The Carbon Museum
by Rebecca Orchard
2017 Fledgling Prose Contest Honorable Mention
Lanie went north, the devils in her mind riding shotgun in her mother’s old truck, gossiping about the baby in her belly. She’d hoped the coarse words would stay mired in the heat she left behind, but they nested in her ear as she drove up and up and up. She reached a country of frozen fields and silver-iced lakes, parked on a bluff overlooking a vista of snow, and got out of the car. She could hear the voice of the coldness, at once a whisper and a roar.
At a roadside café she drank coffee that left a waxy residue on the roof of her mouth and thumbed through the newspaper, looking for jobs where her jumpy mind could quiet, wrap itself around another person, and ignore what was growing in her, the amphibian afloat in her midriff.
There was an advertisement for a live-in caretaker of an aging astronomer. She called the number, made an appointment, and was hired when the old man with his whisking skin said he found her simplicity a comfort. She had warmth in her bones, he said, and caramel in her mouth, and he asked her to repeat herself so he could savor her drawl. Most folks up here, he said, had voices like brittle glass, sharp tools.
She didn’t mention the baby in their first conversation, or their second, or when she moved into the old man’s spare bedroom to help take care of his house and his body, which both emitted the same tired odor.
Lanie was surprised at how quickly his home became hers, an impressive yet comforting arrangement of rooms and objects that she had free rein to touch and move. The house was large and built over a ravine, with a thick stone wall enclosing the property and a long, curving driveway that ended in a gate she could operate with a remote control.
His wife of many years had passed away in September, and he told Lanie he found himself baffled, confronted by thoughts, tasks, and concepts he hadn’t considered since before he married her. She’d been a bright-eyed blond full of moxie back when he was a young stripling boy. He showed Lanie pictures of himself at twenty-nine, brown-gray smears of background against which his smooth features seemed carved and illuminated. He’d been thin and flexible and full of a spirit of conviction that was contagious, had implored people to look up, look up, keep looking up, until he was the father of a whole crowd of men whose noses were always pointed at the white northern sky.
He tried to get Lanie to “look up, look up,” but she found herself drawn to things tethered to the Earth: to the town and the people in it. There was an earnestness to them, all bent toward some important task, discussing fractions of atoms, disintegration of cells, books she’d never heard of. “Not everyone can save the world,” she wanted to tell the young people gathered in the coffee shops where she went to buy the old man’s expensive tea. They clustered around bars, jogged up innumerable hills with calves straining, leaned toward each other as they argued, wore their purposefulness like a shield.
In the evenings, the astronomer told her stories. He had been on a team that launched a satellite into deep space; it carried, he said, data that would tell aliens what it meant to be human. He played her some of the songs they’d chosen to represent humanity, and for days she went around picturing a man with the throat of a twelve-string guitar, his voice all jangling chords.
The months passed and her belly grew, first a tiny jut above her waistband, then a roundness she couldn’t ignore, and though she wore all her biggest clothes, the astronomer noticed. He took her hand, held her eye until she looked away, and told her not to clean with harsh chemicals, not to eat fish, to make sure she lay down throughout the day. Every afternoon she waited until he nodded off in the syrupy light that poured through the windows over the ravine before curling up on the couch nearby. When he woke she wanted to be seen obeying him, even while she was keeping watch over him, his mouth slack in an awful mockery of death.
Lanie was glad to greet the astronomer every morning, even though she found the northern spring deceiving and its summer a lie. In August she couldn’t feel the flies pressing round her head like an aura, and there was no deep swelter that passed in a shudder through her flesh. “I used to swim through summer,” she tried to tell the old man, but he just chuckled drily. He’d spent his life looking so far away, so untethered to the earth. Lanie sometimes wondered if he could even recognize the sensations of being in a body. His decrepitude caused him no alarm, his cataracts no distress. She read to him of the wonders of the universe as he sat in his armchair, vision dim, playing with the loose threads of his lap blanket.
