In this short story, a spacecraft slowly circles the dark side of the moon on Christmas day…
She awakes Christmas morning, alone.
Her first thought is of him – rather, the absence of him.
She’s fallen asleep in front of the television, which has been on since he left, sound tuned to a low hum. Voices, static, blips and radar thrums. Screen flickering in the dark room, alongside flames in the gas fireplace, lapping faux-Texas mesquite. Christmas tree bulbs reflecting silver tinsel. Spheric ornaments reminding her of planets, dotting a universe of branches.
She’s slumped on a pile of throw pillows inches from the screen, where she’s spent countless hours since his departure. She couldn’t bear the thought of waking in their bed without him. Not today— not the first Christmas they’ve spent apart.
They’d lost contact at 11:45 Christmas Eve, as he slipped behind the moon. He should have reached his destination by 12:19, early Christmas morning.
Apollo 8… This is Houston…
Seconds passed, then minutes.
12:25. Nothing. They’d been warned delay could only mean one thing.
She knew Susan and Val must be fearing the same, huddled around the Squawk Boxes which NASA provided The Wives, in order to overhear control room chat from liftoff to landing. (Boxes into which Mission Control had built a 60-second delay to spare loved ones from hearing the worst, should the worst occur.) Susan Borman had spent Christmas Eve morning prematurely writing Frank’s eulogy, the remainder of the day locked in her bedroom, curled around the Squawk Box, listening to her husband’s voice for what she’d decided might be the last time.
Marilyn herself had arranged a private mass, for which the priest had lit candles and summoned an organist. She’d driven home via back roads to avoid the press. As she pulled into Timber Cove, tree branches seemed to part, revealing that majestic silver orb— greyish she’d soon learn, texture like plaster of Paris.
She’d stopped the car, staring skyward.
Jim… up there.
She thought of the last time they’d looked at the moon together. A midnight stroll on a beach in the Cape, two days before launch. He’d told her not to worry when the earth shook during liftoff. The gleam in his eye reminded her of the schoolboy she’d met in Milwaukee, with whom she’d star-gazed and counted constellations. He’d wooed her with Galileo’s theories between embraces, to her as romantic as any love poem.
Like millions of viewers she watched the primetime Christmas Eve broadcast, lunar horizons filling their screens. She studied Earth-Rise with wonder, seeing the planet through her husband’s perspective, he being one of only three human beings to have witnessed such wonders.
It was their ninth – and penultimate – lunar revolution. Frank, Bill, and Jim took turns reading the opening lines of Genesis, selected not for religion or creed, but celebration of cosmic grandeur.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
Marilyn pondered the year of turmoil that preceded this day. Doctor King, then RFK, gone in an instant, both victims of senseless acts.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters…
Hovering over the Sea of Tranquility. An effort to remind a planet in need of what united rather than divided them.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
She’d taken her children for a walk that evening to find her neighbours had lined the street with candles in tribute, flickering in delicate white paper bags.
They filled her kitchen with casseroles and deviled eggs and bottles of champagne. The rituals of astronauts’ wives.
Marilyn delivered eggnog to reporters, fixtures on her lawn.
Just after midnight on Christmas day, she sat inches from the television, rigid.
The final time the spacecraft circled the dark side of the moon, gravity demanded they fire the engine that might propel them back to Earth. If all went as planned, they’d regain radio contact within fifteen minutes.
Apollo 8… Houston…
They’d been given a 50/50 chance. They might safely return home; they might crash into those brittle grey, peaks, one of which Jim had christened Mount Marilyn in her honour. They could be consumed in a ball of flames, trailing the rocket like shards of sun. Or their engine might fail, leaving them stranded in orbit, lost to the constellations.
She allowed herself to imagine life without him; frozen in time, Christmas 1968.
A hiss. A crackle.
Then, his voice.
Houston, Apollo 8… Please be informed that there is a Santa Claus.
She knows that today, 238,900 miles away, her husband will find a special dinner in the spacecraft’s equipment bay. Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and a small bottle of brandy for each of the three-man crew. A gift apiece, sent from their wives. Jim will open from Marilyn a pair of Moonstone cufflinks. He’ll receive a message from her through Mission Control, promising roast beef and Yorkshire pudding upon his safe return.
The children open presents, wrapped before his departure. A Magic 8 Ball. A yellow helicopter. A pogo stick.
After breakfast she answers the bell, where a chauffeur hands her a box. Blue foil paper with styrofoam balls, painted like the Earth and the moon, miniature rocket circling the latter. A rustle of tissue. Her breath catches as she lifts a mink coat from within. She holds its softness to her cheek, imagining she detects the faintest trace of his aftershave lingering in its fibres.
She opens the card:
To Marilyn. With love from the Man in the Moon.
She wears the coat to church that afternoon, despite Houston temperatures topping 60°F. She hugs it tight as she listens to Jim’s voice on the T.V. feed as he speeds through space towards home. She wears it as she portions choice servings of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, packing them into a Tupperware container, which she slides into the freezer for safekeeping.
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott is out in hardback now (Cornerstone, £12.99)