The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Tinfoil Astronaut
My mother made me an astronaut helmet out of tinfoil, and cardboard, and a leftover pipe from when she fixed the leaky toilet. I got a supermarket brand “NASA Shuttle and Launch Pad Play Set” that Christmas, too. I tore off the paper and dragged it back to my room like a fresh kill. My mother followed. She knelt beside me, picked up the plastic replica—a blank-mind-white shuttle attached to a threat-level-orange rocket by three plastic latches—and she said, “Look,” as she ripped them apart. “Just look,” to show me I’d been wrong all along, drawing all those hollow rockets with portholes and all the floating tinfoil men inside. “The rocket is not the shuttle,” she told me. “The rocket is just what gets them there, and that’s all it is.” But it got stuck. Because the plastic was cheap and the latches were brittle, so she had to pull and tug while bits of orange plastic flew off like sparks at takeoff.
It doesn’t matter, “Just look.”
Grainy footage from the 1980s dubbed in Spanish on our small Sony television. Dust and smoke rising around the shuttle like a million white-foam jellyfish suddenly awakened by the roaring of a rocket plunging into the uncharted depth of a blue sky. The cloud mushroomed up, it puffed out, it swelled high, it covered the shuttle, the rocket, the platform, a solid curtain of white and noise and a brief moment of incredulity, Now you see it, now you… “There! There!” Both rocket and shuttle emerging from the cloud, riding a pillar of white flames and brown smoke and noise, and noise, and so much noise. An enormous crushing cacophony as big as the fiery wake was long. And it was incredible, to watch a thing pull on its own bootstraps until it was out of sight and out of orbit. Until it became imaginary and unimaginable. Another invisible thing lost and tangled in the made-up lines of the made-up constellations, the black cobweb thread that makes archers and queens out of specks of traveling light.
“Are you looking?” The shuttle and rocket rose while the people on the screen mumble in the background in a language I’d never heard before. “That’s English.” But I was barely listening because the rocket was barely visible, and I was wondering what would happen to the bright orange rocket, when it fell, where it fell, if it fell.
I found this embroidered insignia patch in a box of my mother’s old things once. A crescent moon blade over a faded hammer. I pulled it out and waved it around like a tiny flag I’d plucked right off a cheese platter. Small and tightly knit with a few random strands sticking up like the hair on the back of my neck when my sister and I were children, and my mother would chase us through the house pretending to be a colossal and voracious spider name Cucaraña. It smelt of damp cardboard and mothballs, and felt a little heavier than I thought it should have, as if it had been sewn with lead thread and shrapnel. And when my mother saw it she said, “Those were different times.”
I wanted to ask where she’d gotten it, or who had given it to her, but instead I simply ran my fingers on the spikey strands half expecting them to rip my fingertips open like barbwire bristles.
“Do you still remember any Russian from back then?” My father asked, conjuring up images of my mother riding in buses through Bogotá when she was seventeen. In my mind she sways with the rhythm of the bus, holding a cheap umbrella under her arm and exact change in her pocket as she makes her way to the Colomborussian institute for evening classes.
“Shto eto tako’e?”
There has to be a little red book somewhere in the image, I think. Idealism, intellectualism, rage—these things fit; they are likely. Regardless, I know that as she holds fast to the pole of a clattering bus, to the Russian book beneath her arm, and whatever promise there is in learning that sharp and angular language, the colonel must hold faster still to his second-born daughter. The constant presence of her father, the colonel, the air force pilot, the self-made man, the serious man who never smiled for a picture, never missed a chance to fly, never stopped drawing invisible flight plans with his hands during mass. El coronel Cabeza, forever in my mind in uniform and in an air force base patio while a cat jumps up on his lap and another sits at his feet licking its paws. Yuri and Niki, which the colonel—who daily bombed the men who would become the Soviet-inspired leftist guerrilla group known as the FARC—named after Yuri Gagarin and Nikita Khrushchev. “I think he would have sent me there to study,” my mother told me once while I drew Cold War maps for social studies class. “Eventually,” she said. “Had he been there,” she said. Meaning: had he lived past her eighth birthday. “Who knows?” Had the plane not malfunctioned, had the parachute opened in time, had things turn out, worked out, worked at all, somehow, somewhere, differently. “He might have. Who knows?”
