God in the Sky
by An Owomoyela
“God in the Sky” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in March, 2011.
Three hours after the light flared into the sky, I finally got in touch with Dad. We were frantic, both talking at once: he said “But we don’t know anything yet” while I was saying “There are already theories on the internet;” I said “This isn’t the dark ages, this isn’t an omen” when he started laughing, saying “People are lining up at church already.” That was Tuesday.
Two hours after that, when I’d reached my grandfather, we spoke in similar breathless terms. After he’d invited me to his ranch home, though, just before he hung up, he said words I’d only heard before in pop politics.
Seventy minutes on the interstate took me to my grandfather’s. The light in the sky was indistinct – in daylight you could mistake it for a smudge of cloud, except it was too perfectly round and looked farther away than the blue sky. I pulled in on the gravel road, handling my car like the horses my mother loved to ride, and when I got it lined up by his old Chevy he was waiting for me on the wood porch with a grin that went up to his eyes. He was 78. His salt-and-pepper hair was giving way to salt and his dark face was laced with wrinkles, but he trotted down and opened my door for me. When we hugged, it felt like life took nothing out of him except the fat from his middle age and weight from his step.
“You can help me sort the lentils,” he said.
We both glanced up before we went in.
“Your father called,” my grandfather said, kicking off his sandals to walk barefoot on the red carpet. “He said you called him. What a kick. I think everyone in this family has called everyone else, but no one’s heard a peep from your mother. Have you talked to her?”
“She’s working on an education initiative in Monrovia,” I said. “Their networks went down. I got a really short email this morning to let me know she was alive, but other than that…”
“She’s probably out there, annoyed that she knows we’re worried,” my grandfather said. “She was always too independent for anyone, your mother. That’s why Paul couldn’t hang on to her. Come on.”
We headed into the kitchen to commit what my mother used to call atrocities against American cuisine: pizza topped with lentils and caramelized onions, rice on the side, bottles of peach homebrew pulled out from his fridge, and frozen grapes for dessert.
“I found,” he said, when we’d put the lentils on to simmer and retreated to his patio to watch the empty stable yard, “my old telescope hiding up in the attic, put away with your dad’s old schoolbooks. We should bring it down.”
“We should,” I agreed, though neither of us got up from our conversation until we went back in for our food.
My grandfather talked with his hands. He used to say “If you cut off my hands, I’d go mute!” Today all his gestures tended toward the sky, toward the pale half-dollar sitting opposite the moon. Over pizza, I finally asked.
“Are you converting to Islam?”
That surprised him. I reminded him of what he’d said on the phone, and he laughed. “Oh, that. I don’t know. I was in a state. I don’t know why I said it. I never really thought about converting back.”
“You didn’t think I was agnostic as a boy in Egypt, did you?” he chided. “I came over here and I decided to be American through and through. First that meant being Christian and owning a business. Then everyone became agnostic and I did too.”
I laughed. “You go with whatever religion’s in vogue?”
He feigned offense. “I’m easily convinced by articulate people.”
“And you’re meeting a lot of articulate Muslims here on the ranch?”
My grandfather gave me an annoyed look. That one wasn’t feigned. “No, of course not. As I said, I was in a state. It was a thing from childhood.” At that, the annoyance faded. “It’s an old man thing, Katri. One day you’ll get old and start reminiscing too.”
He tossed a grape at me. I ducked to catch it in my mouth, but it hit my chin and bounced off. My grandfather hopped to his feet.
“I’m going to pull down that telescope,” he said. “Then you’ll have to stay until the sun goes down.”
“I’ll drink all your beer and have to stay all night,” I told him.
“I’ll convert back to Islam just for you,” he called from the door. “To keep the evils of homebrew out of your hands.” And with that he vanished inside the house, and I was left wondering why the jibe turned sour in my ears.
We had to clean both lenses of the telescope, and setting it up took us until the sun was down. The base had to be screwed together, and most of the screws had gone missing. Of course, we found the screwdriver behind his entertainment center around the time the last colors of sunset were fading from the sky – it’d probably been there since he’d put the TV hutch together.
Always a gentleman, my grandfather made me take the first look. Though he also made me look at the light before anything else.
I don’t know what I expected; more powerful telescopes than this had already failed to reveal anything. Through the lens, the object was just diffuse light, like a flashlight shining through paper. I let out a breath and stepped back to let my grandfather see.
“It’s a bit of a disappointment.”
