Geographies of Pluto

We do not know the geography of Pluto as intimately as those celestial bodies closer to Earth. Looking up, one eye closed, I could trace the Moon’s Mare Serenitatis with my pinky finger as if grazing the dark circles under a lover’s eyes. The lunar maria, plains of basalt astronomers once mistook for oceans, do not amaze the human eye. We know, too, the landscape of Mars: a cratered planet tinted red with iron oxide. And there is Jupiter’s constant, red storm; the metallic frost of a Venusian winter. Earth itself we have the taste of, the rich denseness having found its way into our mouths as young children. Pluto is a dead, solid body—resistant to study, sovereign of its cold corner of space.


Death is cosmic, universal; even stars die—a dark inward collapse we do not understand. The universe itself will die, stretched thin and cold.

Cemeteries lie beside the roads of West Virginia, common as roadkill. Some are gated and manicured, have names like God’s Acre or Spring Hill; a sign reads Closed at Dusk. Others seem less cemetery than graveyard, wild and untended: swallowed by woods, gravestones mouldering. My mother taught me to hold my breath driving past. We buried my tabby cat under a rotted crabapple tree in my parents’ backyard, her grave marked by white garden fencing, unvisited.


My mother described death to me after my grandmother died: a heavenly vacuum sucks the spirit out of the chest cavity and the soul soars through the sky to meet God in Heaven, a place past the edge of the universe. Though five years old, I imagined my grandmother’s soul, a trail of thick fog escaping Earth’s atmosphere to wander the long, empty stretches between the stars and planets till it reached the bright white wall of Heaven. She had lost her human features—the false teeth, the gold watch, the parrot and poodle left behind. Bodiless, the female pronouns did not apply.

That was the last year my mother, father, and I still lived in the West Side Charleston apartment, a basement twobedroom with plastic covering the windows in winter and the occasional rat or mouse. The moon still followed my mother’s Honda at night and I believed I could see an object hundreds of miles distant if only I did not look away.


The summer before kindergarten, we moved into a house at the center of what my mother called a good neighborhood, a tidy and hilly subdivision outside of Charleston. My parents divided the house into basement and first floor, father and mother—an arrangement born of necessity, as
my father worked nights and my mother days, but sustained permanently by estrangement.

My mother’s domain, the first floor, is bright and windowed, flooded with light during the day and at night dully illuminated by the neighbors’ porch lights and the headlights of cars.

The smell of cleaner overwhelms—Pine Sol, lemon Pledge, Windex. My mother sleeps in the corner bedroom, alone between bleachwhite sheets.

My father’s basement smells of cigarette smoke and slept-in clothes. Cat hair covers the armchair, the love seat. The tabby, devoted to my father, lived down there until she died in her sleep and was buried under the crabapple tree. Shrubberies and flowers dominate the few windows. My father’s bed is made with old, floral sheets.


There is no life on Pluto, nor was there ever; it is a world resigned to silence and stillness. On Pluto, our Sun is only a bright pore in the sky’s tight fabric—little more than a star among other stars, distant and cold and irrelevant. The dwarf planet is one of many objects littering the edge of our solar system within the icy Kuiper belt.


The year I turned seven, my mother miscarried early in a pregnancy and spent weeks sick behind the closed door of her bedroom—a blue room, its many windows curtained to keep the light out. She allowed only my father behind the door. Three years later, she gave birth to my brother, and I sometimes feel as if I imagined the shut door, the quiet.

My mother prefers to bury bad memories. The few photographs I have seen of her family are unlabeled. The careful cursive of names and dates begins only after I am born—Claire ‘91, an infant in an Olan Mills portrait with my father, nearly purple with laughter; Claire ‘93, lying in the grass with a white cat.


My mother’s father was a pedophile and an alcoholic; he sexually abused my mother and her siblings until he died the year she started seventh grade. This she told me in a phone conversation my senior year of college, the year I lived alone in a basement apartment in Morgantown. There is a school picture of my mother at twelve, labeled Ruth Ann in what must be my grandmother’s backslanted handwriting— unreadable if you do not know to look for the specific slopes of my mother’s name. Her face is pale, the nose long, eyes green and eager. The teacher has brushed her hair into pigtails, the babyfine strands tied in place with red yarn; my mother told me this, that it was the teacher and not her mother who combed her hair, when she found the photograph where I had hidden it in my dresser drawer.


We have a false familiarity with Pluto. A planet until 2006—before that, the small ninth planet past Neptune on classroom posters of the solar system, in science fair dioramas, and the S volume of the World Book Encyclopedia.

An eleven-year-old English schoolgirl named the planet for the god of the dead. The name distorts the distance between Pluto and Earth; the name can be studied, tasted and felt in the mouth as a common object. Until adulthood, I did not understand how little we know about Pluto, how its distance defies all but the bleariest photographs. Language is an incomplete power—nameless, Pluto would still be cold and far and alien. Pluto predates language, is far older than human consciousness.


My father’s sadnesses resurface when he drinks. He misses his mother, the woman for whom I am named. He misses his many siblings who are alive but faraway and quiet, save for one sister who calls when she has been drinking. The weekends I am home, he says, “You know I love you, Claire,” and I say, “I love you, too,” but climb the stairs to my mother’s floor where sadness is entombed, set apart.


