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But Right Now You Must Know More About Heaven

 It was hard to say how old it was. It would depend on when it began. It would depend on when you started counting. It could have existed for a long time now, depending. Or it could be new.


If you could hear when it began, what would it sound like? If that sound was traveling away from the earth, where was it now? Sound travels at 1234.8 kilometers per hour, and the moon is 384 thousand kilometers away. Had their beginning reached the moon?


He wanted to take a slow drive out to the radio telescopes in Carnarvon. Through the autumnal quilting of the winelands, through all the Karoos, past the optical telescope in Sutherland. Through Calvinia, where there had been a total eclipse in the 1940s, and into the ancient interior where, from the very first of men we have turned to the stars for our myths and gods.


     "Forward in technology, back in time," he liked to say.

     "I'm easy," she liked to say, and so she went along: forward in technology and back in time, riding in the passenger seat, for the most part, deciding on the music.


She had of late procured, in a blitz of proper nouns (tiny, black letters amidst a crumpled white sheet of A5 paper), the names of all his past lovers. About half of them familiar, about a quarter unknown, and then a truly extraordinary quarter of unknown knowns.


     — "You were with M.?"

     "Long ago when I first arrived."

     — "You were with F.?"

     "She made me."

     She was working on the list, gathering details that she retained and organized with the deftness of a savant. One had dirty nails. 

      — "Was she a gardener?"


      — "An artist?"

     "Yes, but I don't think that was paint."

      (She was strangely defensive on behalf of these past women, readying, in a way, to transition into one of them.)


The Karoo landscape is one of unremitting dullness ("Every time I look up it's the same," he said) interspersed suddenly, and often at dusk, with aggressive assertions of splendor.


They were not car people, but they had borrowed a serious car. "Now that's a real vehicle!"


When you're going to Sutherland, people tell you about when they went to Sutherland and how cold they were there. In their first cottage, on a sheep farm, they would take a tepid bath, lose all their heat, and have to grip each other's rattling bodies to recover.


They were both bony with tiny arses and small tummies and big noses and dirty blond hair. "Skinny but flabby' they said fondly of each others frames.


The French astronomer Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille named fifteen of the eighty-eight constellations in the mid-eighteenth century while stationed at the Cape of Good Hope.


There were fifteen of them in total, before her. One had terrible breath. One came in a few seconds and proclaimed in her Spanish accent, "Quick, no?" One was his first: a redhead, a school tour, unmemorable. Four of them had been his partners. One of them had been his fiancée.

     — "Who's L.?"

     "She's the one from the hike. I told you about her."

     — "So when were you with F.?"

    "Let's talk about this another time."


The farm also kept alpacas. A multicolored herd of them constantly involved with the terrible burden of their grazing. "They're pets," the farmer said. "They have no purpose." Though if they had a full-grown male, which they didn't have, it could chaperone the sheep in the vlakte and protect them from jackals.

    "If you've got a strong stomach," the farmer's wife said (a nice worldly woman with a face younger than its lines), "go to the barn and see what a jackal will do to a sheep."

    They didn't go see, but if it died of natural causes, she was thinking, maybe she could eat it.


   "My partner's a vegetarian," he'd say, as he called ahead to restaurants and B&Bs. They were in lamb country. She'd been feeling like less and less of a vegetarian, hungry for meat for the first time in ten years.

    "Should I just eat some lamb?" she'd say often, asking permission. Instead she'd eat a small mound of root vegetables, accompanied by a small mound of rice.


The one with the bad breath was also very thin. ("Probably bulimic," she said in her defense). One was "unnecessarily loud."


When you're going to Sutherland, people will tell you about the Jewel Box star cluster and how beautiful it is. A few people will say: "It's pretty underwhelming."


Four of them had been his partners. He'd left all of them, but they'd all deserved it. Either they'd deserved it or the circumstances had been quite unusual.


The sun pulled all the warmth from the earth as it set. They stood in the icy night while the digital commands of coordinates sent the telescopes lens from one star to another, their hue a little different, maybe, if you weren't imagining it: from blue to yellow to red.


Through a telescope Venus looks like the moon but smaller. The moon looks like the moon but bigger.


They were getting used to each other's silence. They dropped quite a lot of sentences that weren't picked up again. And when she said, misquoting Leonard Cohen, "Are the stars small after all? I swear I wouldn't mind if they were," he never said, "Who's that?"


Everything in Sutherland is named after something celestial. "Skitterland." "The Jupiter." "Galileo's." "Celestes." "Cluster d'Hôte": the restaurant where they eventually ate, in hyperbolic pomposity.


That night they lay down beneath the reeded slats of the ceiling, and above it, unbeknown to them, some or other half of the eighty eight constellations.