“Only you would say that about the most…” He waved at the night sky, taking the telescope. “What would you call it? Miraculous? Terrifying? Only you would say that about the most interesting thing up there.” He adjusted the focus. “What do you suppose it is?”
I leaned back. “Something new, probably,” I said. “Something no one’s invented a word for, yet.”
He laughed. “Well, what good is that? All the important things in life – love, birth, death, family – all those have had names for thousands and thousands of years. All these new things like virtual economies and carbon offsets? Those are only important in the day-to-day.”
“Yeah, we live day to day,” I pointed out. “Life’s day to day.”
“Katrina,” he said, looking at me. “You just remember that whatever happens out there is nothing compared to what happens down here,” he said, and patted his chest just above his heart.
“All right, gramps,” I said. “I’ll make a motivational poster with the light and that quote.”
“Good.” He grinned. “Market it. That’s my granddaughter, off to be an entrepreneur! I want a share in your profits.”
I chuckled. “Of course you do.”
It wasn’t late, but by then I was missing my bed and my girlfriend, and I’d had time to sober off the beer. I excused myself, and my grandfather walked me to the door. He kissed me on the cheek. “Give Josey a kiss for me!”
I laughed and told him I would.
MAYOR CALLS NIGHT-SKY OBJECT “GOD,” read the headline in the paper the next day. The bold pull quote said MAYOR MCMAHON OF SAN ANGELO, TEXAS, CAUSED AN UPROAR SATURDAY BY SAYING “THIS LIGHT IS CERTAIN PROOF OF GOD; IT MAY BE GOD IN HIS GLORY.”
I read it when Josey put her laptop down on the kitchen table in front of me. It was only seven and we were both up, both in robes, her with the morning’s first cup of coffee and me with a phone to my ear. Josey turned back to the window after handing off the laptop, her powder-blue robe looking softer in the early-morning light.
“Yeah,” I said into the mouthpiece, like I’d been saying any time my advisor let me get a word in edgewise. “No. Yeah, I understand. Yeah. I hope so too. Okay.” I counted on him running out of things to explain after a while, and after a while, he did. We hung up. “The research office is going on hiatus,” I told Josey, who looked back with the sort of bleary-eyed tired interest I used to get from my grandfather’s old dog. “The other assistant bailed. He doesn’t know if this is what he wants to be doing. Said he wanted to spend time with his mother.”
“Because the world is ending,” Josey said.
“Something like that. Dr. Greene says he’ll find something for me to do, keep me paid, but who knows what. Maybe loan me out to another department. Rain gagues in the Chihuahuan, or something. Trapping and tagging snipes.”
Josey rolled the mug between her hands, watching the reflections in the coffee, then shook her head. “Here.” She sashayed up to the table and slipped into the chair beside me. “I thought you’d be interested. There’s a science section. They say in twenty years…”
She reached across to click a link, calling up some Flash page blinking with layman’s statistics. I put away the phone and took a look at it – most of it was the same stuff I’d been reading for days; how the light had appeared, how many people had called it in to NASA, but there was some information I hadn’t seen before. I read through most of it with detached interest until something gave me pause. “Whoa.”
“Nelly?” Josey said. I grabbed a stray envelope and looked across the table for a writing implement, but nothing was in evidence. “Yeah. In twenty years? It’s supposed to fill the night sky.”
The way she said that, it was almost a question. Like maybe she hadn’t read that right. I frowned at the screen. “You have a pencil?”
“I hid a few in your robe pockets,” Josey said. I looked down and rummaged in one: sure enough, there were a pair of golf pencils waiting for me. Josey leaned over, brushing hair off her shoulder. “What is it?”
“Arc seconds,” I said, and started a line of calculations. Josey rested her chin on my shoulder, hanging on the movement of the lead. I finished the calculation and re-read it before answering. “Okay. Yeah, if it keeps growing the way it is. I mean, the Earth turns, it’s gonna rise and set, but the math’s right. Horizon to horizon.”
Josey pulled away and looked down into her mug, running her thumb around and around the circumference. “What happens to us then?”
I paused in the middle of putting the pencil back. “What makes you think anything will happen?”
Josey shrugged and mumbled something indistinct.
I drummed the pencil against the table. “Actually, what makes you think that’s gonna happen?”
“What, the news?” she asked.
“Josey,” I said, turning on my chair to tilt my head at her. “Name one thing in the universe that just grows and keeps growing forever. I mean, other than the universe.” I dug the pencilpoint into the envelope. “It flared already, and now it’s slowed down. Stars explode and then they collapse again. You get things like gamma bursts flashing up, making a lot of noise, and then they vanish. It’s not gonna keep growing; it’s not gonna fill the night sky.”