One spring evening in third grade, my mother and I cut stars out of blue cardstock while my father drank a case of beer in the basement. With a thin paintbrush, we spread Elmer’s Glue from the stars’ centers to each coronal point. Now and then, my mother stopped painting to yell down the basement stairs to my father, “Corky, you sure you don’t want me to heat you up something?” to which he replied, “No.” My father often disappeared down the road in his truck after he had been drinking—those times he stayed put in the basement were a relief.

We sprinkled the stars with silver glitter and hung them with dental floss, taped the ends to the ceiling above my bed. Languid, they swayed in the air conditioning, their calm blue belying radiation and thermal fusion.


That year, my favorite book was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, a large, colorful book I refused to return to the school library. Its glossy sleeve had been covered in protective plastic by the librarian, and the spine crinkled in greeting each time I opened it. The binding, halfbroken by constant use, fell open to the best illustrations: the transformation of Acteon into a stag, his hunting hounds salivating; the ascent of Selene’s crescent chariot above a nocturnal Greek countryside; and a landscape of the underworld. Tall poplars, the river Styx, the bent heads of the dead—sketched out in soft black pencil, framed by earth and an overhang of roots as if we, in the world of the living, only had to dig to discover this dark place.


My senior year of college, I lived alone in a basement apartment I could never get clean—dirt pressed the walls in. Most nights I spent in the bathtub, the place I felt cleanest, reading thin books of poetry.

Once winter came, I took walks, too, down the small street where I lived, often at three or four in the morning. It was quiet then, and if new snow had fallen during the night, mine would be the only footprints. Past the mosque, past a house seemingly abandoned save for a lighted basement window, past the university Credit Union, past a motel with no cars in its snowthick lot. The street ended at the hospital parking lot, which stretched far and white and empty.


There are two kinds of winter nights. The winter night of snow still falling: the sky a false bright, dense snow clouds reflecting pink and orange city light, no chance of stars or moon. The snow falls thick, uncovered ears ache. And the winter night of snow fallen: the sky cleared, stars somehow more numerous. Silent and desolate, the Earth basks in old light. It is this second, exposed night that leaves me stricken. A Plutonian landscape, atmosphere thin, transparent. Outer space there, right there: that glassy, inhospitable womb of planets, stars, and dust.

It seems impossible that a rock as small as Pluto should have five moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Names suggesting myth and the underworld, even monstrosity—consonant names fixed in hard lines. Charon is over half the size of Pluto itself, and the bodies are sometimes considered a pair: Hades and his ferryman.


That winter, a feral colony of cats took shelter under the stairs outside my bedroom window; at night, I heard them fighting and fucking, though I could not tell the difference. I was sleeping with an astrophysics major who wrote poetry; he was an alcoholic, deeply depressed when sober. Antidepressants softened his erection, so he did not take them.

We sat in a bathtub of cold water across from each other, knees huddled against our chests, silent. The halfmoons under his eyes were tinged purple, his skin pale but hot. He slept rarely; unconscious, he often spoke as though awake. Snores rattled his bony chest. He was crazier than me, his sadness deeper and longer.

I am my mother: impassive, reluctant to address my life as a thing that has happened to me. A man strangled me nearly to death my junior year of college. I spent the next year’s winter remembering. The basement apartment became a tomb. I answered my mother’s calls, left the apartment
for classes. The astrophysicistpoet was quiet, his thin frame almost feminine. He satisfied, but did not threaten my body.


I could not shave my legs or look at my face in the mirror without thinking it frivolous, stupid even, to be human, when faroff stars burn and die, unnamed. Science tells us meaning does not exist outside the human brain—a terrible knowledge. Psychiatric drugs can alter the chemistry of the brain but cannot create a meaning that is not there. I took comfort in the concrete and the terrestrial: cold bathwater; orgasm; menstrual cramps; bony processes of knuckle, elbow, and knee.

I drank, and I drank, and I watched science documentaries. The idea of Pluto began to obsess me. A perfect, intact world—untainted by life, free of selfawareness.

The thought of suicide ran parallel to all others. Death seemed clean, seemed pure and Plutonian, safe. I no longer believed in the soul’s journey through space and knew in death I would not be met by my disappointed grandmother, my pedophile grandfather, my tabby cat. I wrote through the winter, took antidepressants, and the spring thaw found me alive beneath thick ice.


My first year of graduate school, D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths sits on my bookshelf between a cozy mystery lent to me by my mother and Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

Drawn in the same muted pencil, Hades and his captured queen Persephone stand under a ceiling of stalactites and glinting jewels, draped in funereal robes, the whites of their eyes prominent against ashen skin. Hades holds a forked staff; his face seems pained. Persephone endures—quiet, stoic. Unnoticed at first, the souls of the dead surround the unhappy couple—a hundred or more tiny specters, nearly invisible.

The book says, Sooner or later, all mortals came to Hades. Once inside his realm, they whirled about forever like dry leaves in a cold autumn wind.


Pluto follows the cerulean gas giant Neptune as an afterthought, both beyond and beneath us in directionless space. Mute rock, quiescent under layers of nitrogen ice. Poised at the periphery of our Sun’s grip.

I imagine Pluto as both god and geography. A vessel holding the swell of what I cannot know. I think of my father, dark and belowground; my mother, bright but distant.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will approach Pluto in 2015, with plans of flyby study. We will for the first time be privy to that guarded world, its dark contours illuminated.

Amelia Fowler lives in West Virginia. She writes about outer space and mental illness. Her essay “Space and Time” was included as a notable in Best American Essays 2015.

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