Kit Jenkin was born in Canada and now lives in Manchester, UK. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at the University of New Brunswick. His fiction has most recently appeared in Fatal Flaw, The Dillydoun Review, The Selkie, The Wrong Quarterly, and Storgy.
The Dominion of Love
By Kit Jenkin
On a summer night in 1997, my father took me out onto our back porch and set up my deep sky telescope. He set the counter weight, activated the motor that compensated for the rotation of the Earth, and pointed its end at a purple smear of sky.
-We’re catching Jupiter, he said.
I leaned into the eyepiece and saw five small white dots surrounding a large white dot, struck through with lines of orange and the faintest hint of a red spot.
-What is it, I asked.
-A storm. It’s been churning for centuries.
-But I can’t see it moving.
-That’s because it’s so far away. It’s like a plane. You know how when you look in the sky, it only looks like its moving one centimetre at a time? But it’s moving faster than you could ever go.
-How did it start?
-Dust, heat, pressure. Gravity brings it all together.
By the time we’d finished talking, Jupiter had moved out of frame. We went back inside, and in the dining room my mother held my face.
-My little Balthazar. Did you see the North Star?
-You don’t need a telescope to see Polaris, my father said, threading his fingers together behind his head and puffing out his cheeks.
-I saw a storm!
-Of course you did, honey.
-What do you say, sport, my father said, bopping me on the shoulder. What’s say tomorrow we shoot for Pluto?
-Isn’t it too far away?
-Nothing’s too far for our eye, he said, parting wide the lids of his right eye so it bulged out.
-It’s just an eye for godssake.
My father sighed and turned away.
My mother crossed her arms, moved slowly over to the freezer, and took out a giant tub of vanilla ice cream. She ran the end of a spoon under hot water and scraped out a perfectly round white ball. She then plunked in a small bowl, gave it to me, and told me to eat upstairs. I did as she said and retreated to my room, listening to their muffled argument through the floor.
-Astronomy? Really, I heard her say.
-It’s everything he’ll ever need to know.
I sat with the bowl in my lap and watched it all melt into a slop. Downstairs, my father loudly tinkered with the telescope. And when my mother went upstairs to the bathroom, even through the walls, I could hear her breathing.
Eventually, I drank down everything in that bowl and felt a chill run through my stomach.
Jessica, my babysitter with the Acadian accent, was playing grunge and dying her hair when my father came to pick me up. I was watching The Jerry Springer Show and eating bag after bag of Smartfood. When Jessica answered the door, she took off her sweater and smiled an enormous smile.
-Picking up the tyrant, he said.
-You’re funny she said, calling to me. I walked up to the doorway and wiped the popcorn dust on my shirt.
-He’s not funny, I said. He’s my dad.
-We’re catching Pluto tonight, right, sport? he asked pinching me in the chest.
-You’re lucky to have a dad who shows you new things. I’d give anything to have that kind of dad. You always come and take him away. Why don’t you stay for a bit? Coffee?
-That would keep me up.
-I don’t mind keeping you up.
How different they both looked then: her smiling, leaning against the door, slipping her thumb into her waistband – him standing stock still, with a deathly serious look on his face.
Usually, during the car ride home, my father fidgeted while driving. He’d toggle the radio settings and crank his seat back and forth. But that evening he just stared at one point in the middle distance.
The next day, when came to pick me up, she opened the door, I stepped out, and he said, with that same deathly serious look on his face,
And closed the door behind him.
I don’t remember how long I was on that stoop, but it was long enough to notice the yellowing shoots in the garden, the green chain link fence behind them, the overcast sky punched through by the sun. When he opened the door again, the middle distance was still in his eyes, and in the car ride home, he breathed very heavily through his nose.
-I don’t want you going back there.
After the night on the porch, I developed an interest in comets. I read in the newspapers that Hale-Bopp was approaching Earth. I ran into a field near the university to watch its V-shaped curve in the sky, with one tail bright white and the other deep blue, overlapping where they met. I wanted to know about other comets, too. That’s when my father told me about Haley’s.
