Fiction 2015 / Issues / Spring 2015 / Volume 40

A Pilgrimage in Space — Caitlin Rose Staff

I wake up in the middle of the night but I am not floating; I am falling.

Seven point thirteen billion people call this planet home. Ten people do not. They are a

fractional percent, such a minority that they do not count. No one listens to what they have to

say. They exist, nevertheless, and they do not like to be ignored.

I am one of them: a fraction of a fraction. My home is four-hundred kilometers above the

earth, in constant orbit, in constant motion, in constant peril. The International Space Station,

brainchild of sixteen countries that had a scientific orgy fourteen years ago, is where I spent the

past three years of my life. Today, I wake up in a bed, one-hundred and thirty-five pounds of

flesh and bone weighing down my soul. Gravity crushes my lungs, and I consciously make an

effort to take another breath. The air feels thick and heavy in my esophagus.

I long to get up, to leave this hospital recovery room, but that requires so much strength

and effort. First I must tighten my abdomen and rise to a sitting position. Then I must swing my

legs off the side of the bed. Finally, I must rise to my feet, placing all of the pressure on the balls

of my feet, then the heels. Even as I visualize this, my body recalls the actions and I stand

through muscle memory. It takes all of my strength. A rush of blood floods my head, and I am

reminded of that first day aboard the space station.

My mouth was pressed to the urine tube that day, but I did not care. It was this, or

chunks in perpetual motion. My last earthly meal now an acidic paste being pulled down the

suction tube, I wiped the bitter tears from my eyelids. Beads of water rolled from my fingertips

and floated away, like tiny pieces of clear jello.

“You doing okay in there?” My crewmate asked me, his voice muffled by the sliding

panel that separated me from the rest of the station.

“Fine,” I said, quickly returning my lips to the tube before the waste could float away.

My stomach finally realized it was empty and it began to settle. I hung the tube on the wall and

pulled a disinfectant wipe out of a baggie taped to the ceiling. But it was also the wall. And the

floor. I felt my stomach churn again and returned to the tube.

Back on earth, I squat over the toilet, a gaping hole compared to the tiny target we had in

space. My urine flows downwards, toward the center of the planet. I flush and watch the water

rush down in rivulets. I wash my hands for five minutes without stopping. The water begins to

run cold, but I do not care. It feels good.

The idea of returning to bed makes my head ache, so I leave. I enter the dim hallway lit

only by soft night lights. The hallway feels so large, I am afraid I will be swallowed by it. I miss

the hallways of my home.

The hallways were small up there in the sky, compact, like a long, square tube. I could

stand straight and reach the other side, like a toothpick stuck in the throat of a gigantic beast. Our

space house was cozy. My room was nothing but a closet in the wall. There was another

bedroom across from me and one on each side, creating a circle of safety. I would sit in a

sleeping bag and dream. Sometimes I would read, my book hovering before my eyes, my hands

tucked away in the folds of nylon. My Russian and Japanese friends returned to their closets at

the end of their shift and I took their place in the experimental laboratory to conduct tests.

Most of the time I worked in the microgravity glovebox, studying chemicals and fluids

that are difficult to manage on earth. I experimented with new brake systems, seat suspension,

and landing gear. The environment was perfect for my work: quiet, relaxing, and isolated.

On earth, I am the one who is tested. Every morning and every night they measure my

bone density, muscle tension and bio signs. It is not so different from the tests we took at the

station. But we were all friends up there. More than friends; we were family. Up there, we

understood each other. Down here they took away my CPAP the moment they thought my lungs

were strong enough to fight gravity. I wish they hadn’t. I would be sleeping now if I still had it.

Instead, I am riding the elevator. I take it up to the top floor and wait for the doors to

close before pressing the button for the bottom floor. My legs coil and tense, then extend like

springs as the elevator box drops. For a millisecond, I am in zero-gravity and my body relaxes.

Then I am on the floor of the elevator, crumpled under the weight of my own meat-suit. I lie

there, panting, until we reach the first floor and the doors open on an empty hall. I reach up

slowly and press the button for the top floor. The glow is a beacon and I garner strength from it. I

rise to my feet and do it all again.

There were many moments in the space station when I needed the strength to keep going,

and one place always gave me hope. I think of it now, that metal beam above the storage unit. I

could barely go a day without floating past it. The bar is pink, covered with patches that are

adhered with Velcro. Each patch has a name on it and each name tells a story. My name is up

there, along with the names of my crewmates. It stands alongside those who have come before

me. It is our history, all ten years of it. I can tell you the names of my entire tribe by memory

because things are not ancient and forgotten up there as they are down here.

The elevator is cold, but I am not ready to return. I go to the top once more and this time I

exit the elevator. The walk to the emergency stairs is quick, but the climb is a challenge. Each

step is harder and heavier than the last. My heart is pounding against my chest, dying to break

free and fly away. I know the science behind: my weak legs demand more oxygenized blood

than I am able to give them. But I feel that it is something more than science. There is more to

me than this body I live in. I realized it when I was out there, discovering myself. Some people

learn through meditation, others through religion. My pilgrimage to space is what brought me to

myself.

I step out onto the roof, the wind whipping my hospital gown around me. I look up first.

There it is. I imagine I can see it, blinking, moving ever so slowly across the sky as it orbits. My

heart is aching and I long for it with every particle of my being. Suddenly, my body feels lighter,

as if being closer to space, I can somehow feel less gravity. I know that is not the way it works,

but I can still imagine.

I cross the roof to the edge where I stood last night and the night before. I don’t think

they know I can get up here yet, but they will soon find out. It is freezing and very probably

dangerous, so I lean over the edge and look down the side of the hospital, several stories high. As

I gaze down at the grass and pavement, my head tilts over the edge in an arc. Inexplicably, my

equilibrium is tricked by this movement and I feel like down is up and up is down. I pull my

head in, away from the edge, and the sensation quickly fades, leaving me heavy, sweaty, shaky

and so, so tired.

Again, I tilt my head over the side and lose myself in the feeling of weightlessness. It is

intoxicating and makes me slightly dizzy. I lean over the edge and pull back over and over again.

Once, twice, three times, four times, five –

And suddenly I am floating. I am suspended in midair, my entire body weightless and

free. My hair expands in a halo around my head, my gown billows around me, and all of my

organs bump gently against each other. There is no movement in the air, all is still and dark. I am

only a soul.

I open my eyes and stare into the night but I am not floating; I am falling.

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