by Shawn Jacobson
“You don’t want that,” my wife said, pointing at the rug kit, “it’s childish.”
“It looks cool,” I replied, looking at the picture: a UFO with the star-studded splendor of outer space in the background. Through open panels in the ship, you could see two aliens fiddling with some sort of machine with a ray shooting out toward the observer.
“It’s unique,” I continued, “it shows the sort of thing I enjoy reading about. I know you think it’s silly but—”
“I’m not buying that thing!” she said. She persisted in her objections to the point that I had to give up. The pleasure of working on the rug just wasn’t worth the grief I’d get about buying this kit. I couldn’t figure out her displeasure, though I would later wonder if she’d had some foreknowledge of where this project would take me: a place stranger than precognition.
“Anything else?” the lady at the checkout counter asked as she brushed gray hair away from her face. “You’re sure you don’t want the rug kit?” She continued looking at me. “You sure looked interested in it.”
“No,” my wife said, and she picked up the gifts we bought for the kids. “Thanks again,” she continued while she hustled me out the door.
We continued with only scheduled adventures. Those gift shops we visited featured innocuous gifts that didn’t spark arguments. In time, the little store and its spacey rug receded into my memory’s background. Until the day I stumbled over a package on our doorstep.
You should watch where you’re going, I thought as I gracelessly entered the house.
“Let’s see what that is,” my wife said, and she grabbed the knife she used for opening packages. After digging in the box, she said, “Oh, it’s that rug.”
In the box was a note thanking us for our purchases and explaining that the rug kit was a gift to us, since I’d shown interest in the item.
“They probably couldn’t sell it,” my wife said, “so they’re giving it away. They probably just want it off their hands.”
“Could be,” I agreed. I wasn’t going to tell her about how I’d feigned losing my billfold in the store so I could go back and buy the rug. She didn’t need to know that I’d paid cash for it and arranged to have it shipped home with a note claiming that the rug was a gift. This little bit of subterfuge was out of character for me, but then it had been a strange day all around.
Strangeness continued when I took the kit downstairs and looked at the contents. The color chart didn’t seem to be in English. Instead of the typical color names, there were squiggles. I despaired of figuring out where to put each of the threads. It seemed that my boldness in buying the kit had been in vain.
Then I realized that, by looking at the picture, I could figure out which color went with its corresponding symbol. The empty boxes represented the black that made up the background, the ovals represented the pearly gray of the spaceship, and so forth. After appropriately marking up the chart with the color names, I was able to proceed.
The colors were also strange. The black, which I thought of as “space black” didn’t exactly match any black yarns in my other kits. The gray shone with some sort of inner light, as did the pink and blue threads that made up the spacecraft’s interior. And then there was the color I thought of as “ray,” the color shot out of the alien machine. It was some intense color out past blue and was almost painful to gaze upon.
The threads also felt different. The pale, almost pastel, yellow that represented the alien’s skin felt cool and smooth, the way the skin of a snake feels. The threads for the alien’s hair, or whatever, felt a bit like bird feathers, and the green and orange colors of their clothing felt like some sort of glossy fabric. The wonder of working with these threads made me obsess over the project as I’d never done before.
“Did you hear what I said?” my wife asked.
“Planet Earth calling husband,” she repeated with that tone of voice that warned that “mad” was just around the corner.
“OK,” I said, “I’m listening.”
“You need to do the laundry tonight,” she said. “The hamper is full. And you need to get all the trash cans when you take out the garbage, not just the ones on this floor.”
“Yes,” I said, feeling unpleasantly humbled.
“You’ve really been missing stuff since you started on that silly rug. I really wish you wouldn’t work on that thing.”
I didn’t argue, instead, I got a load of wash together, and yes, the hampers were overflowing. I offered to take out the trash, but my wife wasn’t done in the kitchen. So, I went to work on the rug, promising to check on the laundry while I was down there.
By now, I was putting in the threads for the outside of the spaceship, wiry metallic threads that felt surprisingly flexible. I was also putting in some of the interior threads.
“How’s it coming?” my son asked.
“Making progress,” I said. I’d wanted to do the rug for him — really for both of us — because of our interest in things to do with space. It was a passion we shared that my wife didn’t understand.
Can you help me with my homework?” he asked. “Mom says you’re the math expert in the family.”
“Sure,” I said, “let’s see what it is.” We worked on his math for two hours; by the time we were finished, I had no time or energy for my rug-hooking project.
Time passed. I worked through my chores, stealing time for the rug when I could. Then came a night when I was almost finished, where all I had left were some space-black threads and a few of the hot, white threads for stars.
I was working steadily when my wife popped her head in the door. “Do you know what time it is?” she asked. “It’s almost midnight; you have to go to work tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m almost done.”
“Good,” she said. Usually this meant: “Good, you’re making progress.” But this time I felt it meant: “Good, this foolishness will soon be over.” I finished at long last and dragged myself to bed, but the excitement of space and the project kept me from getting to sleep.
The next day, I dragged myself back out of bed, feeling like I was impersonating a human being without a license.
“Would you please take out the recycle before leaving?” my wife asked with exasperation.
“Yes,” I said. I hoped this would settle things, but no, no such luck.
“It’s getting so I have to do everything myself,” she said. “You don’t do the laundry, you don’t do trash, you don’t do anything I need you to do unless I yell at you to do it,” she continued as her voice took off like a rocket. “I’m tired of doing everything myself!”