-Its orbit is seventy-five years. By my money, it’s halfway to the Oort Cloud.
The Encyclopedia Britannica said Haley’s Comet was a collection of dust and ice speeding through space at one kilometre a second at aphelion, and over 100 kilometres a second when falling towards the sun. On approaching the sun, radiation causes the water and carbon dioxide to sublimate and shoot out from the comet’s surface. The sun’s rays ionize these particles so a florescent tail stretches behind it for ten million kilometres. In this fashion, the comet will evaporate in twenty thousand years. I’d read that entry, then lied on my bed, imagining the comet rotating under my ceiling below the Day-Glo sticker stars – solid, unchanged, yet engaged in such a radiant disintegration.
-It has its own atmosphere, I told my mother. Like a planet.
-That’s beautiful, sweetie, she said, weeping with a bunched-up tissue.
Since the last day at Jessica’s house, my mother and father had been fighting loudly, and more often, in the kitchen. I’d shut myself in my room and lie in my dark bed, the door crack flickering, trying not to hear them.
The following week, I played in Jennifer’s living room as she hunched over me with her chin settled heavily on her hand.
-Um…don’t you want to do anything else? she said.
-You’re a kid. Don’t you want to go outside?
-Outside’s boring, I said, twisting the joints of a Spiderman action figure.
-You know, you’re nothing like your dad. He’s adventurous.
-How do you know? Dad’s just Dad.
She ran her fingers down her shins. She shook her hair and looked up at the ceiling.
-Does he ever talk about me?
She shrugged, brushing some invisible film away from her foot.
-Like, my name.
-He only ever talked about never coming back here.
-Why would he say that? she said.
It wasn’t really a question. Or at least, she didn’t say it like one.
-My mom’s mad at him. When she’s mad at him, he can say funny things.
-Well, that’s just the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, she said, suddenly fawning over me and pinching my cheeks. You’re fucking adorable.
My father arrived; he told me to wait on the steps…but instead of the wait the first time, I heard raised voices. Not yelling, but close. I sat down on the stoop for a while, listening to them. It was getting late. I started to wonder what my mother would think, if she’d be worried about where we were. So I got up and banged on the door with my fist.
When there was no response, I kicked the door so hard I could feel it all the way up my leg, even through my shoe. There was a long pause accented by a swell of cicadas in the distance. Then my father swung open the door so hard it hit the wall. On our drive home, he took a longer, different route.
-You can’t tell your mother.
-What do you mean?
-Just don’t tell her I went in.
-You just can’t, OK?
When he said OK with that particular look on his face, I knew it was time to stop talking. I watched the houses and front gardens go by.
-It will sort itself out, he said.
-You know I love you, right?
Then I said something, looking back, that now seems so knowing and astute I wonder if I said it at all.
-You could let me go home when you do it.
He went very hard and very quiet for a very long time.
-Maybe that would’ve been easier.
-You’re growing up. I see a lot of myself in you. I don’t know…maybe part of me thought you’d understand.
The plastic ring surrounded the other door’s child lock in a chrome T-shape. The paint on the lock was chipped, and there was iron underneath.
Over the following days, my father made the house inhospitable with one of his bouts of excessive cleaning. The smell of bleach and ammonia, used in the second-floor bathroom, seeped down into the living room. The obsidian vases patterned with feathers, and the varnished Mennonite credenza, and the cloudy porcelain lamps, were burnished to a shine. My mother yelled at him to stop over the vacuum cleaner, but he’d say he left things too long.
Records of Haley’s Comet date back to the Middle Ages, to sightings by sky watchers in Korea, Great Zimbabwe, and Tenochtitlan. In 1066, it hung over England like a hairy star just before the Norman invasion. In the early nineteenth century, it passed so close to Earth that observers in Europe described it as a sky-sized glow-worm. Some biblical scholars think Haley’s Comet might’ve been the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men to the manger.