“I’ve watched the birth of stars,” he whispered to her. “And sent Bach beyond the Oort Cloud.”
She patted his knee. “That’s lovely.”
“You and me, we’re made of carbon.”
He needed to be washed and dressed, indignities he didn’t submit to or tolerate so much as he ignored them, his smile vague and his head tilted in gentle curiosity as she leaned him forward so she could soap his back, her sponge soothing the constellations of his many marks of age. His long, pale feet, blue-veined, bunioned, held still as she clipped his toenails. She pressed them between her wide palms.
“You have healing hands,” he sighed. “Do they teach that magic where you’re from?”
“The only magic they ever taught me was how to just keep living.”
“That’s one kind of magic,” he said, and she knew he was once again thinking of the great clouds of dust that birthed stars.
Sometimes other old men came to visit him, bringing their own nurses who stayed in the kitchen with Lanie and drank sodas as the men talked and didn’t talk, sometimes just sitting and aging together, taking solace in the vanishing of someone else’s atoms. These formerly great men searching hard for words that used to spill off their tongues like champagne.
One of the nurses who visited wore giant earrings and a giant smile, called her charge “Honeypie,” and made elaborate predictions about Lanie’s baby: it would be a girl, big hazel eyes, wear pink rain boots, go to college and study the weather, make so much money as a weather lady that she would buy her mommy and daddy a house—
“Do their students ever visit?” Lanie interrupted, nodding through the wall at the old men sitting vigil in the den.
She laughed and shook her big head with all of its big hair. “All those kids? They’ve got other things to do, telescopes to look into. They loved these old men, but they’ve forgotten they’re still alive.” She sipped her Diet Pepsi. “Plus no one likes to be watched while they’re dying.”
One day in late summer even Lanie’s biggest shirts wouldn’t fit her anymore. In a back room of the house, unused but full of stacks of papers and boxes of slides, she found a closet holding clothes from when the astronomer had been tall, broad-shouldered. His old flannel shirts closed over her turned-out navel, wrapped her in the smell of things long left forgotten.
She did up the buttons standing in the middle of the room, watching dust dance golden in the morning sun.
“I always liked that shirt,” he said when she woke him.
Lanie helped him sit up, stuffed pillows behind his back so he could drink his tea, warm his sleep-stiff joints, open up his body to another day.
“May I?” he said, and when she nodded, he placed a hand on the swell of her belly.
Her baby rolled under his hand.
His knuckles like marbles, thick veins parting around them, translucent skin showing the path of blood to his fingers.
She covered his hand with hers, staring at them as if through the thin flannel, through her stretching skin, they could see the baby turning to greet them.
“He can hear you by now,” he said.
She could feel his gaze on the crown of her downturned head. An old clock stuttered, dropped seconds onto the thick carpet.
“Hello, little one,” said the astronomer.
“See here?” He opened a book: large, glossy images of abstracted swirls and bulges and colored gases. “Nebula. A Latin word. Galaxy is Greek. Universe, Latin again. Voyage, that’s French, but originally Latin.”
“What’s Lanie?” she asked.
“Is it short for anything?”
“Don’t think so,” she said.
“Well, then I think it’s a variant of Helen, which is Greek. Helen. Did you know, she was so beautiful she was responsible for the fall of an entire civilization?”
She laughed. “At least I don’t have to worry about that.”
“I think you’re very beautiful,” he said and patted her hand so lightly he might not have touched her at all. All his touches were whispers. When she helped him out of one set of cotton pajamas and into another, she wasn’t sure if he was even there. Perhaps he was gradually sifting back into the star stuff he’d probably secretly wanted to be his entire life. What a pity he had to be chained to flesh at all.
“Ah yes, but what you need to realize,” he said, many days later, picking up this thread as if they had just spoken of the ancients a moment before, “is that out of the back door of Troy, the founder of Rome voyaged to safety and started an empire.”