“What does that mean?” I asked. “‘Shto’a tata…’ what?”
“Shto eto tako’e.”
“Right, that.” She didn’t like Lenin and she loved Trotsky. That much I know; she told me once over breakfast long before I knew what either one of those names meant, but those where different times.
“What is that?”
I used to stand alone on the concrete bench in front on my childhood home for hours and hours. I tilted my head under the helmet and stared at the tips of my shoes as they inched forward like a flame down a fuse. 10, 9, 8. My breath fogged up the cellophane visor and the tinfoil crinkled. 7, 6, 5. I held the helmet with both my hands to keep it from tilting to the side where the piece of flexible pipe looped like an oxygen tube. 4, 3, 2. And I watched my brown orthopedic shoes reach the edge and pivot, seesawing between trepidation and anticipation, as if I didn’t know what would happen next. 1, 0. Liftoff.
Because I really hoped I didn’t. I hoped one day, one moment, one leap would summon my own pillar of fire and foam and I’d ride it over the purple flower trees and above our next door neighbor’s house, and that night I’d sleep with the spiders who wove the night black swinging thread between pillars of light.
One day, while I imagined countdowns, ignitions, and torn skies my mother told me about Laika. I stood barefoot in the doorway holding a rocket in one hand and a shuttle in the other, and my mother told me space was very big and very cold and very empty, and the Soviet space program sent a small curly tailed dog name Laika into orbit just to see if they could. Like some people kick pebbles into ravines, to count the seconds between the edge and the base, to guess depths and envision falls.
I had not asked about Laika, I had never heard of anything close to it, of anything remotely like it. But she told me all the same.
Revolution made sense then, makes sense now. It is both trite and true, but it is both.
The whole world third-wheeling on a US-Soviet Cold War date, and all these countries engaged in their own complicated and violent internal affairs. And not much has changed. It made sense then, makes sense now. The oligarchs, the autocrats, the plutocrats, the corrupt bureaucrats and slithering diplomats. The trigger men and the trigger tyrants inventing bullet hole constellations on skies of skin and skull.
I nearly cracked my own skull open more than once, more than twice, sometimes more than thrice a week leaping off higher and higher benches and trees and fences. I shaved my head once as an adult and found that beneath my dark brown hair there lay a star-map scalp that I suddenly wished I could have unrolled on a table, to run my finger between each skin-stitch and read the future in my past.
Every arid patch where hair refused to grow another leap, another fall, another failed launch, another certain moment of uncertain certainty that in just one more moment I would be barely visible from the ground. So they brought me home unconscious and limp more than once, and twice and thrice a week as I covered my head with bruises and lumps and my mother covered the bruises and lumps with green dish soap, because someone once told her it helped to make the swelling go down.
“Stay close by this time. Will you?”
So I played with the next door neighbor’s kids who had red-eyed rabbits in their red tile patio, and parents who had met in the mountains while they ran a pirate radio station for a local branch of the revolutionary guerilla armed forces.
It made some sense, at least. At the time, at least.
The M19 with their books and rifles, the ELN with their Catholic roots, the FARC with the proletariat cry, the waving of machetes and the march of orphaned farmers. In the beginning, when the Soviet Union called for revolution and flipped the bill. Before the car bombs, the child soldiers, the throngs of secuestrados chained to the base of jungle trees, before Reagan said to tear down that wall and the kidnappings, threats, and coca fields replaced Soviet funding. But the means can carry on long after the ends have been severed and forgotten, a resilient and headless atomic insect made of bullet casings and momentum running from under one piece of furniture to the other while someone chases it around with a broom. There is little revolutionary left in this revolution. Only the shelling and the shell. And most of the sprawling reasons to revolt mostly intact, and mostly the same. Things get better and they get worse and people grow accustomed to growing accustomed, and we export prisoners, brutality, stereotypes, the plotlines for foreign spy films and white kilos in suitcases, stomachs, and leaky submarines. And maybe sometime in my lifetime there won’t be an official war or the six or seven unofficial ones hidden amidst leaves, and street lamps, and tinted windows, and drawn curtains and closed doors. But it’s hard to imagine.
