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The Great Conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn – December 21, 2020

I hug my elbows tight into my sides and slide my hands as deep into my pockets as they'll go. It's freezing tonight.

“I think it should be acclimated by now. We can start with the globular cluster in Lepus if you want,” he says.

I laugh. “You always start with the globular cluster in Lepus.”

It's an eight-inch Dobsonian telescope, no frills, nothing fancy. Except the tube, which is a deep metallic red and glitters softly in the corner of our bedroom when it's not under the faint smudge of the Milky Way. It's the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn tonight – the closest they've been in 400 years. To everyone else, they'll appear to touch. To us, they'll be keeping a cordial distance, like two strangers queuing at the grocery store.

“How much longer til we can see the conjunction?” I ask. My teeth knock against each other in a hushed, sustained drum roll.

“Maybe an hour? It's still pretty light in the west.”

The western horizon is toothed and uneven like the edges of a ripped piece of paper. Just above the mountains the sky is a melted creamsicle, and above that an expanse of sapphire studded with those first, brave stars. Our breath swirls around us in fleeting clouds, but the sky is otherwise clear and the stars unblinking. That's what you want, I've learned. Twinkling stars might be poetic, but the quiet ones – the ones who stare back at you with unyielding intensity – those indicate ideal atmospheric conditions.

“Good conditions tonight,” he says.

He swivels the telescope into position. Lepus, the hare, hides near the southern horizon at Orion's feet. Canis Major snarls at its side. I shiver, imagining the hare, forever suspended at the panicked edge of attack. The springs on the telescope's base creak as he adjusts and checks, adjusts and checks, adjusts and checks again. He nods, steps back from the telescope, and gestures to the eyepiece.

The globular cluster fills the field of view, countless points of white and yellow and pink light suspended in a creamy cosmic stew. It slowly travels across the eyepiece until it disappears entirely, consumed by the black void defining the limits of the optics. I lift my naked eyes to the sky and try to make out the cluster unaided, but it's gone. An apparition that inhabits a separate plane of existence contained by the telescope.

The Perseid Meteor Shower – August 12, 2010

Before I knew what Messier objects or globular clusters were, there were the Perseids. We made the “bug box” that year – a ridiculous enclosure of lath and screen designed to protect us from the onslaught of hungry insects. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, hand in hand, we sprawled across grass slicked with evening condensation, the screen rubbing our outside elbows and hovering just over our noses. The sky was thick with frustrated mosquitoes and the stars warbled above. Not ideal atmospheric conditions.

“When is it going to start?” I had asked him.

“I'm not sure,” he answered.

The dim glow of a waxing crescent moon had just peaked over the pines, sending fractured blue light across our legs. Spring peepers were singing from the creek down back and the screech owls' rejoinder provided a haunting, hymnal chorus. We laid there an hour, waiting for the meteor shower to streak across the sky, watching that faceted sapphire light color the shadows. The Perseids forgot to show up, but we didn't care.

Comet PanSTARRS, C/2011 L4 – March 10, 2013

The bug box only survived a few seasons. It provided cover for our hens one year while we undertook repairs to their coop, but was effectively obsoleted by the telescope. As Comet PanSTARRS C/2011 L4 tore a run in the gossamer of the evening sky, it lay moldering under the last of the winter snow drifts. But the telescope was new – a bright, shiny thing. He pulled me in toward it, warm hand lingering on the small of my back.

“If you squint really hard you might be able to see the ion tail,” he said. He tucked an unruly piece of hair behind my ear as I bent over the eyepiece. I squinted really hard. The nucleus of the comet fluoresced an eerie blue-green and a puff of gas whispered its trajectory across the Andromeda galaxy.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“Pretty cool,” I nodded.

“We could try to find the globular cluster in Lepus again,” he suggested, swiveling the telescope south. The elusive group of stars, bound together by its own gravity, had become his white whale.

“Or we could just watch the comet,” I suggested. “The globular cluster isn't going anywhere.”

We stood, shoulder grazing shoulder, hip grazing hip, hands in pockets. Heads craned upward, unaided eyes straining. We watched C/2011 L4, like a fuzzy star, move imperceptibly across a field of inky black. A transitory, fleeting thing that would be gone before the first buds opened on the beech trees.

Trifecta: Super Blue Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse – January 31, 2018

The night sky of the northern hemisphere hibernates through deep winter, and telescopes with it. Favored nebulae and star clusters and supernova remnants dip below the horizon with promises to return, resplendent, come spring. Only dramatic, generational events rouse the telescope from its slumber, and the trifecta offered that opportunity. It showed no sign of upset at having been prematurely awoken and readily shook off a film of grey dust dulling its glossy red tube.