She was behind him in the kitchen making them lunch: turkey and American cheese on white bread with a smear of mayonnaise. He spoke without turning around in his chair, trusting his voice would find her.
“When things are destroyed,” he said, “other things rise.” He’d learned that from his stars too.
He died on a Tuesday, his withered hands in hers. His funeral was held in an old stone church under a tempera-painted ceiling of celestial splendor; tear-filled eyes stared up at it while one of his students spoke from the lectern. “He is no longer earthbound, no longer in pain,” as if his spirit, once trapped, was now free to travel the universe as his limitless mind had done.
But all those who nodded and wept had not been there when his eyes went wide with horror, when his skeletal hand clenched hers, when panic at leaving this earth overwhelmed him. She had pressed her palm against the ridge of his cheek and made gentle shhhh noises, tried to speak soothing words through a throat thick with tears.
“The brain continues firing a few microseconds after death,” he had told her weeks before. “The mind is privy to an explosion of wondrous imagery that people who have come back from the brink find impossible to describe.” His face was lit with some internal fire.
“My mama says that Jesus calls you home,” she’d said, gathering up the dishes from his tray, replacing them with his crossword. “But I guess I don’t know about that.”
There had been neither wonder nor homecoming on his face as whatever made him a person slipped out of his husk, she reflected as she poured herself a glass of wine at the reception following the interment. There’d been a sort of longing, the kind enacted by the whole soul, a longing to stay and a fear that had encompassed him totally. His hand a strong claw on her own, her name the last thing in his mouth.
“He can eternally cross the vast landscape that his imagination plotted,” the student had said in his speech.
She shook her head as she sipped her wine and looked over the people gathered for the funeral. No one knew her, and she was surprised when a clean-shaven man who radiated health came before her and looked her up and down, not in an admiring or a threatening way, which always made her feel as if her heart had been submerged in tar, but in an assessing way. This amused her.
“Are you Lanie?” he asked. When she said yes and took another sip of her wine, he gave the short sigh of busy men. “We wanted to thank you for what you did for my father,” he said. “My sisters and I. We’re very troubled we couldn’t be there.” She’d spoken to him on the phone, the night the astronomer died; as old as the astronomer had been, his passing had still been a shock to them. The son lived in Florida, worked in the space program. His healthy glow was distracting, butting up against her pallor. “My father mentioned wanting to make a provision for you in his will, but he never got around to it. What are your plans from here?”
His speech was like the pneumatic drill in her father’s shop, the background to her weekday afternoons, trying to do her homework in the office that smelled of oil and rubber, where crude jokes were made at her expense.
“The radio dishes,” she said, surprising herself. A warm dry sun and her solitary form standing against the wind, fields and fields and fields of enormous dishes pointed at the heavens, seeing so far away they were actually looking back in time. The old man had told her how all the pictures of the nebulas, galaxies, desperately pulsing stars were snapshots from before humans stood teetering on two legs.
She would stand before a giant radio dish—her imagination jumped. By then she would have a baby in a sling, a desert baby, a skygazing baby, fields of stars sliding slow across its glassy eyes.
“I’m going to move to the southwest. It’s very cold here.”
“It is.” The son look around them. “But he loved it here. Dad. He had acolytes.” He smiled but in a way that said his mind was far, far away. You and me, we’re made of carbon.
“He was a good man,” she said. “He was very kind to me.”
“Yes.” He stared at her belly, then her glass of wine, then her belly again. She took another sip and he cleared his throat. “Actually, we were hoping you could stay for a couple days and help us clear out the house?”
“Are you selling it?” She had grown to love that house, even with its ringing emptiness. She was still living there. She had nowhere else to go.
“Um, no. It’s actually been entailed to his foundation. It’ll be turned into a museum. We need to meet with the board and discuss what personal effects they’d like to display. Everything else will need to go. The meeting isn’t until this Tuesday. Do you think you can stay for at least a week?”