I didn’t know about our neighbors for a long time. If ever it came up during my childhood they simply spoke in a thin-veil code. Things like, “Up in the hills,” and “The guys with the rain boots,” and “Those were different times.”
But then one day I found this patch in a box of my mother’s old things, and it seemed quite heavy for something made of only thread and cloth. So my mother took it, held it between her fingers like something delicate but distorted, a large translucent flake of dried skin. And she seemed to me to momentarily wonder why she had kept it all that time. And that’s when she told me about the neighbors, and that’s when she told me about herself. Red tiles, red eyes, red patches, and books on red Wednesday morning of improvised revolutions.
Space is very big, and very dark, and very-very cold. But that’s not what killed Laika. The official Soviet report reads, “During the ground simulation of this flight’s conditions, the conclusion was made, that Laika should be lost due to overheating…”
For a long time when I was a child, right before I fell asleep I thought I could hear the automated beeps of a Soviet satellite in orbit. Beep. Beep. While I lay in bed, on the grass, on a bench. While moonlight streamed through the colored shards of broken bottles stuck atop the wall around our house—the common cheap alternative to barbwire and bullets. Beep. Beep. Or under a tree while I watched a tiny green spider weave an almost invisible web between my index finger and thumb. Beep. And under the beeping, I thought I heard her muffled bark.
Laika puts her nose to the hatch door and fogs up the window like I fogged up my helmet visor. She is not yet panting, passing out or panicking. Sputnik II punctures the sky in a single uninterrupted motion. It slides into orbit like a missing gear in a clockwork universe, and Laika travels at speeds close to 18,000 miles per hour. She encircles the planet; she traces its width. Laika unleashed for a minute, free and confined all at once with her nose pressed against the porthole, almost up against the stars that tug on the dark embroidery that holds them in place. For a moment, I imagine, she knows beyond her knowing that she has gone farther and seen more than any man, woman, or dog before her. And in less than two hours she has shot across Soviet and American skies alike and she begins a second earth-round bound. She circles the planet again and again and again, like she’s wrapping it with ribbon and string, like she’s tying rope around a witch, around a pole, around stacks of kindling and tinder, and around, around again she goes for a hundred and sixty two days before burning up in reentry.
But that’s not what kills Laika either. Sputnik II breaks free of the blue orb’s pull but fails to break free of itself. “The rocket is not the shuttle.” A part that was meant to come apart has clung and followed Laika into orbit. The “Blok A” core, or booster rocket, does not separate as planned and as a result the thermal control system is shot. The temperature quickly rises to a hundred and four degrees Fahrenheit, and some intelligence analyst in the US intercepts Laika’s agitated heartbeat echoing through encrypted radio waves.
I try to think about Laika thinking too. Try to imagine in dog—wordless, chemical, bright-flash thoughts. “Where am I? What is this? Where-what-how?” Or maybe simply, “Hot. Tight. Loud. Hungry. Scared.” Canine evolution did not prepare Laika for this moment. Predators, hunger, rats, and garbage heaps, yes—but not space, not weightlessness, not a tinfoil ship blindly burning through space. But maybe, I imagine, she understands more than we think. Laika was handpicked from dozens of candidate dogs, it was not chance but choice that put her in orbit. Someone looked at Laika and saw a satellite, a cosmonaut, a curly tailed meteor spinning farther from earth than any dog or human had ever spun before. Laika earned her place in the sky; Laika is smart. So maybe she understands, or tries to understand, “It’s like a big dog snarling, like an open oven door. Like your tail getting stepped on, your head getting kicked. Like falling asleep under an exhaust pipe, like falling out of a moving car. Like falling, like falling, like fire and fire and falling.” But maybe it’s not so hard to understand after at all. She is going to die, it is nothing new, every dog before and after Laika has and will. She will die and she knows.