Josey shrugged. She raised her cup and downed the rest of the coffee in a go, setting it down hard and giving me a defiant look at the face I’d pulled.
”Your lab isn’t happening. I don’t have class until this afternoon. You know what? Let’s go back to bed.”
I rolled my neck. “Josey…”
“Just snuggle!” Josey protested, and pushed her laptop closed. I closed my eyes. “The world might be ending.”
“It’s not ending.”
“Just come be with me,” Josey said.
I opened my eyes again. “It’s not God and it’s not gonna end the world,” I said, but I got up and followed Josey into the bedroom anyway.
I usually tried to make it out to my grandfather’s ranch once a month or so, but I drove up later that day. A two-hour round trip wasn’t bad, with my lab cancelled and me with nothing else to do. Not as bad as the half-hour spent waiting for a gas pump, or the clogged street in front of the grocery store where everyone was buying water and canned food. My grandfather and I followed form from last time, sitting out back and watching the sky after we’d eaten, waiting for it to get dark enough to look through the telescope again. Except for the almost-imperceptible growth, the light looked the same as it had the day before, and the day before that.
“Everything up there seems little,” my grandfather said, blocking the light with his thumb. “See there?” He waggled his thumb at me. “Only as big as the deck lamp.”
I snorted. “It’s a lot further away, gramps.”
“And how far would that be? Hmm?” He tilted his head at me, smile roguish. “You being the expert.”
I stared at him for longer than I should have. He was joking, though it struck me that he was right. I was the first generation on my father’s side to go into science. My grandfather had come from Egypt and gone into business, and my father went into history and taught. I was the authority.
I put my drink aside and pulled him up from his chair. “Here. Look at this.”
I pulled him to the spot on the patio which gave us the best view of the night sky, uncut by trees or the line of the roof.
“Things look smaller away, the further away they are, right?”
“Yes; I know that,” he said. I searched among the stars for a certain speck, and pointed up toward it.
“You could line up twenty-two Earths in a row, and that’s how wide across Jupiter is,” I told him. “And look. Up there, in the sky, it’s only that big. Okay?”
He nodded. “Very far away,” he agreed.
I searched out another point in the night sky and guided him to it, describing the line through a constellation until I knew he saw the same thing I did.
“Jupiter orbits the Sun. Think Jupiter’s big compared to the Earth? The Sun’s five Jupiters across. And all of our planets and their orbits describe a solar system that make the sun look like a marble in a kiddie pool, and the space between solar systems makes those solar systems look like… I don’t know.” I was running out of metaphor. “The galaxy is big, gramps. We don’t have words for how big it is. But that pinprick, right there? That’s not a star. It’s a galaxy.”
I heard him take a breath.
I shivered, and looped my arm through the crook of his elbow. I’d never had a sense of agoraphobia until taking astronomy classes in undergrad, but the universe yawned open on every side of the Earth. It seemed designed for something bigger. All the planets and all the stars were grains of sand scattered in an ocean, and that halfdollar light was supposed to fill the night sky.
“We can calculate how far away that galaxy is,” I said, and my voice was soft enough I didn’t know if he’d hear it. “But we can’t work out that light. Sometimes we can tell how close a star in a galaxy is, but we can’t see stars in that. Or we can tell how redshifted a galaxy is, more red the further away, but that light’s not redshifted at all, not that we can tell. That means maybe it’s not part of our expanding universe. It’s not something…”
I trailed off.
We turned. The light was small, but far larger than the stars.
“The worst thing is, we’ve seen galaxies pass in front of it,” I said. “The light is farther away than that galaxy.” I pointed back to the speck that looked like a star. “And it’s still that big in the sky.”
I leaned into my grandfather, and he held onto my arm. our fingers were tight.
“I’m wondering what the Koran would say,” my grandfather murmured.
“It’s just something new,” I said. “It’s something scientific. Like a nova. You don’t go to the Koran for that, you build a better telescope.”
My grandfather exhaled, then patted my hand. He was still watching the light. He was probably thinking about the Koran, still, just like all those people had rushed to church on Tuesday morning.
Mayor McMahon had said it. This was the thing people were calling God.
“I’m going to go see her,” Dad said over the phone.
Her in this case was Mom. Mom, at this time, was still in Monrovia. Monrovia, at the moment, was still trapped in communications brownouts.
I was pretty sure dad had gone insane.
“News is still coming out of Liberia,” I said. “We’d know if anything horrible happened.”
