Why the Astronomers Are Busy: A Short Story -The Toast

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farnsworthAll the astronomers are busy all the time. They have excuses: ‘Oh, I’m at a conference’; ‘Oh, I’m writing a research paper.’

Actually they are all in a secret knitting club for astronomers. They’re making a giant representation of the cosmos, a scale model. They have to knit fast because the universe is rushing away from itself. They argue about the proper way to render black holes in yarn. Derek specializes in nebulae; Megan details asteroids.

They’re making this in three dimensions and because the universe hasn’t ended, so far, they’re going to keep knitting until it does. Or until they run out of yarn, maybe? Lately Astrid has been buying the cheap, itchy stuff; they’re kind of annoyed. (Astrid’s name really is Astrid, which means ‘star’. She’s tall and red-haired and bony, and when people smirk at her name she fixes them with a hard stare. No-one’s brought up the yarn thing yet. They’re working up to it.)

The astronomers meet at Derek’s house. Their knitted model of the universe is kept there, folded up on itself. It takes up a lot of room, which is why it’s at Derek’s – not that he has a bigger house, particularly, but he doesn’t have much else, and no wife or anything since she left. He says she’s at her sister’s, but it’s been over a year. Everyone knows. The main thing is that she’s not around to bitch about a giant woolly universe taking up space (ha, ha) in the study, spreading outwards into the kitchen and bedroom, bunched up against the TV. Other things she’s not there to complain about include the fact that Derek hasn’t published anything lately, and he’s dropped a bunch of his grad students. On the upside, he never drops stitches.

Derek’s wife left about the time they started the knitting club. No-one’s quite sure which happened first. Cause? Effect? It’s unclear. Theories abound, but nothing, yet, is proven.

The last person in the knitting club is Shaun. He has large hands, clumsy fingers. He’s been working on Betelgeuse for weeks, hunched on the green corduroy sofa, needles close to his face, eyes slightly unfocused.

The model of the universe fills most of the house. Astrid and Megan climb out on the roof. It’s night, but the city stains the sky orange. A famous comet is due to transit next month. They’re all making a trip out to the state observatory at Curtis Creek.

‘I’m worried about Shaun,’ Megan says.

‘Shaun? He’s all right,’ says Astrid. ‘He’s mangling Betelgeuse, but we can redo it.’ Astrid is working on dark matter. She is using tiny needles and fine silk thread. Her fingers twitch like spiders’ legs.

(Why is Megan worried about Shaun? She must have noticed something – a thing, or the absence of a thing. Bags under the eyes, knitting clumsier than usual? It’s hard to put a finger on.)

Megan peers at the thread that Astrid is knitting and sees that actually it is fine, dark human hair. Where did Astrid get so much hair? Enough hair to knit all the dark matter in the universe? There are a lot of things Megan would like to ask Astrid but she does not.

The astronomers have not told their colleagues about the knitting club. Their colleagues are serious people, and knitting is not a serious activity; they might not approve. The astronomers are worried they’ll lose respect and, therefore, funding; and what would happen then? An astronomer cannot live on thread alone, Derek says, half joking, half mournful, untangling Shaun’s most recent disaster. Megan shoots him a sharp look: her uncle was a Baptist minister; she knows the reference; is plunged for a minute back to her scrubbed Sunday-school childhood. Shake it off. She picks up the knitting needles again. Slip one, knit two together.

Megan is working on the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. She’s still inside the Milky Way – inside our solar system – barely a step away from the earth. Megan cannot compete with Astrid, who is unfazed in her scope and ambition. Megan forms the asteroids diligently, accurately, plodding among rocks while Astrid flies out through distant galaxies. Even Derek is further away than Megan, over in the Crab Nebula; even muddling Shaun has Betelgeuse. How did this happen? Certainly the asteroid belt is detailed; certainly it requires skill and precision. Megan tells herself this. She knits for five more minutes, then gets up and goes to Derek’s mini-bar, pours a drink: gin and tonic, easy on the tonic. She feels Astrid’s eyes on her, or maybe Derek’s? They’re sitting next to each other on the sofa.

But when she glances up they’re concentrating on their work.

‘There is a perfume,’ Astrid says, still not looking up, ‘that smells like gin and tonic. You can buy it. You can smell like a glass of gin and tonic.’ Astrid can be relied upon to know things like this. Also to know what everyone is doing without looking at them.

‘Would you wear it?’ Derek says.

‘No,’ Astrid says, ‘but I’d like a perfume that smells like rocks. Igneous rocks, specifically.’

‘You could make that,’ Derek says.

‘Maybe I will.’

In the beginning, the astronomers met once a week. Thursday nights. They traded knitting patterns and quantum theories, complained about their grad students (so sloppy!) and their colleagues (so dull!). They drank wine. They worked, slowly, on the model of the universe.

After a while they started meeting on Tuesdays as well as Thursdays. Then Sundays. Always at Derek’s. They did not talk about this, but more and more often they converged in the same place, sat in Derek’s living room trying to make sense of the universe with wool and needles, not talking much.

Now it’s nearly every night. Often they don’t leave Derek’s until two or three in the morning. They eat if someone remembers to order takeout: Derek’s bar is well-stocked, his fridge less so.

This is why the astronomers are always busy. Their partners probably think they are having affairs, but they are not, except with the cosmos.

Their partners: are you surprised to learn that they exist? Is it surprising that the astronomers aren’t all alone in the world? Shaun’s wife Linda is a librarian. Astrid’s husband Jeremy is an accountant. Megan’s partner Susan designs furniture. These things are not necessarily relevant, or important, but they are facts, and facts can’t be overlooked if one is pursuing the truth. The astronomers are not sure what they are pursuing. It may or may not be Truth.