“I didn’t know,” my mother said as she handed the patch back to me. “Back then, I just didn’t know.”
I noticed the mistakes of a rushed design, the sickle’s blade too short, the hammer’s head too thin. “About what?”
“Well.” She sighed. Well. Squinting like she does when something is either too far or too close to see. “Well. You know.” You know. The mountain, the manifesto, the boot, the patch, the dog. All of it. None of it. You know.
Then she told me how lucky she felt, to have found God and family just in time, and it made sense then, makes sense now. Because I’m glad too, and I didn’t have to say anything, ask anything, just put the patch back into the box and feel glad. Lucky and glad, box and patch and past all packed and latched away and ago. But I asked her anyway.
“To keep you from what?” Maybe because it’s hard to imagine she was ever someone who thought things could be made to change. Or maybe just to kick a pebble down a cliff.
“To keep me from joining.”
On November 6, 1985, nearly two months after I was born and nearly a decade after my mother found God, the M19 revolutionary armed forces of Colombia sieged the Palace of Justice in Bogotá to change the course of the country’s history.
For twenty-eight hours the vastly outnumbered men and women of the M19 held the palace while their nearly three hundred and fifty hostages huddled together in groups as tight and fragile as petals in a bud. No one anticipated a government that had only months prior discussed peace agreements with the guerrilleros to flat out refuse negotiations, to blast the gates with mortar fire and plug the doorways with sharp-heeled soldiers.
Inside the palace, inside my mind, Irma Franco Pineda—a dark haired guerrillera in her twenties, roughly my mother’s age at the time—grits her teeth and tries to understand. “It’s like a hail storm inside a tin-roof house. A fire inside a locked chicken coop.” And as she listens to the tak-tak-tak of semi-automatic fire, the growling of tanks rolling up the steps, the cracking of curtains and desks torn apart and set ablaze, she may even begin to realize—it’s nothing new, it’s not so hard—she’s going to die.
I’ve seen the footage, read the reports. A bloody November Wednesday, chipped doorframes, broken glass, hostages in suits and heels, running and crying and holding hands. Smoke and ruin. In 2005 a commission of truth was finally organized and it was determined that Irma Franco Pineda made it out of the palace alive and well. She hid amidst the hostages as they were moved from the Palace rubble to a nearby museum, smuggling herself out like contraband and avoiding the stone-turning gaze of soldiers and cops and former hostages. And in the museum I imagine her trying to catch her breath, one Lot’s-wife look back at the pillars of smoke rising from the palace, one moment to feel a failure, to feel the narrative of her movement slip away from her, and then to feel lucky, or at least luckier than those left inside, and was it so hard to imagine walking out of the museum as well? To make it back home before dark, shake off the shrapnel, and wash off the dust? And then the soldiers begin lining the rescued up against the wall and sifting threat from threatened and I imagine her holding her breath as if it were oxygen alone that made her visible.
By the end of the siege ninety-eight of the hostages would be declared dead or disappeared, nearly all the random victims of crossfire, the side effect of their own rescue, from the military, from the captors, by the military, by the captors. Stray dogs and stray bullets have a way of finding a warm place to lay themselves down. And I’m not sure what made sense then, what makes sense now—it’s all a scattering of unconnected flickering dots across a sea of black.
From the surviving documents—the report states—that it can be ascertained that “the survivors were indeed moved from the Palace of Justice to nearby military installations.” Irma Franco Pineda was moved from the museum to one of these military installations. She did not make it home, not to a prison, not a jungle, not to a courtroom. Instead it is suspected that she was tortured for hours and later executed on the orders of high-ranking officers.