“That’s not the point,” Dad said.
I was pretty sure the world had gone insane.
Outside the window, my next-door neighbor was cleaning out the shed I’d never seen him use. A rusted-out lawnmower and cans of old paint were scattered on his brown lawn, and earlier I’d seen him carrying a box labeled “EMERGENCY GENERATOR.”
“I never did speak to your mother as much as I should have after the divorce,” Dad went on. “We promised each other we’d still be a part of each other’s lives, and we haven’t been fulfilling that promise.”
“That doesn’t mean you just hop on the first transatlantic flight,” I argued.
“Maybe it should,” Dad said. “Say what you will, but this thing–”
“–this thing has put everything in perspective. There’s enough we don’t have control over. This, I do.”
Or maybe everyone’s just going to use that light as an excuse to panic, I thought. It was like Y2K all over again, except along with stocking up on emergency candles and nonperishable food, everyone dropped what they were doing and went to visit everyone they knew. “Dad, you have a job, and projects, and you can’t just–”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
I dug my knuckles into the bridge of my nose. “Dad. You can’t just pack up and move to Liberia.”
“They say that thing in the sky can’t exist, too,” Dad countered. “Maybe ‘can’t’ doesn’t mean what we used to think it did.”
“Dad, that’s not even remotely the same thing.”
Dad didn’t care.
“Look, people are on the news taking loans out for domestic flights,” I tried. “An international–”
“So I’ll have to pay a little more,” he said. This from a man who’d haggled for a week on the price of my car. “I’ll manage. Maybe I’ll get a one-way ticket and wait for things to calm down.”
“Okay,” I said. “Right. And things will calm down, because nothing is happening.“
“Katrina,” he said, with the tone he used when Mom harried him too hard.
That’s when I knew I’d lost the argument.
I was lying face-down on the bed when Josey came home, and when she joined me I rolled straightaway into her arms and told her the whole thing, or what I thought was the whole thing. My research partner was off having a crisis of academia, and Dad was off to Africa. And my grandfather might convert to Islam. “Because of what? Because there’s a bit of the universe we don’t understand. If people knew how many things we didn’t understand, we’d never get anything done.”
Josey listened and made comforting noises until I stopped talking. Then she pursed her lips, considered, and said “Do you need me to stay around for a bit?”
I stared at Josey the way people must have stared at that light when it flared into the sky. “What do you mean, ‘stay’?”
“I mean stay, stay,” Josey said. “I thought – you know. I know the world isn’t ending, but with everything going on–”
“You’re leaving?” I asked.
“I’m coming back,” she said, with a look of reproach. “But I want to see my family in Tennessee. That’s all right, isn’t it? Just for a week or so? You’ve got your grandpa so close by.”
I fought off the strangling feeling in my throat. “Just a week?” I said, because I couldn’t tell her it wasn’t okay. Everyone was going home to see their families. I just wanted to stay there, to complete my research, to leave the light to astronomers. Every day some organization put up another grant, another contest, another prize; we’d figure it out because science figured things out, because science, as much as nature, abhorred a vacuum.
Josey leaned over and kissed me on the forehead, and I felt small beside her mass. I wanted that mass to stay right where I could hang onto it, a planet embracing its sun’s gravity. “I’ll bring you back some real channel catfish.”
I showed up at my grandfather’s house with a backpack in the front passenger seat, the radio tuned to NPR, and a tension in my jaw I couldn’t relax through gum or massage or willpower. I hadn’t even called first; my grandfather wasn’t out front waiting for me, and it took a minute before he opened the door. I just stood there and pounded, smelling the crisp night, feeling the breezes on the back of my neck, trying not to scream at the slowly growing light in the sky.
When the door opened I stood there for a moment with my fist raised. My grandfather and I both looked at each other, surprised; I suppose I’d thought that he had disappeared, too. But he was there, he laughed, he ushered me inside. “Come to stay the night?”
He took my backpack, closing the door behind me.
I was drifting toward the living room when I heard voices talking. I hesitated – I thought he had someone over – but it was only one voice, and it wasn’t pitched like a conversation, it was pitched like a lecture. I turned back to him.
“What is that?”
“Hmm?” My grandfather looked genuinely surprised. “Oh, that? It’s one of those internet radio stations. I don’t know if it’s any good yet. Well.” He laughed as he took my backpack, tucking it into the hall closet between a pair of dusty boots and the old telescope. “I’ve been listening to it all evening. I didn’t realize how far my Arabic’s slipped.”
