In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the first chapter of my forthcoming novel, The Spiral:


Even before the moon rose, we could see each other by the collection of starlight. Far from any city’s sodium glow, the sky’s luminous map of time was clearly etched in millions of blue-white points.
    “Mom liked to tell that story of propping me up in front of the TV to see the moon landing,” I said to Alex, breaking a long silence.
    “Why don’t you just say ‘I watched the moon landing?’” he replied, jabbing at my convoluted comment.
    The Milky Way arced across the December sky, turning imperceptibly as we spoke. We stamped our feet on the crust of snow as the moon rose and turned the hilltop to a crescent of silver-blue light.
    “She told that story to anyone who’d listen,” I continued, evading his challenge for the moment. “Relatives, people around town, ladies at church I barely knew. Later she’d tell that story to me and every time, it was like she was trying to convince me it had happened.”
    “Maybe she was trying to convince herself,” Alex said. “I guess you have to take her word for it—or don’t.” He was demonstrating his knack for cutting to the quick of a story and for keeping me honest—as he often did. I found it hard to be grateful.
    “That’s the thing. You’ve gotta consider her ironic sense of humor,” I replied. “She wanted to be able to say I had seen the first human to set foot on the moon, whether my eight-month-old brain remembered it or not.”
    “She was just supplementing your experience,” Alex offered. “It’s like—like a test of faith. Trusting in something you can’t verify.”
    “But this was the moon landing,” I countered. “It has to be more about science. What does faith have to do with it?” I crossed my arms for warmth, throwing a defensive gesture his way in the process.
    Science shone a spotlight on the absurdity of this debate, absurdity hiding in plain sight. Only an expert in neurophysiology could have settled whether I had retained any memory of the event. Such experts were scarce in our tiny town of Barnsville, New York. Our parents knew cardiologists, clergy, even a master craftsman of Adirondack guide boats, but no neurophysiologists to certify infant Matt Davidson’s perception of lunar landing broadcasts.
    “You don’t know if you saw it, but…does anyone?” Alex asked, continuing to obfuscate.
    “You mean because it might have been faked?” I interrupted. “On a Hollywood backlot? Maybe it was Kubrick using special effects he pioneered for 2001?” My irritation was building.
    “No, no, no,” he snapped, and then tried to compensate with a strained smile. “But did watching that grainy, black and white broadcast really qualify as experience for anyone?”
    He had a point. I imagined my wobbly little diapered body propped up on the orange shag rug in front of my parents’ hulking wood console TV. Around me, adults sat wide-eyed, awaiting the moment when Neil Armstrong would take “one small step for man.” My eyes (if they were open) had admitted the flickering light that documented the event.
    My witness to the moon landing—the apogee of the Space Race and the only moment in a decade chock full of history to happen off-planet—was a staged experience, retained by my infant brain or not. I was a prop in the living room tableau shared by millions that night.
    “I don’t…know,” I finally replied to Alex’s question. “But as I kid sometimes I confused things in real life and things I saw on TV.”
    Sesame Street, Space: 1999, and the nightly news were alternate universes to my own, but their borders were permeable. Their characters wandered back and forth across those borders into our darkened living room. My most thrilling encounters with them were furtive glances over my homework, stolen breaks in my piano practice, or late night larceny when I wasn’t even supposed to be out of bed.
    If I just lie still long enough, I thought, they’ll forget I’m here, like a camouflaged insect hoping to see the end of  The Pink Panther.
    “How do we know what happened…what we think…what someone said…how do we know it happened the way we remember it?” I asked Alex. “How can we know it happened at all?”
    “We can’t,” he replied, surveying the deep black of the sky studded with light.
    The past is like a late night movie that’s been cut nearly to death, I thought. We have to splice together the story as best we can.
    Decades after my infant viewing of the moon landing, I stumbled upon this historical fragment: Apollo 8, the first mission to flirt with a lunar landing by orbiting the moon, was launched on December 21, 1968. The Saturn V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral broke earth orbit on the shortest day of the year when the tilt of the planet’s axis away from the sun was at its most dramatic. That year, like every one before or since, it felt like the earth nearly toppled into the void before it began its long journey back toward the light.
    I was just over a month old when Apollo 8 flung three men toward the cold, gray orb of the moon at the low point of the year. I probably slept through that longest night when the north pole leans away from the light, precarious in its planetary contrapposto. I imagine my mother may have whispered this in my ear one night, but that possibility is so remote and thinly transmitted as to be nothing at all.
    That was also the year that a number of meteorites struck the earth in and around Barnsville. Most were smaller than tennis balls. They damaged a few cars, pieces of farm equipment, and livestock, but didn’t injure the county’s human residents. It was the most exciting thing that Barnsville had experienced since Abraham Lincoln once dined and stayed a night at Main Street’s historic inn, the Houghton House.
    A team of astronomers and geologists dispatched from nearby Steuben University to study the chunks of space debris found they contained a remarkable profile of rare metals that left them scratching their academic heads. One of them commented in the local paper that “between this event and a meteorite strike recorded in 1894, Barnsville seems to be a magnet for such space stuff.” The librarian had underlined space stuff in red pen and posted the clipping in the center of the bulletin board in the town library’s cool stone vestibule. It remained there for months, an odd center of gravity while bake sale flyers and lost cat notices revolved around it.
    Space stuff.
    The moonlight and starlight glanced off the angled face of a black granite stone at our feet, revealing the engraving on its polished surface. In the precise center of the stone was a  cluster of connected spheres superimposed with a capital Y. Around this were five concentric rings, each studded with smaller spheres—two, eight, eighteen, nine, and two—like evenly spaced satellites locked in orbit around a mother planet. Outside the fifth ring was a sixth composed of a slender serpent with its tail in its mouth, forming a closed loop. Beneath this diagram was an inscription:

1943 - 2010

    “A cenotaph,” I said, staring into the dark mirror of the stone.
    Alex turned to me with a puzzled look. “A what?”
    “A memorial without a body—not a grave,” I explained.
    “Guess they had no choice in this case.”
    “Placed by the family?” he asked, stamping his feet and shrinking into his collar as an icy wind picked up.
    “No. Not the family,” I replied. “No immediate family left.”
    “Right. Who then?”
    “You should know.”
    Neither of us spoke for a long time. Above us, a few sharp steaks of white light darted between the stars, winking out as soon as they had appeared.
    “The Society,” I said finally and began walking down the hill, not looking back to see if he was with me. “I’ve mostly forgiven you, by the way.” 
    “Mostly?” he asked, close behind me after all. “It’s been twelve years.”
    I didn’t respond. In my 40s, I had finally learned when to let something go.
    As I walked, a distant vibration began to rise though the frozen ground, sending a shiver through me despite the insulation of my heavy boots.
    I paused for a moment. Alex didn’t seem to notice it, but I felt certain that the hillside still resonated, all these years later. More certain than anything I’d experienced in my life.


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