Bewildering Stories

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Magnificent Desolation

by Kate Bachus

The night before the Eagle’s landing, the unmanned Soviet Luna 15 changed orbit to come within ten miles of the moon’s surface. Russian officials had claimed that the craft would not interfere with the American lunar mission, but there was speculation that the Russians would attempt their own moon landing, to demonstrate that unmanned craft could be equally valuable.

Imagine being that far from home. Imagine being on the immense curving floor of the Sea of Tranquility, a full sixty miles away from your ride back to earth, with no real guarantee that the craft you landed in would get you back up there. Imagine knowing, with perfect mathematical precision, the enormity of the odds of your surviving such a wild, improbable venture.

Imagine looking through the faceplate of your suit at a landscape so far away from the world you and everyone but the two men who came with you knew, so unbelievably far away, that your own feet square on that powdered charcoal dust seem like some strange, unlikely dream.

I played my first actual hockey game last week.

If there was ever something mystical about firefighting, I didn’t get it. If there were ever rituals or moments of heavy magic in all that that didn’t involve the apparatus, I didn’t catch them. All I remember is the constant, gut-snarling, paralyzing fear of failure. The sense of being measured. And continually coming up short.

I don’t remember those subtle moments of transition, those places of ritual where I could have — and possibly did, despite all the angst and terror — come of age in certain ways. Important ways.

Maybe it’s why after all that time, despite the certifications, the training, despite having rank, despite all of it, I always felt like I didn’t belong. Like the ultimate poser, the as if my turnouts and uniform weren’t there at all, and secretly everyone else was snickering behind their hands at my blatant naked incompetence.

On the ice, I’ve been left to more or less sort it out for myself. Fall down, get up, apologize again for a puck sent miles wide of its target, suck up the embarrassment of having completely snafu-ed a drill. And despite the parallels I’ve drawn, it’s wildly different. I don’t know the men I skate with, I only marginally give a fuck about their opinions, and more importantly, no one dies if I screw up. And I’m not in this for a job.

And perhaps most importantly of all, I like hockey.

I do. The twenty-five or so pounds I put on during the depression don’t seem to matter much on skates, at least not at this stage in the game. I fling myself around with joyful abandon. I want to be there. I feel like an enormous, happy, slightly idiotic and fat Bambi, with a stick and a puck, new to the ice and universally forgiven for being amusingly incompetent.

And for once, being the only girl out there is something I’m aware of, and find it simply doesn’t matter. At all. Whereas with fire it was everything. Huge, isolating. Terrible.

Hockey class was cancelled the other day, and since a few of us were there and suited up, we got out on the ice anyway, skated around. Practiced shots and stickhandling. It hadn’t been more than a few minutes before one of the guys — he came to ice from inline hockey, drives a VW and reminds me all too distractingly of the romantic lead in Slap Shots, but anyway — suggested a game. He got my attention. Asked me if I wanted to play.


If I wanted to play.

I figure these guys have been in class with me for well over a month. They know what they’re getting into, and I figured, screw it. I wanted to play. Desperately. “You’ve seen me skate,” I said by way of disclaimer. And then, “and you’ll have to tell me the rules as we go.”

He grinned, wide, almost feral. "There are no rules," he said, and skated off.

A moment later, there was that distinctive clattering sound. Wood on ice.

I looked behind me, and watched sticks tossed, casual, idle, into a pile.

I stood for a moment. Thought of a scattering of bones on rock, of one burnt bannock in a bag of cakes passed around. The sticks made their divinatory pattern on the ice, crisscrossed dark on white.

I skated over, and tossed mine in.

Aldrin described the moon landscape like this: "magnificent desolation."

The three of them, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin, had no delusions about where they were or what they were doing. How slender a thread connected them to home. How quickly technology had leapt ahead to bring them here, and despite how well the mission gone, how untested, how theoretical and wild and new being out there was.

The astronauts were intelligent, educated men. They all knew how far away they were and how utterly on the brink of life, of survival.

But they went about business. Collected rocks. Ate a dinner of bacon squares, peaches and cookie cubes. And ultimately, found their way miraculously home.

Someone divided the sticks into two piles. These were the teams. You pick up your stick, you play.

There is a tremendous power in having thrown your stick in, numbered yourself, taken your lot, and gone on with it.

I found that there wasn’t time or reason to panic. It had been my choice to be there, and so any belonging, any right I had to it was as simple as one wood stick in a pile. The outcome drawn inevitably there, black on white. At that point all there really was left to do was skate. Do my best. Play.

I scored a few goals, all but one by accident. I boarded the inline skating guy by accident. I open ice checked another guy by accident. I got yelled at for leaving the door onto the bench open. I missed passes. I sent bad passes.

I also, on occasion, did all right. Someone complimented me on my hustle.

One of the guys there is one I’d be watching, if he were in my fire division. The kind of guy you see in action for a little while and know will do well in the long haul. The kind of guy you want behind you on a hose line, or with you on the roof. Quietly competent. Good-natured. Aware of things around him on the ice. He arrives on time, suits up and gets out on the ice before class is scheduled to start. He helps pick things up, is the last off the ice when class is over, bringing the nets off with him.

As we scored back and forth, I watched him play a smart, disciplined game, watched him work, get tired, work harder, take failure in stride, move on. He’d pass me the puck, deliberate, over and over and again. As if to say try, take it, do something with it. Inviting me in, despite the fact that most of the time I’d just hand it off accidentally to the other team. He stopped once, to try and tell me something about bouncing the pucks off the boards rather than taking a shot or digging the puck out at a weird angle.

I like him, and admire him.

I’ve realized, finally, not all the guys like that are in hero jobs. Fire, cop, Secret Service, military, all those places I went looking for that kind of thing. Sometimes they’re just guys, with regular jobs, who play hockey from time to time.

I haven’t read up on why the Soviets decided to change Luna 15’s orbit in the eleventh hour. I speculate all the possible reasons, including espionage or the hypothetical plan to demonstrate an unmanned landing.

I speculate, too, that perhaps the Russians also understood the enormity of this undertaking, the distance we’d travelled. Maybe having a craft nearby, they simply brought it in where it would be available if things went awry.

A romantic notion.

But an appealing possible truth.

Magnificent desolation.

Ice is like that. Stark, unfriendly. A wide space of cold, hard nothing.

Yet we commit to go out, play the game. Do what we came to do. We make our marks, score our particular lines in the landscape and later, we tell our stories.

The first time is significant. Not only for its danger and its possibilities of failure, but for a promise it makes of continuance. It is a casting of lots. Small and large scale.

And small and large scale, it becomes a commitment to be there, to do the best we can do, to do what we can, whatever the inevitable and eventual outcomes.

Copyright © 2003 by Kate Bachus