Though we were forbidden as children from watching the news, my sister and I would sometimes catch glimpses through a slit in our bedroom door of soldiers on the screen building towers of confiscated cocaine kilos and kicking over the bodies of dead guerrilleros in black rain boots for the camera to get a good look. The images were grainy and my parents very quiet as they watched, shaking their heads and only occasionally whispering something to each other. One day I dressed up as Rambo and told my mother how great it was that the soldiers had gotten all the white stuff back and built such nice neat rows with it. But she said it wasn’t real and I shouldn’t be glad. “It’s just recycled cocaine,” she said. “Bags they keep in a closet somewhere and drag out like a prop for the photo op.”
Fear is in the brain and the brain dies deprived of oxygen and fear must die with it too, and that’s what I tell myself. That it was very brief and she barely suffered. That most place her death within a few hours of the launch, and some at four, and none beyond six. Which still leaves one hundred and fifty six days of an orbiting coffin beeping and burning and sending still images of a still dog, still orbiting a still blue planet. Some speculate the last automatically dispensed serving of gelled food was poisoned to spare Laika the confined mixture of panic and boredom. But we can’t be sure. So I tell myself that instinct is its own dark sky, immeasurably deep and meticulously ruled by black vigilant spiders keeping track of every orbit and every blinking star and every stray dog that strays through their sky.
I kept my own tinfoil helmet beside the dead colonel’s in my bedroom. My fake one beside his real one. I’m not sure why or how I was allowed to play with this precious last object of a grandfather I never met, but I was and I did. And I loved it.
I lifted it with difficulty and often scraped my ears and nose when I let it drop down and encase my head in old leather padding, metal, and fiberglass. I fought the heavy helmet and it fought back. I tried to keep my neck straight and it tried to lay me flat on my back, I tried to keep it from sliding down and it tried to cut a visor shaped trench on the bridge of my nose. When I finally managed a teetering balance I would try to sit perfectly still and press the colonel’s old English aviation books against the visor so I could smell the glossy pages and stare at the photographs of weightless mice in zero gravity. Legs and tails spread wide apart, waiting to fall like a man waits for a pebble to hit rock bottom.
When my mother walked by I pulled back the blue visor, drawing its springs like the string of a bow like I imagine the colonel would have after a flight. “Mamá,” I said and lifted the book so she could see, “What is happening to the mouse?”
Laika spun around the planet an estimated two thousand five hundred and seventy times. She traveled roughly a hundred million kilometers, or more than sixty-two million miles. Most of which she covered in the perfect stillness of death.
Reports disclosed by the Institute of Biological Problems in Moscow during the 2002 World Space Congress in Houston finally put speculation to rest. After seven hours in flight the electrodes attached to Laika’s body sent back nothing but static
My mother knelt beside me and glanced at the opened book. She pointed at a floating mouse and explained zero gravity and the likelihood of a post experiment dissection. “To see what it does to them.” And then she told me astronauts need to be very good at math, and I was going to have to study a lot harder if I was going to hitch a ride on an orange rocket, and I turned the page and looked at words in a foreign language I wouldn’t be able to read until many years later.
I think anoxia, hypoxia, hyperthermia, Sputnik II. I’m a little girl; I put on a makeshift astronaut helmet and I am certain of my fate. I’m going to be an astronaut; I’m going into space. So I climb a tree and prepare to jump, but my orthopedic shoes are large and clunky and they get stuck between the branches like little cheap plastic latches on cheap plastic shuttles, and I cannot yank myself free before leaping. I try to push myself off but feel my leg tug back immediately like the string on a kite. So I topple forward and a thin instant grows fat and slow as my brain recognizes the inevitable trajectory. I see my arms swinging, my legs kicking, my helmet slipping off. I see the grey sky of a paved sidewalk growing larger and larger in the slow and interrupted succession of a slide projector’s images. Shhhh-clack. Shhhhh-clack. And it seems for a moment like I might fall forever, never landing forever. And I think I can taste the ground before I’ve felt it, the electric surge of a concrete blow to the head, like biting into a sandwich and finding a metal plate between the two slices of Wonder Bread. So I close my eyes to try to slip out of consciousness before the whiteout blank of a blackout blow but the sun shines through my eyelids and tints the world red and imminent, until finally, impact. The black. The passing of time, or the passing through it, and my mother on the other end rubbing green dish soap on my head and yelling at me not to fall asleep.
