In the early evening of February 1959 my father led me up a path holding my hand, winding through red rock to the top of a flat mesa in Southwest Utah to look at stars in the night sky. We were very cold at first, holding heavy coats in our arms, field glasses and water in small packs slung over our shoulders like men. The trail was dark and father told me to not turn our flashlights on.
'It will hurt your night vision,' he said. Father said light affected the eyes and made it hard to see in the dark.
Large flat red rock spread out across the mesa top and we sat and pulled our packs off and held them in front of us to pull out our water bottles. A slice of amber moon hung in the low western sky and one star was near it big and bright.
'That's Venus,' my father said. 'It is always close to the sun or the moon'. My father tried to explain how planets, the moon, sun and the elliptic were like a big arc in the sky, and these celestial bodies followed that curving line across the heavens every night. I didn't understand why but I believed my father.
'All the other stars, they do not move. The planets, the sun and moon, they move along this path,' he said. Another star was directly overhead, a small dot of faint light in the fading blue sky that was beginning to blacken.
‘Put on your coat,’ he said. I wrapped the thick coat around my shoulders, but I didn’t button it yet. He put his hand on my arm and kept it there. I thought that we must be the only two people on earth, the way he held his hand on my arm, feeling his hand warm the coat and my skin that was cold everywhere else.
‘Sometimes, you can see a star fall to the earth,’ he said. “It will make a long white streak, then it is gone.”
‘What happens to the star when it falls to the earth?’ I asked.
‘It flames up. It is really a large rock. But nothing is left of it. Once in a very long while, hundreds, thousands, millions of years, a big one will hit the earth. There is a crater.”
There was a big crater in Arizona, he said. Maybe someday we could go see it, I said and father said ‘maybe’, and squeezed my arm. A million years was too much for me to think about, so I looked up and saw another star, a pink dot high up in the right part of the sky. I wondered how the star knew when it was supposed to come down to the earth and if it had a clock that it would see, but I didn’t think about that very much that night. My father had his shoulder next to mine and his hand was off of my arm now and he had the field glasses out of the case and he was looking through them, off to the horizon that was fully dark.
‘Do you know how many stars are in the sky?’ I said.
‘More than we can count.’
‘More than a thousand?’
‘Oh yes, many more than a thousand.’
‘More than a million?’
‘More than a million.’
‘A billion, billion,’ he said. ‘A billion, times a billion. Maybe more.’
He held the field glasses for me to take and I looked through the small end, my father telling me to move the wheel to adjust what I could see. I turned the knob, back and forth, and the sky filled with tiny points of light I couldn’t see without the glasses. I took a deep breath, held it in, and the glasses steadied, all the dots holding their places in the sky. I couldn’t even count the stars that were in the view of the field glasses, and I knew my father was right, that there were too many to count. The glasses were heavy and I gave them back to my father, who set them on the flat rock next to him and whispered in my ear.
‘Tomorrow, I have to go away. For a while. I want you to know I love you and you can always come here and look at these stars. I will be there with you, if you think of me.’
‘Where are you going?’
Father didn’t say anything for a moment. He had his hand up to his mouth and he was coughing, I thought. Like he had a cold. Maybe he is sick, I thought.
‘Father, are you sick?’
He said no, like he was having trouble saying it. His voice was strange sounding. His breathing was heavy.
The sound that his voice was making, the trouble he was having saying words, made me not want to ask any more questions. He put his arm around my shoulders and gripped hard with his fingers, and they dug in and he held them there.
He had never gone away before. I didn’t want him to go now, and there was no way to tell him that I didn’t want him to go, that wouldn’t force him to speak, and I knew he didn’t want to do it.
More stars were out now and for a while, maybe a half an hour, maybe more, we were quiet. We passed the glasses back and forth between us, pointing to one star, or one place in the sky or another, not saying anything, and he would touch my hand.
He didn’t talk any more that night after telling me he was going to go away. Not hearing him talk anymore made me feel scared and small and not the way we had felt like men when we hiked in on the winding path through the red rock to the top of the mesa. Men, together, working our way through a dusty trail on our way somewhere, somewhere important, and now I felt scared and I didn’t want to feel scared, but I did. My stomach felt empty and hollow and heavy and I could feel every breath, not like usual when I didn’t need to think about breathing, but now I did. The way my father was being quiet, I didn’t want to ask him any more about why he was going away. I knew that he didn’t want to tell me.
It was the first time I felt like I couldn’t ask him something, the first time that he had not answered me. I was like a little boy again, maybe I always would be, after the night with the moon and the elliptic and sun, planets, Venus. All in just one night, everything feeling so good underneath a dark sky on red rock and now it felt empty, even with billions and billions of stars blinking overhead, even ones I knew I couldn’t even see. They were there, they were up there, and someday some of them would streak to the earth and fall into the ground and make great craters.
But not tonight.