No one talks about Lacaille's constellations. No one points out the Telescope, the Microscope, the Air Pump. No one points them out, but one feels it is mostly Lacaille's own fault.


A few people talk about Mensa, but almost no one. The constellation of Table Mountain, with its little Magellanic cloud above. No one talks about the Easel, the Compass, the Chisel.


Everyone in Sutherland has a telescope and a little astronomy spiel and new ways of tackling the problem of scale. New ways to make things understandable and therefore amazing, and new ways of getting it all wrong.

    "Light travels three times around the world in the click of your fingers."

    "If that baby got in an airplane right now, he'd be an old man by the time he arrived at Mars!"


We aren't able, really, to understand where we are, what is happening to us. You can't live life in perspective.


A few people talk about Mensa, but almost no one. Table Mountain is the only geographical object with its own constellation. The only this, the only that. The only time you'll see Jupiter, Venus, and the moon in this precise alignment. The only time they will be together quite like this, and yet so similar to so many other times. So similar to their other relationships. So similar to every other relationship.


Four of them had been his partners. "Were you in love?" she asked, about one of them. "What's love?" he said, as a way of saying yes. "Just some shit people say to each other," she said.


It was midwinter, exactly. They spent the solstice on the escarpment on the edge of the farm. She kept calling the escarpment "the embankment" by mistake. There, on that shortest day, they drank the last of the expensive whiskey and stared out at the barren ocean of the Tankwa Karoo beneath them.


    "Now that's a real vehicle!" the farmer said. There is a primal pleasure in earning the respect of a farmer. Since they had the serious car, the farmers would tell them about the real routes, the secret routes from place to place, the obscure passes through boundless, crumbling Tankwa desert. 

   "It's the fourth most beautiful pass in the country," the farmer said. And so they took it. They'd been told it was beautiful, and they worked to find it so, but there is something tedious about beauty, and after a while there was nothing to do but ignore it.


"You OK?" he said.

    She had an apprehensive feeling she hadn't yet placed. Sometimes she stared out of the window and allowed it to bloom. Also she was in real danger, now, of hating stars. In fact, the whole universe was beginning to leave her cold.

    "I'm in real danger of hating stars," she said.


They started making jokes about the escarpment, the embankment, the embellishment, the establishment. They were both white and heterosexual and of similar ages (not quite young), and everyone smiled on their love no matter how far inland they went or how much they kissed in public.


They stayed in honeymoon suites, for the most part. In their Calvinia suite their four-post bed was adorned with duck-themed lace, and an antique pram was left in the corner, complete with a porcelain doll. They ran bubble baths and watched themselves in the mirror at the foot of the tub: bisected so that each could only see the other.


They kept crossing paths with an older couple visiting from Australia. The couple had taken to calling him "the up-and-coming man!"

   "Hey! It's the up-and-coming man!" they'd say in their accents, walking by on the street, or sitting down at the same restaurant.


There was a picture of the eclipse he wanted to see, so they went to the small newspaper, Die Noordwester, where the same woman had been covering the town's goings-ons for several decades. The photo was most likely doctored, she said.


There was a pamphlet about the eclipse he wanted to find, so they went to the library where they interrupted the vast staff's card game and walked through the warehouse-like space, scattered with spider plants and piles of the Sweet Valley High series. "I'm sorry to drag you along for all this," he said. "I have a high tolerance for boredom," she said.


The land around Calvinia ascended into ridgeback mountains, cliffs of rock protruding from the bristling slopes. "Every time I look up it's the same."


They drove out toward the inland, farther and farther into no place to be, back in time and back in technology, and finally to a little corbelled house. This ancient, whitewashed Zen hive, in which, in the light of a dozen candles, they would pass hours just touching each others faces, lightly with their fingertips, in silence. "What do you think this does?" she asked, a long while into this mute and reverent ritual. It felt powerful as a compulsion.


Later on: the two of them together while she pretended she was some other lover, from the list.

They were just an ordinary couple. Kind even. Both thoughtful people. Trying to get it right. And in love. Even the most ordinary lovers can seem perverse when they are honest with themselves.


   "I feel like this is going to collapse and bury us," he said, staring up from the bed into the corbelled void. "They'll put up a sign," she said, "Here lies the up-and-coming man and his vegetarian partner."


One cant live life in perspective. Yet often their minuteness and irrelevance didn't seem that surprising at all.


It was hard to say how old it was. It would depend on when it began. It would depend on when you started counting. Did it begin when he said "Do you also feel conflicted?" Did it begin with sex? Did it begin when they mentioned love? Had it only begun when they said: "This has begun." (Though they never said that. Instead she asked, eventually, "Has this begun?" and he said, "It began a long time ago").