With that send-off, I slogged out the door. Ahead lay an uninspiring day of work, full of meetings where I barely stayed awake and worked on assignments I somehow got completed. By quitting time, I was drained. I trudged through the rest of the day as if I were walking on some heavy world with too much gravity.
“I don’t want to hang that thing in the house,” my wife said as I presented the finished product. “You worked on it, so you can do the backing on it or whatever you want to do with it.” She tossed the offending item back at me.
I carried the rug downstairs and looked at the instructions for sewing the edges together, but I was too exhausted to concentrate on the words. The sewing instructions might as well have been written in Martian for all I could understand them. I gave up and taped the rug, done but not really finished either, to the back of my door. Then, I sat and looked at the resulting tapestry.
Though the edging was shabby, the rug itself eclipsed my other creations with its otherworldly beauty. The landscape on its left and the picture of a panda on its right seemed dull, mundane, by comparison.
And I realized why I’d obsessed over this creation. I’d enjoyed doing rugs for my wife and for her family: cardinals, bunnies and all the rest. But this was something I’d done for me, about something for which I had a driving passion. This was my skill made to serve something I cared about, the hope and the wonder of the universe. This is so worth fighting for, I thought with sudden contentment.
I stared into the depths, a void that could swallow light-years in its vastness, and looked at the ship and the aliens about their work. I felt myself falling forward, drawn into that vastness, towards that ship, to those aliens and their strange machine. And as I fell forward, the life I’d known fell away into the past.
* * *
I looked out the window of the spaceship at a gray world. I was sure its surface would be ice, and its air would be poison, an uninviting place. I’d once found such scenes exciting. This was one of those glorious vistas that had passed before my eyes on this journey. Now though, the grand array of worlds all ran together into an uninspiring sameness. I’d not been to this world, yet I’d seen it all before.
“Is there something wrong?” a voice, the female alien’s, asked.
“Not really,” I said, unable to put my feelings into words.
The being that stood before me, and the other — I presumed he was her husband — had welcomed me when I’d arrived. They’d shown me how to get along on the ship, and they’d directed it to some truly beautiful places. They’d been kind, even loving, during our travels. We’d been so close that we’d not needed names. I’d speak, and one of them would answer. And now I realized that this was the first time I’d seen one without the other.
“Where is your companion?” I asked.
“The ship has reabsorbed him,” she replied. “The ship had wished you would relate to both of us in a physical way. But you’ve only been interested in me; therefore he has been reabsorbed.”
“The ship took his life because I wasn’t affectionate with him?” I asked, rather shocked by what I was hearing.
“He was always a part of the ship, as am I,” she replied. “The ship hoped you would love each of us with equal affection.”
In space as on Earth, I thought, I disappoint folk who want to remake me to fit their grand design.
“It’s not that I’m disappointed,” she replied as if she’d read my mind, “it’s just that the folk who called me into being were male and female. I made these bodies in homage to them so that you could love all of them. When I sent out the portal to bring you here, I sought someone who could appreciate the beauty of my creators; I hoped you would find such beings beautiful. I hoped you would appreciate the beauty of the universe through which we travel. Is this why you’re sad? Because you do not see all of this as beautiful?”
“It’s just that...” I trailed off. I didn’t know how to tell this ship in the form of a woman that I’d thought space would liberate me, but now I felt as confined as ever before. I didn’t know how to tell her that I’d believed that space would solve my problems, but it hadn’t. All that just seemed too petty, too small to confess to something who sailed the stars.
Fortunately, the ship spoke again, cutting through my thoughts. “With the biomass from my other created body,” the ship said, “I can make you a suit that will allow you to explore the world below you. It doesn’t look like much from up here, but its surface has some scenes of unique beauty. Besides,” she continued, “it will get you off the ship for a while.”
“Thanks anyway,” I said. The place still looked uninviting. The universe was full of beauty that I was insufficient to appreciate.
“Planetary exploration and the viewing of cosmic wonders is what space travel is for. If that no longer interests you, you should return home.”
I thought about home, really thought about it for the first time. I remembered a trip my wife and I’d taken to the mountains, a trip during the early good years, when we had loved each other without feeling the need to remake each other in our own images. Home had not always been happy, or easy, or comfortable. Yet home had its beauties and its joys; and, home was a place that you didn’t have to be lonely, not if you put some effort into getting out into the world. Suddenly, home seemed not so bad.
“I think that’s what I want,” I said. “I want to return to Earth. You’ve been a loving companion, but I don’t think that this life is for me.”
“I thought so,” the ship said. “We can start in that direction if you wish. However,” she continued, “on the way there is a system with three suns that share their material as they dance through their orbits. The streams of matter that they share are never the same twice; they are worth seeing.”
“Then, there is an alien race along the way that has mastered the art of love. You can use that on Earth as well as in space. They also create inspiring tapestries. Should we make a couple of stops along the way?” she asked.
I heard pleading in her voice, and I realized that traveling the universe alone, only with vessels holding your echoes, must be a lonely way to live. Of course, she had wanted companionship; and, in space as on Earth, I’d been a disappointment.
I asked myself just how homesick was I? Did I want to throw away this opportunity to travel just yet? And what was left of home anyway? For all I knew, centuries might have passed back on Earth while we’d wandered. Everyone I knew may have been long dead and forgotten. This might be my last chance to learn to love rightly with someone I knew. The mess of thoughts whirling through my head made me ponder for quite some time before answering, but, when the answer came, it didn’t surprise me at all.
“I think a couple of stops wouldn’t hurt,” I said, looking forward to the travels still ahead.
Copyright © 2020 by Shawn Jacobson