I wonder what it would’ve been like for clergymen and chemists, rhetoricians and farmers, to look up at the night sky and see that seething mass of light.
It must’ve been terrifying.
Ascending the Carling Avenue side of the Experimental Farm in central Ottawa, you can see the Dominion Observatory between two concrete towers. Its dome – green copper – has a slit in its retractable roof above an octagonal atrium made of red brick and unfiled limestone. One day, driving home with my father from Jennifer’s house, I spotted it from the car. The window was cracked and wind blew into my eyes.
-Can we go there? I said to my father.
It appeared different up close than it did from a distance – smaller than expected, plainer. The gravel under the car’s tires crackled as we pulled up, the observatory’s floodlights illuminating the sides of the building, even though it was only late afternoon. The atrium had a twenty-foot tall, fifteen-inch telescope as the centrepiece, pointing up towards the roof. Each layer of the telescope birthed smaller tubes descending to a small brass eyepiece. On the eight walls, placards detailed the observatory’s history: their studies of geomagnetism and seismology; how they used airborne gravity to discover diamond-bearing kimberlites in the Arctic; how they documented meteor impact craters on the Canadian Shield. One placard described how, in 1928, the observatory spotted what was thought to be a new, rogue planet in the solar system. Photographs taken of the object were misplaced during filing, except two that were leaked to a local newspaper. Astronomers chalked those images up to plate flaws in the telescope’s lens. This was “embarrassing history” for the observatory, since the lens was incredibly sensitive, cut by the most sophisticated glass smiths at the time, and imported directly from Pennsylvania. This is the first sighting of what today is known as Planet X.
My father paced. The click of his dress shoes reverberated through the atrium.
-Come here, he said, putting his eye close to the huge telescope’s eyepiece. It’s still day but you can see the stars.
I was reading a placard on one of the walls. It told the story of a woman – an astronomer who worked at the observatory in 1908 – who complained the government about having the work out in the cold in a skirt. She sued the observatory, won the lawsuit, and got permission to wear pants on the job. She was the first female civil servant in Canada to be able to do so. I imagined how that story would’ve played out. Faces gawping at taboo trousers. Gazes pressing on the back of her neck. The whispers. What right does she have.
My father put his hand around my shoulder.
-You know, he said, shoving his hands into his pockets, I can’t tell with you. Do you even like astronomy? Your mother said you may not.
-She had to get a court order.
-She did, I said, pointing at the blurry exposure. To wear pants.
He leaned towards the portrait, sliding his glasses up his nose.
-I think mom would do it different. She’d just wear them.
-Well, women had to put up with a lot in those days.
-I think she’d be brave. She’d tell them to eat it.
-She’s a wonderful person, he said, looking at his shoes. But it’s hard to be brave, you know.
-That doesn’t mean you don’t do it.
-You’re right, he said, patting me on the back. You’re absolutely right.
Three weeks passed – my parents changed. One morning, my father took a plate of lemon wedges from the fridge during breakfast. On his way back to the table, he passed my mother. She stood facing him with an empty plate. He didn’t even look at her, just sat down and dropped one of the wedges into his tea. Those wedges, rind side down, rocked back and forth in their silence, one wedge lilting out of sync with the rest. My mother began chopping a pear, at first slowly, then with rising intensity and lessening precision. She gave me the pear in a bowl along with a handful of raisins, and I sat at the foot of the staircase as she leaned against the sink and cried with her hand over her mouth.
Later that afternoon, I walked in on my parents in their bedroom. My father was completely naked, except for one black sock hanging off the end of his left foot. He had my mother bent over the bed. I saw her reflection in the mirror. She was covering her face with her hands. I could see her muscles tense. The tendons below her calves were two vertical lines all white and stark.
She spent the rest of that evening in my room, sitting on the edge of my bed, in an open bathrobe and drinking a glass of white wine, scraping the skin of her heels with her toenails.
