tight on a glass. It breaks. Red blood spirals into the water, soap stinging the laceration.
Now the beauty of the world comes with unbearable sorrow. A sunset or a painting fills me with such sadness. It is hard to have these gifts when I know he cannot.
And what do I see when I am floating through galaxies and solar systems, trying to navigate home? I see darkness. The stars are even further away than they are on earth. Emptiness and silence cuts me more than a knife or a swear word or – death.
When he was alive I could talk about him all the time. Now, people look away. The mention of his name turns light chatter into something heavy. Something ugly. Something not to be mentioned until we have all finished a few bottles of wine, so people can look me in the eye as I say, “He used to tell this joke.”
He used to tell this joke. I am telling it now.
The clocks go back. Now all she does is walk in the dark. She becomes the shadows, the swaying branches, the silent mist. Her feet move quick, gliding over the Earth. She moves through solar systems that hang in the air. They have clustered around her more now, space growing, space moving. It used to take her only fifteen minutes to walk home from work but now it takes an hour. She does not pass anyone anymore. She is the only person in this universe. At her house she turns on all the lights to make herself seen. One day she wakes up and looks out of her window and sees that she has drifted away from the Earth. The black hole has pulled her into the sky. Her house becomes a warning light drifting through space. She wonders how she will pull herself down? She wonders if Earth will be the same if she does.
She is latent in her plight. Her new home is the cosmos, her neighbours – moons. She feels no different than she felt on Earth.
I gather all my clothes from my room, tying them together to make a rope. I attach one end to the window frame and throw the other down through space. I see Earth. Hazy. It is nightfall and I need to be at work. I climb down. It takes hours until I land in a darkened park. My hands have blisters and my arms ache. I tie the end of my makeshift rope to a bench next to the lake. I look in and don’t see my reflection. I see the fish, still and trapped under the ice. Their eyes stare back at me, pleading. They wonder when winter is going to end. I wonder too.
I make my way to work, checking the church clock as I pass. I am late. I am always late to everything now. The night is cold, but I have stopped seeing my breath in it. I wonder if I have stopped breathing, or if I am colder than the air.
After work I return to the park. It is past midnight, and the place does not move. I find my rope and pull myself up. A t-shirt rips halfway home and I fall slightly, one leg dangling miles above Earth. I am not out of the gravity yet, so if I fall, I die. If I fall, I will crash to Earth, landing in the lake, smashing it open. The fish will be free, flying upwards towards space, moving amongst the cosmos. For a moment I think about letting go.
I arrive at home and watch the sunrise on Earth. Gold touches the snowy hilltops. Sun rays illuminate the frozen lakes. I am tired but cannot help staying up to see sunlight. I pretend to be there, watching it with the others. But I am here, and it is so dark. I go to sleep.
When she wakes, the black hole has pulled her even father from Earth. The line of clothes is still attached but stretching and tearing. She spends the day sat by her window, watching comets and meteors fly by. She reaches out to touch one, but it is too far away. She tries to speak to one, to see if it will reply. No words come from her mouth. At nightfall she lowers herself down the rope again, landing in the empty park. The fish are still there, their mouths open, their eyes filled with water. After work it takes her even longer to get home. Her hands bleed from the rope and drops of blood fall to earth, landing on the frozen lake. They trickle outwards for a while, then turn to ice. The next night she sees them and feels embarrassed. A drop of her body on Earth.
One morning, or afternoon, or evening, she wakes up and sees her clothesline hanging limply out her window, swaying slightly in space. It is broken. The black hole has taken her even further away, pulling her away from her solar system and the rope snapped under the strain. Earth is now a tiny spec on her windowpane. Nothing more than a piece of grit or a drop of blood. She looks towards the black hole and finally feels fear. She does not have much time left. It is upon her, enveloping her house, turning the lights out one by one.
When he was dying, he did not speak much. The infection had got to his brain. So, she sat every day by his bed and read poetry. Sometimes his lips moved, mouthing the lines along with her. Sometimes he would ask her to read a certain poem. When he was alive, he would walk around the house reciting poems. He said it was something his dad did. These poems were drilled into his head, words that lasted long after his father died.
When she grew older, they sat together at night, drinking wine and reading poetry together by the fire. She would find a new one and read it to him, and he would find an old one and read it to her. Sometimes they would talk about what it meant, and how the world works, but other times they would sit in silence together and think about it alone. They were mostly always thinking the same thing.
Buddhists in Tibet believe that once someone has died, the body is an empty vessel. So, the body is then cut into pieces and fed to animals. Vultures feed off the flesh of loved ones. This is called a sky burial.
Some say that if there are multiple universes, and there probably is, that a version of you is always alive somewhere. If there are infinite number of universes, then somewhere I am sat by the fire and reading poetry with him still. Somewhere out in a deep corner of the cosmos, that week did not happen and those tears did not fall. He got better. He did not get sick. The medicine worked.
As I drift towards the black hole I wonder if it would take me to that universe. This one is too cold now, and it is endless. I am not welcome here anymore, the galaxy has pushed me away, stolen me from Earth, from its winter and its quietness. I can find another, one where I still have him with me, where we can talk about parallel universes and dead poets and science and religion.
I am getting closer and closer to the hole. It is pitch black and I can hear noise coming from it. A drone, a chant, a song. Now my fear turns to hope. I open my door and sit on the step, my legs dangling into space. I try to see in, try to see what is pulling me there.
The black hole is empty. Something more desolate than I have ever experienced before – it’s attraction merely delusionary. I lean forward, peering into the darkness, the noise I heard stopping. Now there is just silence. Now I am stuck. Both worlds empty, both worlds not mine, on the border between one and the other. I can hear a ringing still, an alarm, a call. A sound I have heard before. Coming from inside my house. My telephone, I realise. I stand up and go inside, shutting my door, racing through the house to find the ringing. I find my phone, abandoned long ago, on the floor of my bathroom. I answer.
“Hey, where are you? How have you been?”
My brothers voice. My voice. My father’s voice.
If there are multiple universes, and there probably are, somewhere it is spring. Somewhere my father is still alive, in the kindness of my brother, in the strength of my actions. In our laughter and our movements.
“I have missed you. I will see you soon,” I tell him, my voice now loud, my voice now a sound.
I walk to my window and I can see Earth. I open it up wide and step out – plunging into space for the final time. Something is pulling me home. I am falling, flying, spinning, my heart beating and my lungs shouting. Earth gets bigger and bigger. The sun is rising, painting golden light onto the green grasslands and plains. As it gets bigger, I go faster, reaching the gravity force. I shut my eyes and the sun hits me. I am falling through the blue sky. Earth getting closer and closer. My Earth, my universe. I hit the lake. The ice breaks. I plunge into the water, gasping as the fish jump. I get tangled in the weeds, baby frogs chirp at me. “Sorry,” I tell them, surfacing and pulling myself out. My body is cold and wet, but the sun is warm. I lie down in the grass, shutting my eyes. I breathe, steadily, I had not breathed for a while. I hear the birds calling, I feel the grass tickling my body. I hear chatter, children playing. I feel my damp clothes getting warm. And I am. And he is too. In the sky, in the birds, in the lake. In this universe, our universe.