Incalescence, calefaction, calidity, fever—dog days in space. A booster rocket still clinging and sparking, a dog panting and spinning, harder and faster, while hundreds of men and women below look up to see if they can spot Laika tugging on Sirius’s collar.
Before Laika was Laika she was just a nameless stray like the colander dots of flashing light in the sky. Then she was rescued and recruited, she wagged her tail and hardly ever showed her teeth, so they called her Kudryavka, and Zhuchka, and Limonchik—Curly, Bug, Lemon, and finally “Laika,” Barker. Whimpering under the intermittent beeps of a rushed construction satellite.
Sometimes my mother would let my sister and me pack leftovers in a plastic grocery bag to go to the open fields and feed a beautiful stray dog named Tatu. His coat was heavy with dust and mud and she told us not to pet him, though I’m sure she knew we would. Because he beat his curly tail against the pavement when he saw us coming—when he saw anyone coming—and when we poured cold rice and sliced potatoes at his feet he sat perfectly still like he was bound by some old world etiquette. We begged and begged our parents to let us take him home, put a leash around his neck, and wash the light brown patch on his chest until it was white again. But all the other kids begged their parents too and I think they must have all silently agreed it was best to share Tatu, let him run through the unkempt field beyond the fence, send children with leftovers in plastic bags and wash their hands thoroughly when they returned. “That dog eats more and better than we do,” my father told us, “Trust me. You don’t need to worry about him.”
Though, of course we should have. It was the nineties and things were ticking and clicking and some of those things were the sporadic gangs of restless adolescents craving the validation of ritualization. They were invisible in the daytime, like germs and stars, but at night they emerged hollering and screaming and whooping and howling. They kicked the fences until they bent the bars, they broke the windows and scratched the cars, and then they took the animals. At first only scrawny, rabid strays sleeping in ditches and beneath cars. Cats and dogs they’d ring out like dirty rags and toss over a fence like a wet torn thing on the clothesline. But soon they ran out and began climbing the fences to slit the throats of Dalmatians and poodles right in their own front yards.
They hung the friendly Saint Bernard on our street on the driveway door, and they hung Tatu on the front gates of my preschool.
My older sister says that at least I did not hear him. Did not lie awake that night hearing the screech of a truck’s tires and a tied up dog being dragged through unpaved streets until they wore him down to the bone, until he was quiet like only dead things are quiet, like space is quiet, like too much noise can short circuit the inner ear and make it seem insufferably quiet.
I didn’t hear him, but I did see him the next morning when I lined up to go into preschool. Mud and blood. Delicate and distorted. Boneless and limp, the puppet without the hand. Tatu hanging from the top of the fence, hooked through a gash on his throat, his head hanging loosely back at an impossible angle, almost perfectly parallel with his spine, almost painless, nearly painless. Except that my older sister heard him the night before, and sometimes at night, laying in her bed, she says she can still hear him.
I used to think a lot about Tatu. I still do. Though now I think more about the people who took him than I do him.
The kids who drove him up and down the streets of my childhood neighborhood like they could erase the roads with his body. “Why?” I think, and, “What for?” As if all things were thought out and thought through before bursting into existence, inevitable and infected with intent. Maybe there’s just not that much to do in a small town, or maybe because they were bored, or because they were angry, or because they had every right to be angry and no one to hold accountable with the muscle of their anger—not really. The peasants? The manifestos writers? The kidnapped sons of oligarchs and plutocrats? The drafted soldiers? The hired guards? The men in the jungle? The jungle? The drug? The men growing the drug? Taking the drug? Taking it here, and taking it abroad? The children of the men growing the drug sprayed with foreign pesticides whose skin bubbles with chemical blisters and toxic rashes? The Spaniards who left us a mess? The Soviets who left us a mess? The conservatives, the liberals, the narcotraficantes, who all left us a mess?
