When we lay down at night in the heat, on the concrete, then the universe became apparent. Not the sky, which we could see any time, but all the things that hid behind it. There were six of us then. We lay down with the less interesting sun beneath our backs and paid attention. And the universe was rich and black as a bull ant. Sometimes my dad pointed out how certain stars were like a pot or a crucifix. I thought that was stupid. Stars weren’t like anything. I don’t mean that I thought my dad was stupid, I just didn’t trust that particular idea. It made sense that things could be like stars, which he also showed us. Satellites, for example, looked the same from where we lay, dad and mum and my sister and my sister and me and my brother all in a row, but when they moved they gave themselves away as fakes.
There was also the moon which my dad reeled in for us and which looked, through binoculars, like burnt wood.
One night after we’d watched the universe for a while, something started bumping around up there like a star in a pinball machine. Then there was an article in the newspaper about a Russian satellite that had malfunctioned and gone off course. I cut it out and took it to school. I said I was worried about the astronaut inside and that I thought it might have been my family’s fault. But my teacher said there was nobody up there. There was no exchange. A satellite’s course was determined by the tension between gravity and velocity – it had nothing to do with my family. She made me get a stone from the playground and tied it to a piece of string and swung it around. Look, my hand is earth. See how the stone pulls outward but the string holds taut and keeps it circling? She said if something went wrong it was a matter of wiring and physics, not of intent. She drew a diagram on the blackboard with dotted lines and arrows. She told my class that we offered up our longing to the universe and the satellite bounced it back to us, magnified. That was all.
I doubted it. I stayed awake thinking about the astronaut alone in the little bright machine, waiting to be saved. I thought about the astronaut’s family, all in a row on earth, maybe on concrete but neat, like Russian dolls. I counted all their wide, painted eyes watching the astronaut bounce around the universe, dizzy and lost and waving her hands, utterly out of reach. I did feel responsible.
But a Russian doll’s good trick is the illusion of a whole unit. Put it together right and you’d never know by looking if one of the dolls inside was missing. You’d have to shake it, or maybe if it was the smallest doll that was lost you could weigh it in your hand and feel the hollowness in the heart of the wood. Or you could wait til all the dolls were lined up in a row and count them, but how often does that happen?
On the radio last night a scientist was circling the possibility that the universe rearranges itself in response to the gaze. He said this was difficult even to think about. I paid attention but he didn’t say how many gazes it would take.
For example, there were six of us. Dad and mum and my sister and my sister and me and my brother. Six of us then, all in a row, gazing. Would six be enough? I think it might be. I’ve got no proof, I only have the scientist. But I think it might have been. I think if we hadn’t looked so steadily, if we’d just gone inside and left the universe alone, maybe it would have been different.