Celestial Bodies

From the garden we look at the stars. Above us the jewel box spills out its contents, an offering. Everything else is invisible; at this hour the cerros are extinguished, and the electric blue is now black. Standing on the hill our bodies are imperceptible in the dark, our hands unseen as they reach for binoculars, our backs concealed to all but the cool touch of the rock, our necks occult as we peer down the tunnel of the telescope.

Saturn tips vertical onto its dashing rings of ice, Mars burns angry red, Jupiter glides with serenity, ringed by dark bands of cloud and accompanied by three moons. How far away yet close it all seems, in this north of the south of the world!

Most nights, the lights of the city draw my attention more than the stars. My destiny will take place here, rather than on any planet that will not feel my boot’s tread in this lifetime. A hotel with a blooming garden of citrus trees and cactus fruits is expecting us. But now a chill seizes possession of the air and my bones, and after a while every part of me grows so cold that I do not feel at all. Another body emerges, incorporeal, pure, cold.
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Feeling the weight of all the stars bearing down from above, I look again into the telescope at each planet in turn, taking my time. This is not the first occasion I have looked at these celestial bodies, but now they seem to represent more than their mere physical characteristics of mass, velocity, equatorial radius, surface area. Reaching us from thousands of light years away, each of these bodies brings with it memories of things once loved, things present, things to come.

Saturn: the debris and dust of the past that continue to spin around me. Mars: the rich reddish soil and current possibilities of life. Jupiter: the immense, marbled and airy future. My mind whirls through space in irregular orbit, rotating about one thought then another, rejecting linear movement in time, elliptical movement in space.

We go back inside. Eucalyptus and hawthorn make the stove flare, spark and settle, to begin its work of toasting us. Picture postcards are passed from hand to hand, representing the sky with its constellations, colored in with their mythological figures, from Sagittarius to the Southern Cross. Then we fill our bellies with flatbreads smeared with apricot jam, fresh-baked and wrapped in cloth inside a basket, washed down with a tea made of young black leaves and a bit of mint.

Toes tingle upon regaining sensation; our noses become pure flame, ardent rose! We laugh at the flush in our cheeks, as stealthily we reach for another unleavened round, more jam. The resin of the wood, the steam, our bodies radiate heat. The warm body that I know well has returned.

Yet I cannot forget that other body, immaculate and cold, as easily forgotten on most days as the planets. Which is the real one, warm or cold? Or do they take turns emerging and fading away, like memories of the past, sensations of the present and idle speculations about the future? When the warm body dies, does the cold body continue to survive, like the light from the stars after they have burned all their hydrogen fuel?

Last year in my journal, I wrote a prayer: Ratri, goddess of night: are you the one who guards me or are you the evil things from which I am meant to be guarded? Are those dark dews and secretions symbols of rest or the growth of vital powers that will destroy my peace? If I apply bergamot to myself, will you comfort me or send your creatures to lick my wrists and sink in their teeth?

Far away as tomorrow seems, I can predict what will happen. Sitting in the sun behind a fresh white towel hung out on the line to dry, I will look at the lemon trees on the patio, before once again turning to the passage of the book I am reading, in which Beauvoir marvels with such beauty: “The eternal youth of the world makes me feel breathless. Some things I loved have vanished. A great many others have been given to me. Yesterday evening I was going up the Boulevard Raspail and the sky was crimson: it seemed to me that I was walking upon an unknown planet where the grass might be violet, the earth blue. It was trees hiding the red glare of a neon light advertisement.”

Back in the city seen from afar last night and now so present, taxis will honk outside the gate and tourists will dedicate themselves to weaving a thick net of chatter. The cold bodies, warm bodies and celestial bodies will seem either silent and scattered preoccupations to be kept at a great distance, or primordial incarnations tucked snugly within the self as flatbreads in a kerchief, awaiting a sly hand to unwrap them.

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from California, currently living in Santiago de Chile. Her works include the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval (What Books), the collection of essays Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age (Zero Books) and the novel A Furious Oyster (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, forthcoming). Her translations include Sara Gallardo’s Land of Smoke (Pushkin), Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World (Dalkey Archive), Hilda Mundy’s Pyrotechnics (We Heard You Like Books) and Maurice Level’s The Gates of Hell (Black Coat). Twitter: jess_sequeira

Image: Lemons by JD Lasica (Creative Commons)