But maybe it’s not so hard.
Maybe they simply wanted to be part of something serious and important like a gang, or a space program. So they drove all night under a cast net of obsolete constellations, while a dog howled and screeched and whimpered as he was sanded down into nothingness, emptiness, and quietness. And if my sister ever hears about someone hurting a dog she gets this look on her face like my mother did when I would wake up from a concussion and she wouldn’t let me fall back asleep.
And my sister adopted a dog that looks a lot like Laika, a little curly tail and a face made to smile. And this dog used to wheeze like a vacuum cleaner because her previous owner didn’t like small dogs and thought if he squeezed her neck hard and long enough she’d finally stop breathing and then he’d only have big important-looking dogs around, and maybe that would mean something about him.
Every time I leap there is a chance I will fall, and every time I fall there is a chance I will finally crack my head open like a Faberge egg and luminous black spiders will crawl out to mark the outline of my body with blinking stars and black thread. And there is a very good chance someone will carry me home, delicate, distorted, boneless and limp, and a stray boy will take my tinfoil helmet.
The colonel fell from the sky in 1964. Only three years after Gagarin had followed Laika’s wake into the darkened heavens and circled the earth for one hundred and eight celestial minutes. 1964, more than twenty years before I was born, before the Cold War would officially end and the hot internal Colombian conflict would hit its violent peak. 1964, and four years later Gagarin would follow. Another pilot, another more or less inexplicable accident. And he left two daughters behind; the colonel left three, and my mother is the second one.
I used to think about him a lot. Especially when his old helmet would finally win and pin me down flat forcing me to look up at the ceiling through a tinted visor. I would clip the oxygen mask onto the helmet, and feel it hermetically seal itself around my face. Then I would press down on the release at the end of the breathing hose, as the tank would have automatically done for the colonel. It gets very quiet inside an old pilot’s helmet. Very quiet and very dark. I used to try to time the release to regulate my breathing, to shorten it just a little and imagine him in his jet flying low above the jungle canopy after a routine exercise, and then I would picture his death.
Something is wrong, the colonel already knows it but he is too stubborn to admit it. He struggles to maintain altitude, the machine bucks and tilts, something is very wrong. But he loves this plane, he loves to fly, and he tries desperately to get the machine under control. But it won’t work, and maybe he already knows it won’t. The airplane has slid into the gravitational pull of a fated collision course and the colonel sees too late that the machine is intent on extinction. The entire cockpit shakes, he shakes, his eyes inside his sockets inside his skull inside his helmet shake, but he is a colonel in the Colombian air force, he has trained in San Diego, California with the very best of the very best and inside his flight suit, inside his uniform, inside his bones, he does no shake.
He pulls on the latch and his seat is ejected into the air, a miniature launch. 10, 9, 8. Did he wait too long to eject? 7, 6, 5. Will the parachute open in time? 4, 3, 2. Is something stuck, something locked and latched, has something failed to detach? 1, 0.
The colonel falls like a pebble, like a cosmonaut, like an orange rocket, like a child from a tree or a dog from a fence, and the jungle watches him fall from so far up it seems for a moment like he might never hit the ground. Then, the explosion. The machine strikes, the colonel strikes, his wedding band is bent into an oval, the left side of his face is gone, the left side of his body is gone, he is gone.
“Lina.” One day after my mother had been listening to the news on the radio she stopped me by the staircase. “Listen to me.” She said, “Just listen.” The sun shone incandescently bright through the window and my mother seemed glazed with and equally incandescent rage. “No matter what, you hear me? If anything happens.” Talking as if this were the conclusion to a long conversation. “Anything at all.” She said, “I want you to bite it off.” And I think her lip was trembling, though I know her voice was firm. “Do you understand?” She asked. “Do you?”