I could feel my face fall, and when he straightened up again I wrapped my arms around him. He hugged back, but not for long before he ducked his head to nudge my forehead with his own. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Dad’s going to Liberia. Don’t ask me how he booked a flight to Liberia. I still haven’t talked to Mom. Our lab shut down. Even Josey’s gone. I know, I sound fourteen, but everyone is leaving me…”
My grandfather showed his palms. “I’m not going anywhere, Katrina.”
“You’re going–” I bit off the end of the sentence. How stupid was it to finish the thought, You’re going back to Islam?
He reached over, rubbing my shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Come have some coffee and we’ll talk about this.”
I put myself together and motioned for him to go on into the kitchen. I followed him, taking a seat at the counter and kicking my heels against the rung of the stool. Childish, yes, but it helped.
I watched my grandfather go through the motions of making coffee just as he always had: adding in cardamom and cinnamon to the burr grinder, pouring the beans without bothering to measure them. It was the same. He was the same as he’d been when I was a child, when we’d lived in the city, when he’d made that coffee every morning before school and enticed me to drink some. It’ll start off your day right, Katri.
“Will you be going on the Hajj?” I asked. It was the only sensible question about Islam I knew enough to ask, aside from What about me and Josey?, and I wasn’t ready to ask that yet.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think I should jump in with both feet, do you? It wouldn’t be right to go on the Hajj only to think in the middle, ‘oh, no, this isn’t right for me.’”
“But you never thought Islam was right for you before, did you?” I pressed. “Christianity either. And you raised me and Dad outside of the church. Any church.”
My grandfather breathed out through his mouth, turning to pour the coffee. “I never in my life felt terribly religious. But this light,” he said; “it’s probably the sort of thing that changes things forever–”
“No!” I jumped at the sound of my own voice. “Man probably did this at the first eclipse, too. They looked up and saw something eating the sun and they thought it was the end of the world. But it wasn’t. We don’t understand everything. So what! We’ll learn. And the world will keep changing and we’ll learn to deal with that, but everyone is acting like it’s the end of the world!”
My grandfather looked at me. Then he looked down into his coffee. I was reminded of Josey; of her asking, What happens to us then?
I wanted to know what was happening to us now.
”Katri,” he said, after a moment. “These things everyone is doing. They’re important.”
I started to object, but he didn’t let me.
“So what do you want everyone to do, when the world changes up around them. Hm? Dig their heels in like you’re doing?”
“I’m not–” I said. And then, “I’m just not panicking.”
“You’re dealing with the light very well,” he conceded, and drank from his mug.
But the light, for all that it had sent Dad to Liberia and Josey to Tennessee, hadn’t sent me seventy minutes down the interstate to drink coffee in my grandfather’s kitchen. That had been Josey, it had been Dad, it had been the people buying gas and generators like they’d need to dig in tomorrow for a white night sky – maybe – in twenty years.
“You think I’m acting fourteen, don’t you?”
My grandfather set his coffee down. “No! No, I just think you’re in over your head.” He gestured, trying to paint an entire world with his hands. “If God gives you a reason to remember what’s important in life, take it. That’s all. And if everyone else takes it, that’s wonderful. No one has to act like the world’s on fire.”
I studied his face for any hint of rapture. “Do you think it’s God, then?”
No rapture. Just a smile, expanding across his face. “I meet a lot of articulate agnostics out here on the ranch, Katri,” he jibed. “So no; I think a very un-Islamic thing. I think God is what we make of Him.”
We went out back to the patio. My grandfather carried the telescope despite my attempts to help, and he set it up in the corner with the best view. He let me take the first look, straight at the unexplained God in the sky.
“Has it changed at all?” my grandfather asked.
I squinted through the lens. The light was as inscrutable as ever.
“I wonder what we look like from that far away,” I said, pulling away. “If they could even see the light from our galaxy. Or maybe you could see the light from our universe. From the big bang.” I shook my head to keep myself from shaking, but the shiver was gone in a moment anyway. “I wonder if the big bang looked like that.”
My grandfather put his hand on my back, rubbing slow circles and meaningless patterns. “Think we’ll find out what it is?”
“Give it twenty years,” I answered. Two decades, and it would have filled the night sky or faded away. Or just sat there, letting the world learn how to deal with it.
“Hmm,” my grandfather agreed.
We watched for a few more minutes in silence before he turned to go back inside. After a while, I followed him. The light stayed behind, waiting in the cold night sky.More stories like this by topic: Asexual authors, Authors of color, Characters of color, Islam, LGB characters, Neutrois authors, Polyamorous authors