Derek has heard about this rich businessman in Cyprus. Oil or diamonds or something. He owns half of Cyprus but he’s scared to death of the apocalypse. Is Cyprus an island? Derek isn’t sure, but he thinks this could explain the fear somewhat. This man bought a farm out in Australia and hired people to run it for him, and he figures that if the end of the world happens he’ll be able to survive out there for a while at least. He’ll have crops and meat and wool and so on. He’s thought about the contingencies. This rich man has a lot of staff. They all know about this plan and they all know whether or not they’re marked to go with him. Mostly, they are not. Mostly they have to make their own contingency plans.

Derek hasn’t told anyone, because imagine what Astrid would say, but he has been thinking recently that he needs a contingency plan of his own. He isn’t sure how long this knitting will take. Or how they’re supposed to know when to stop.

Derek’s wife, Melody, is a neurologist. Her absence from his house is palpable. She is a black hole. I’m going to be frank with you at this point. I don’t know how this story is going to end. Neither do the astronomers. They’re driving out to Curtis Creek, to observe the comet. They met at Derek’s house to carpool. Astrid drives. Derek sits shotgun. Megan and Shaun are in the back, like overgrown children on a day-trip. Megan has a pile of papers with diagrams of the comet’s trajectory. She’s making calculations. She’s measuring yarn. They’re going to knit the comet into the model of the universe.

Shaun, beside her, fiddles with the wool. He’s sick of Betelgeuse, which has never been his favourite star, but it’s not even half done. Really he’d like to help Astrid with dark matter.

Astrid hasn’t yet joined the dark matter to the rest of the model yet. The dark matter has no stray ends, no irregularities: it is fine and slippery and does not reflect light. It’s hard to tell how big or small it is. It must be fairly sizeable, Shaun thinks, because Astrid has been working on it for weeks now and she’s a fast knitter, the fastest of any of them. But somehow it still fits in Astrid’s pocket. She keeps the knitting in the left pocket and the hair on the right. Astrid is left-handed. (This may not be important. It’s difficult to tell.)

Two days ago Shaun went into the living room and Astrid’s knitting was folded up on the coffee table. He picked up the piece of tightly-woven hair. It was heavier than he’d expected, and it slithered in his fingers and he fumbled and dropped it. The dark matter did not seem to have a beginning or an end. For a moment Shaun thought it was spreading, growing, covering the floor. Then Astrid was in the doorway. Their eyes met, and Shaun looked down, and Astrid came over and picked up the dark matter and put it in her pocket. She didn’t say anything to Shaun. She turned and left the room and shut the door with Shaun inside.

This is what Shaun thinks: people are always shutting doors on him. He may as well be dark matter. No: he may as well be a sub-atomic particle. In an extinct species of lichen. (Lichen, by the way, is one of the oldest and hardiest life forms. It has colonized basically the whole planet, from desert to tundra to rainforest. Shaun doesn’t know much about lichen, but it’s possible that his whole life would have been better if he had studied lichen instead of astronomy. He’s more suited to it: slow-growing, persistent and tangible in a way that the cosmos is not. Shaun doesn’t know this.)

Astrid’s supply of long dark hair has not run out. Also, the other astronomers have been watching, but they’ve never seen her join two pieces of hair together, as you would expect, to make longer pieces. It seems possible that the hair is one single strand that continues, perhaps, indefinitely.

It’s not clear when Astrid will attach the dark matter, or how. The thing is that without dark matter the universe makes no sense, and this is necessarily true in the scale model, too. In the model of the universe there are no people. There are no life forms at all. This is partly an issue of scale and partly because the astronomers find life forms distracting. They are concerned with events on a much larger scale (light years and so forth), and also a much smaller scale (subatomic, using tinier measurements than you could possibly believe). The tedious area in the middle isn’t of much interest. Also, when you’re dealing with life-forms, it’s harder to predict accurately: people don’t move on orbital planes. (The astronomers themselves, possibly, are exceptions to this rule, but they haven’t noticed it yet.)

Actually, in the model of the universe the Earth does not yet exist. No-one has volunteered to make the Earth. It’s possible that they’ve forgotten about it. Looking outwards all the time, you can forget where you are.

In the model of the universe there is no language, no art, and no mathematics. Just to name a few things.

In the model of the universe there is no Earth, and so the astronomers do not exist inside it; are not (in the model) travelling to the observatory, all in the same car like a climactic accident waiting to happen. (If this was a different kind of story Astrid would swerve and lose control of the car and they’d skid into a tree and the dark matter in Astrid’s pocket would bloom and spread through all their bodies.) (If this was a different kind of story the comet would leave its orbit and hurtle towards the Earth, specifically the car with the astronomers, wiping them out instantly.)

The model of the universe is in the car. It fills the back seat and most of the front. It bulges out the windows. No-one knows how Astrid can see to drive. Maybe she doesn’t need to see. As they headed further away from the city the radio dissolved into white noise. That’s what they’re listening to, now.

One thought: who taught the astronomers to knit? Their mothers (Derek), their grandmothers (Shaun), online video tutorials (Megan). Astrid can’t remember, or won’t say.

Anyway, I don’t know what happens in the end, if there is one. The astronomers are driving, as I’ve said, towards the observatory, but you can’t see them any more; you’ve zoomed out, zoomed back in at a different place, a house where Astrid’s husband is looking at the kitchen clock and wondering where she is, not that she ever says these days, and if she’ll be back by the time the lasagna is done, and why the house feels so much emptier, suddenly, like she’s even more not there than usual.

The comet travels on its orbit, past the Earth on its own plane, and out into the depths of space.

[Image via]

Anna Dunnill is a writer and artist from Australia. She makes zines, installations, drawings, embroideries, and stick-&-poke tattoos, which you can find here.

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