You start life with this fascination for astronomy, and then it goes away, or it becomes useless. You start life with this fascination for astronomy and bees and scurvy and black holes.


But right now you must know more about heaven. Does it look like one of these little plastic altars that glow in the dark? I swear I won't mind if it does. Are the stars tiny, after all?


   — "When were you with G.?"

   "Late last year, when she was visiting."

   — "Jesus! That recently?"

   ". . ." 

   — "You must be so good at lying."

   "But I'm experimenting with truth."

   — "And F.? At the beginning of the year, you said?"

   "No. Are you trying to trick me?"

   — "Yes."


Carnarvon is no place to be, so it is the right place for radio telescopes.


He posed beneath a shop called Hot Stuff, selling petroleum, wood, firelighters. He posed beside a sign for "Windpomp parte." Popular windmill brands: Climax, Defiance.


Initially she was shy taking photos of them. The first photo in her album is of his hands, taken while he wasn't watching.


"The Gang," some Carnarvon graffiti proclaimed, in thick, black letters. "Billy-J, Roxie-G, Bobby-O, Pippy-D, + Henry." "You reckon that's Bobby-O?" they'd say, about all of Carnarvon's wayward youths, walking up and down the empty roads. "No, I reckon that's Henry." 


The radio telescopes themselves are not worth mentioning, aside from how difficult it was to get permission to see them, and the spectacular sociable weavers' nests that flank the dirt road to the site, big as gazebos.


They had a fight outside the bar of the Carnarvon Hotel that they'd looked for (not knowing what they were looking for) for three hours in what felt like the windmill capital of the world, and nothing else, save a line of drunks outside a bottle store, which they flattered themselves into thinking they didn't belong in.


It was a fight about nothing really ("fucking macho bullshit" she said at some point, and earlier "Go drink yourself to death for all I care"), but it took the place of all the other fights they'd managed not to have, over sixty hours in the car, over every other pass in the land, and even before that: over the months of tacit negotiation over who was going to be who in this, and why.


He walked behind her to the motel, and they were left in silence in their gray room on the edge of a parking lot with its mirror behind the bed.

   "You're always right," he said at last. "When you're in the shower you better think of a reason I'm not," she said. But when he came out, parboiled, he said he couldn't. Though he added, "You can choose what you get upset about." And then it was over, if not before then.


   "Go drink yourself to death for all I care!" he said a few times in the days after, teasingly. "That's not the first time you'll hear me say that," she said, meaning not the last.


The list did not include people he could have slept with, had he wanted to, nor people he would have slept with, had they wanted to. Both of these categories were also of interest to her.


She was not quite grasping radio telescopes, and she was not really trying. "But why would we be able to hear the beginning of the universe from where we are right now?" she asked. "You can hear it from everywhere radiating out of everything," he said. "Though it gets fainter and fainter as matter expands."


If you could hear when they began, what would it sound like? If that sound was traveling away from the earth, where was it now? Had their beginning reached the moon?


"Hearing isn't really the way to put it," he said.


After the fight he went to fetch painkillers from the car. "Bring the tape," she said, and when he returned with the small, black reel, she adorned herself in a taped suspender belt and thigh highs, taped halter bra, surrounding the triangles of her naked breasts. They slapped each other around in bed and choked on each others tongues.


Perhaps if they could laugh easily they'd make it. Perhaps if they could acknowledge the worst in themselves. Perhaps if they could use sex to heal.


"I have some tape-related injuries," she said, emerging from the bathroom the next morning.


She had exes too, of course, but they didn't really come up. "Maybe I'm repressing it," he said. "I don't even remember their names." He liked talking about women she'd kissed, though.


It was hard to say how old it was. It would depend on when it began. It would depend on when you started counting. Did it begin before they'd even realized it? Before all the negotiations and confrontations and betrayals? Why had it felt so fated, so crassly plotted?


She was in danger, now, of hating stars. You have to make such an effort to find them profound; you have to keep so much in mind. All told, the universe and its infinity seemed no more stored up in them than it did in the dappling of the sun against a wall. If you were to lie there, disappearing, watching it, if you were to summon the knowledge of what that light was and where it came from.


The red stars are the coldest, the blue stars are the hottest. It was said in |Xam, and it was said by the cosmologists. Blue Is the Warmest Colour was the only film he had on his hard drive.


"Tell me what to do," he said. They had dropped the mosquito net over the bed. The cottage was lit up in paraffin lamps of different colored glass, and the fire was busy dying in the other room. They tried to touch their way toward intimacy but were left, somehow, on the brink of each other (the escarpment, embankment, embellishment, establishment).