I’m wearing a cardboard and tinfoil helmet; I’m going to be a Colombian astronaut when I grow up. No, I don’t understand, I don’t feel the weight of a failed revolution, I don’t know what men do to girls in the depth of a jungle or the back of a truck, and that is probably why she repeats it. “Just bite it off.” But, maybe it is not so hard. If they come, when they come, don’t sit still, don’t smile, don’t volunteer, don’t wag your tail. “Just bite it off,” whatever vulnerable bit is offered, sink your teeth into it and rip it out. A vein, a hand, a finger, a member, a gushing, writhing, warm, torn thing to spit out before turning and running, and wiping your mouth with your sleeve like you know you are not supposed to. So I nodded, a bobble-head cardboard nod, with one of my grandfather’s books under my arm and a plan to try a zero gravity experiment on my hamster, Lil’ She-Rambo.
The other night I woke up to the sight a large black spider walking across my bare midriff. I lay perfectly still as if it were pinning me down, as if it were made of lead and shrapnel and fate. And I watched it walk diagonally across me and stop at my hip, at the edge of me and the bed where the darkness becomes thickest and the fall must have appeared endless. In 1754 an English naturalist and apothecary name John Hill published a book titled Urania: Or a Complete View of the Heavens, where he reconnected the dotted sky to remake it into what he must have thought was a better story and a better set of constellations. A scaly lizard, a bullfrog, a black snail, a series of angular crustaceans, and a large spider named Aranea. This is what we do, impose narratives on the unfurled darkness, try to steer heavens and countries for the greater good and the greater truth. Look back and look forward, look up and look down, out and in, and run back and forth between the dots until we’ve made ruts and grooves the light can fill and we see nothing but the shapes we’ve drawn for ourselves to see. For a while there were so many reconstellators that the practice became known as “constellation mania.” A man Christianized the heavens to purge them of pagan monsters and winged horses, while dozens of others drew royal portraits and attempted to claim part of the sky for France, for England, for Germany. But no reconstellated star map caught on and these came to be known as the “obsolete constellations.”
I held my breath while the spider held its ground at the edge of my hip, until I couldn’t hold it any longer. I took a sharp breath and saw the spider stretch out all eight legs across my skin thinking it might be about to leap, but then I saw it raise its two front legs as if worshiping or surrendering. A few seconds moving them in delicate circles, as if unraveling penumbral strings, directing celestial traffic, and then it hopped off and disappeared into an unlit corner of the room.
I closed the lid to the box of my mother’s old things and felt the sticky dust between my fingertips. “Mamá, do you remember how old I was back then, when you told me about Laika?”
“No.” She replies. “Not really. Six? Five?”
“But you remember telling me?”
I pause a moment. “Why did you tell me?”
My mother doesn’t hesitate, she remembers and thinks it should be obvious why, “Because it was true.”
I left Colombia when I was seventeen because my parents said there was a better future for me somewhere else, or a worse one in Colombia, or else no future at all. Or I’m not really sure anymore what made sense to them at the time. This was the early 2000s, and the country was just emerging from some of the most tumultuous decades in its recorded history. So they sent my sisters and me away and hoped I might be an intellectual after all. I learned a rounded-edge language and packed up, boarded a white plane, and flew eight hours up the spine of a self-destructive continent. Because the colonel fell from the sky, and the Soviets lost the cold war, and the guerillas lost their north but my mother found God and family and she had three daughters and I’m the second one.
Because my mother made me a tinfoil helmet and told me that if I got better at math I could be weightless and part of something undeniable and important, and then she told me about Laika. How even strays can become cosmonauts, and even cosmonauts stray, and Laika died to help us measure an immeasurable sky.
“Tinfoil Astronaut” is an excerpt from Don’t Come Back, a forthcoming collection of linked essays. It will be published on January 20, 2017 by Mad River Books