-He’s not a bad person, you know, she said.
-What was he doing?
-Just something he does.
She slid up to the head of the bed and held my face.
-My little Balthasar, she said, smoothing out a curl of my hair with her thumb.
Later that month, I looked up some books on Haley’s Comet in the school library. I found the subject in the card stacks, and I asked the librarian where it was, but the call number brought me to a book called The Nibiru Cataclysm.
I took the book to a reading table and read about Nibiru. Planet X, or the solar system’s so-called eleventh planet, with the mass six times of the Earth, which orbited the sun at a 10,000-year revolution. The book said that when human civilization began in 3,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent, Nibiru was at its furthest distance from the sun, and that its return journey would bring it so close to Earth, its gravity would pull our planet out of the sun’s orbit. The book showed, as evidence of the planet’s existence, Mayan and Egyptian temple paintings depicting men lying face-up in rockets, their faces aghast or bewildered. Several references were made to a superior alien race trying to warn us of the planet’s approach, through symbols and secrets, of catastrophe. I read a chapter on the secret societies bent on suppressing knowledge of Nibiru. There were pictures: grotesque, hook-nosed people cowering from glowing, angular men brandishing torches.
-It’s just a conspiracy, my father said, shaking the book in front of my face. Projections.
After I read that book, I couldn’t get thoughts of the end of the world out of my head: oceans lifting into the sky; trees uprooted, disintegrating; the limbs and organs of apes, reptiles and swine scattering into the air. I’d huddle with my knees up to my chest and rise into my head, where I could think anything I wanted and feel nothing.
The very last time I was at Jennifer’s, she seemed cold. Her hair was twisted and she’d wrapped a wool blanket around her shoulders. She sat on the sofa squeezing the phone receiver she’d unplugged from the rotary base. The cord’s jack fell between her big and second toe. My father opened the door, walked in. She bolted up, marched towards the door, and smashed him on the temple with the receiver.
-You’re not going back there, he said on the drive home.
-It’s not good for us, he said in a strained voice, his fingers barely touching where she hit him.
That night, I watched the screaming on the street below. I saw my father in his housecoat arguing in the middle of the street with Jessica. She was wearing a long Ottawa Senators jersey that ended above her knees, but was so wide at the collar it fell over one of her shoulders. What they argued about I couldn’t hear, but he spoke quietly, trying to quiet her by example. But she wouldn’t have it. When she yelled at him, he glanced around, back to the house, and when she wouldn’t stop, he lunged for her mouth to stifle her. The second-floor lights of the other houses switched on.
My mother sat against the bed’s headboard resting her head on its rim.
-You shouldn’t be up, she said.
I was sitting on the couch with a wire-ringed notebook on my lap. I could feel the coolness of the wire against my thigh. Its many cold points resonated up through my body. At the top of the notebook, the top of the wire stuck out like a bent finger. The end of it caught the light of the window across from me. A pale sunrise just started to brighten the space between two houses across the street, and the brightness climbed in that space, coating the rest of the sky, still dark with night. Above them was the upward curve of the moon, like a cup. I’d been filling that notebook with lines so dark the paper almost ripped from the pressure of the pencil. Veins of black next beside raised bubbles of white paper.
In the hallway, my father was placing his bags beside the front door. Their wheels clicked on the tiles in the vestibule. I think my mother was in her bedroom. She’d locked it to everything outside.
-Hey buddy, he said, putting his hands on his hips. Come give me a hug?
-No. Because you’re not going.
-Son… He looked down at his feet.
-We haven’t looked at the moon yet.
-It’s the closest thing. It’s right there in front of us. But we never looked at it. Look, I’ve been drawing it.
I lifted up the notepad and showed it to him. When I held it up it hid half his face so I could only see his eyes. But I watched them turn from sad to wide.
-Look, look at it, I said, getting up, standing, pushing forward a picture of what I thought was the moon.