  "You OK?" he said. He asked so often she wondered if she were difficult, after all.

  "You feel distant," she said.

   And the trouble of scale emerged again. For now she had said "distant," but how far was distant? How many light years? ("Three times around the world in the click of your fingers.")

   She felt like she was lying in bed with only a swatch of cold moonlight falling through the window. And she had said "distant," but since she'd said it, he'd gone so much further. To some place from which light cannot even travel.

   He lay there, and she lay with him, both hurt now, in a way neither had anticipated and neither could understand.

It's hard to feel comfortable on a brink. You want only to propel yourself over. But if you can resist the compulsion, there is great beauty in brinks; if you can resist, there is almost a glimpse of the infinite.


   "Weltschmerz," she said, holding a basset hound's face the next morning in a breakfast cafe in Prince Albert. She pronounced it wrong.

   "Weltschmerz?" he said, pronouncing it right. "That's what I've had this past twenty-four hours." He was not so sure about the breakfast, which featured baked banana.


The road to Hell is lined with proteas of Pierneef pastels and leaves of a respectable, school-uniform green befitting a great flora kingdom, interrupted here and there by irreverent flames of lime. They were going to Hell on a whim. You go to Hell for the name, and for the story. The story is that some smattering of people settled in this godforsaken valley with no road coming into and also out of it (though a horse could make the journey, if you gave it enough abuse and enough time). And this smattering and their children and their children's children lived there for over a hundred years, subsistence farming and making beer from wild honey and writing to the government incessantly asking for a road.


When the road was built in the 1960s, everyone left and didn't come back. Now it's mainly for trail runs and tourists.


When you arrive in Hell, there's a restaurant on your right, with ten cats, at least five peahens, and one peacock.

   "We're not even cat people," the owner said (a woman with long, black hair, and a short, blond-haired daughter; neither of them mad-seeming, given their location). They sold every sort of jam and a small selection of liquor. The garden dangled with dream catchers.


Both of them would start getting sick. He especially. He would disappear into a damp fever. Maybe it was the suspicious breakfast, or it was a virus, or it was the endless road into the valley with all its hairpin bends and the fact that they were not car people. He explained it as "Weltschmerz mixed with food poisoning mixed with love."


  "I love you," he said, or that's what it sounded like. She couldn't respond, in case he'd said something else. He'd asked her a few days before to "take a photo of us," which she had, and then he'd said thanks, but what he'd actually wanted was a "photo of this" (same landscape plus clouds).


"Yours is the fourth most beautiful ass in the land," he said, some time later.


One worked at a supermarket and marveled at the simple beauty of a neatly stacked shelf of cereal boxes. One was an ex-boss he'd only spoken about in white-knuckled frustration before but also said he fantasized about.

   — "So those aren't fantasies, but memories?"

   "Sort of."

Four of them had been his partners. He'd left all of them, but they'd all deserved it. Either they'd deserved it, or the circumstances had been quite unusual.


She was working on the list, gathering details that she retained and organized with the deftness of a savant.


One was sexually withholding. One was cruel. One was often away.


You can define what you are only by understanding your relationship to other things. That is how you come into existence: it is a process of differentiation.


"It's an ordeal," she wanted to say. But didn't, since she didn't know how she'd answer when he said "What is?" or "Why?", which he would. But it was an ordeal: in all those ways she couldn't elaborate on.


From Hell they went straight home. He was pallid but present. The journey was so short on the way back that it seemed to expose some deception on their part. They had not been that far away, it was revealed; they had just taken a long time to get there.


When they arrived, they ate at his favorite restaurant, which she was in danger, now, of hating.

   "You OK?" he said.

   "Just a malaise," she said, pronouncing it wrong.

   "Malaise?" he said, correcting.

   "Malays? Really? Like Cape Malays?"


They both fell ill with the Cape malaise over the next three days. They took turns to handle being sick well, to Florence for each other. Serving each other small bowls of white food (oats, mashed potato, rice) that they couldn't finish eating. Saying "How are you feeling?", sleeping feverishly but tangled up in each others limbs.

   "It's a necessary antidote to the romance," he said.


One was the ex-fiancée who was, he said, his finest lover. Toward the end, at least, when they started sleeping with other people. One was the woman he and his ex-fiancée tried to leave each other for.


There were a few they hadn't gotten around to yet. Just names, for now: tiny, black, proper nouns on the crumpled A5 sheet. There was J. and C. and T., whoever they were; there was R. "C." who was not R. "G." (whom they had already discussed).


But there was time, anyway. They were still quite new, depending on when they began, which was hard to say. 


This story was first published in the Winter 2017 issue of The Kenyon Review.

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