She held his eye for a long moment. He looked away first, scanning the mingling conversations around them before returning to her.
“We’ll pay you, of course. Help you get set up somewhere new.”
“I guess I can stay as long as you like,” she said, tapping fingers against the stem of her glass. He nodded at her and walked away, approaching another man with one arm outstretched, the other thrust forward for a handshake.
It would be a wonderful museum, she decided as she cleaned every surface until it shone. She pictured a bronze plaque on the wall around the property, next to the gate, engraved with the astronomer’s name and some facts about his life. Perhaps a galaxy, swirling. She spread Comet powder all across the bathroom counter. People would come and read the plaque, walk in to tour the house, see where a great mind ended his days.
She hoped they wouldn’t dwell on the sunken living room where he spent the long evening of his life, hoped they wouldn’t highlight his lap blanket or dinner tray. She worked to remove all signs of his decline. There were two studies in the house filled with impressive books and desks so heavy she could not move them on her own. Those, she hoped, would be the focal point of the museum. These two impressive rooms where he had sat and dreamt of the eternal empty spaces rushing off to all sides—those spaces, he had told her, that turned out not to be empty at all.
On the third night after the funeral Lanie was heating water for tea when a fog rolled into the mountains so thick it had a taste: meat and memory and something so familiar it made her eyes sting. Dust and forgotten things, soft, transparent skin.
She had left a window cracked in the living room to air out the worst of the smell of old age before the committee came to tour the house, and she licked her lips and walked to rest her chin on the sill, staring out the glass of the sliding doors at the stark white cloud that pressed against the siding. It filled up the ravine over which the house was built, rushed past, and fell below the balcony, rising slowly until it was lapping at the boards.
She opened the sliding door, stepped into the evening chill and felt the mist grab at her ankles, climb slowly up her legs, her waist, her torso. It would fill each cavity in her body and erase each hurt, replace every wound, sluice clean her insides and unmoor the life rolling within her.
The baby was pulling, shrugging, unsettled and unhappy.
“Hush,” she said to it, hands on either side of her belly, staring into the star-white blankness, listening hard. She heard the voice of the astronomer from deep within the hollows of her mind.
She hadn’t known they could both go together, their voices strummed like guitars, their brains crackling with white noise. She wished he could have told her while he was alive, told her that he would come back for her and take her with him, to where the satellite cradled its sacred message.
She hadn’t known she wanted to be dissolved.
The fog pressed tighter and tighter, whiting out her vision. She turned and could no longer see the door behind her. A hand clenched her heart. Is this how he died? she wondered. Did he step into some fog behind his eyes and let it envelop and extinguish him? Panic edged up the back of her throat.
The baby pulled again; Lanie cried out. It was kicking against the invasion of vapor, against its cleansing of Lanie’s body, its dissolution of her cells, her atoms, her infinite particles of carbon. She went to her knees, arms wrapped around her belly, forehead lowered to its heaving curve.
“Please,” she said, to the baby, to the mist, to the hand of the astronomer that had once smoothed itself over the prow of her stomach.
“Please.” She rubbed her hands along the sides of her stomach, pressing against the walls of her body, and felt an answering nudge from within. He was settling now, his protest draining as the vapor unwrapped itself from her body.
The fog lifted. It was sudden, almost violent.
The evening was cool and breezy, still hung with purple shadows. She climbed shakily to her feet and paced for a while outside, rubbing her belly. The wind moved in the trees and she listened again for the voice that would help her unmake herself, but heard nothing except leaf brushing against leaf.
Published December 3rd, 2017
Rebecca Orchard is a writer and classical musician with a degree in French horn performance from the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. She is currently an MFA student at Bowling Green State University, and between the two was a professional baker. When she's not reading or writing, she's cross stitching or baking pies. Her work has appeared in The Pinch, The Quotable, Cobalt Review, and The Baltimore Review.