Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hermit of Iapetus Part VIII

Earlier installments may be traced here.

I thought, today, I saw squirrels scampering on a ridge in the Voyager Mountains.

Scale sometimes is the problem. Born on Earth, my brain is attuned to thinking that the horizon is far from where I stand. Twenty, twenty-one miles or so. I forget the number. The Moon looks enormous rising over the horizon, be that horizon distant hills or a copse of trees only a few miles off, because of that scale. We know how far away the horizon is. Subconsciously. So with the Moon rising over something so close, it appears huge. When it is not. It is the same size, objectively, at the horizon as at the zenith.

On Iapetus, the horizon is much closer. And Saturn, when it rises, is enormous, in comparison to the Moon, in comparison to the body on which I stride.

So I know the squirrels on the ridge at Voyager are illusions. Landslides. Tumbling rocks. But scampering, fur-lines, sniffing tumbling rocks, chattering at me perched in pine trees as I pass by, warning others of my presence in their habitat.

I have not begun to feed them. Yet.

And Liam is coming. His last letter arrived twelve days ago – I still use Earth days here, as to the crews in the space liners above, the colonists on Mars and elsewhere. He sent it just prior to his thirteenth voyage on the Mars-to-Saturn line, and on that thirteenth voyage Aurora will pass close enough to Iapetus to make a gravity drop practical. I have two weeks until he arrives, if all goes well.

I probably will not mention the squirrels.
I saw my own father slip into dementia as he lay in the hospital bed, weak from congestive heart failure. His uncombed hair, he said, made him look like Cosmo Kramer, a character in an old TV show he loved. He spoke to Jerry and George, despised Newman. He wanted a Heineken from his native Holland, despite his teetotaling Mormon faith. We got one for him, despite ours. He took a few sips. Said, “It doesn’t taste as good as I thought it would,” then asked us to hide the bottle. We did.

Spiders on the ceiling of his hospital room. We couldn’t leave him alone, because if we did, the spiders would drop from the ceiling and crawl on him, something he couldn’t bear. We took it in shifts to stay in his room, keeping the spiders at bay.

I don’t think I’m going insane. As I said, the squirrels I know are imaginary. Tricks of distance and light. But one does not wander alone on the surface of a dead moon for eight years without picking up a few eccentricities. Perhaps the squirrels are mine. My mother had cataracts. I may have something wrong with my eyes. In that case, Liam’s coming is fortuitous. Rather than asking him if he can see the Horse and Rider – Mizar and Alcor, twin stars in the handle of the Big Dipper – I’ll ask him if he can see the squirrels. No squirrels, good eyesight. I can rely on him to by my eyes.

I will wait to see how he likes life on Iapetus first, perhaps, before mentioning the squirrels. We’ll stay away from the Voyager Mountains for a while, as I’ve never seen the squirrels elsewhere. Isolation, even in the company of your estranged father who left you and your mother and your siblings to wander on an icy rock halfway across the solar system has got to be kind of a shock, and I’ve even kept myself beardless and, unlike most hermits, a bit plump. He shouldn’t have to pass the rest of his life with a character from a Zane Grey novel. Especially a slightly crazed one babbling about squirrels.

I could bring it up obliquely, perhaps. Share my favorite French phrase: des ecureuils en cahoutchouc – rubber squirrels – to break the ice.

Maybe not.

We’ll talk about Iapetus. How to live. How to survive. How his mother and his brother and his sister are doing, where they are, who they married, the names of my grandchildren and such. I won’t mention the squirrels.

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