We shoveled bare a landing pad for the telescope, snow arcing around us in untidy piles. The pines creaked and swayed overhead as he considered the merits of a moon filter – the internet had been divided on that point. Turning the telescope south pre-umbra, I watched him deftly trace a line from Orion's feet downward toward the globular cluster in Lepus.

“Got it,” he said. “First try.”

His hand hovered over my waist as he offered the eyepiece, stepping away from the telescope and I toward it. Two bodies pulled apart by opposing gravity. As the moon rose and darkened and retreated in the shadow of the earth, too large to be contained by its field of view, we stepped back from the telescope. Shoulders cold, hips turned, hands fidgeting hems and zippers.

The Great Conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn – December 21, 2020

The sapphire bleeds downward toward the horizon, consuming the creamsicle in a final, yawning gulp. There are no mountains now, only little silver pegs scattered across the sky. Above the western horizon, Jupiter and Saturn appear to embrace, individual features dissolving into one glowing point of light. When I squint, they are just barely distinct – the two celestial fingers of God and Adam on the Sistine chapel, stretching to meet.

He trains the telescope on the two gas giants and yields the eyepiece to me. I remember the first time he showed me Saturn – how very like my childhood View-Master it felt. A perfect slide in miniature, rings and striations, even a coterie of white pinprick moons. She's there now, Saturn. Jupiter too. But they're not embracing – not even reaching for each other. The telescope magnifies the infinity between them as they drift, slowly, into the black void defining the limits of the optics. First Jupiter, then Saturn, until the field of view contains only empty space.

“Do you see it?” he asks, keeping a cordial distance, like a stranger queuing at the grocery store.

“Yeah,” I choke, “I see it.”

January 28, 2022 18:24

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35 comments

Jennifer Chan
09:00 Feb 06, 2022

Wow! I'm blown away! You have a beautiful command of language, and I love how you're able to tell such a complete story in short, poignant bursts. Reading it once isn't enough!

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Anna Nonymous
15:25 Feb 06, 2022

Thank you so much for your kind words, Jennifer! I am such a fan of your writing - getting this feedback from you was such a thrill this morning.

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Alex Sultan
19:30 Feb 03, 2022

Very talented prose, Hannah! I like your ability to show and not tell, and I think your dialogue(while sparse in this) is really well done. Like Katharine's comment, I'm lost when it comes to astronomy, but you explained everything in a simple to understand and poetic language. Well done!

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Anna Nonymous
19:47 Feb 03, 2022

Thanks so much for your kind words, Alex! I'm glad you were able to muddle through the cosmic jargon and am always so grateful for your feedback.

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Cindy Strube
01:56 Feb 03, 2022

Hannah, this story is a beautifully woven tapestry. Your lyrical wording suits the majesty of the night sky! It is, like an old Irish ballad, lovely and melancholy. I appreciate that you were careful in researching the astronomy. (I’m also a research fiend!) By the way, I agree with others that “The Iron Door” should have won its contest. That was another superb blending of story aspects!

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Anna Nonymous
03:17 Feb 03, 2022

Thank you so much for your kind words, Cindy! An Irish ballad?! I will gladly take that compliment! You've just about made my day. I had so much fun writing Iron Door. I honestly had zero expectations, so I'm just so pleased to have shortlisted. Also, I love your profile pic! One April Fool's we put googly eyes on all the produce and it just gives me the giggles 😁

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Cindy Strube
05:06 Feb 03, 2022

Such fun! Three or four years ago we harvested several tomatoes with proboscises (probosci?😛). I couldn’t resist taking photos and adding virtual googly eyes! I think I’ve used all of them in profiles.

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Boutat Driss
08:01 Feb 01, 2022

How a human brain can imagine this? I loved it we donne!

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Anna Nonymous
20:27 Feb 01, 2022

Thanks so much for reading, Boutat. I'm glad you enjoyed! My brain, well, it's got all kinds of wild stuff going on in there!

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Zack Powell
23:53 Jan 31, 2022

I've read this twice now, Hannah (the first time for the story itself, the second time to really absorb your language and word choice), and it still holds up. The imagery in this piece is phenomenal, and I love the idea of the Great Conjunction being a metaphor for what's going on between the two main characters. Good stuff all around. P.S.: My favorite part was the repetition of the "grocery store" line at the end. I'm a huge sucker for lines being used at the beginning of stories and then finding their way back into the narrative close to...

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Anna Nonymous
00:15 Feb 01, 2022

Thanks so much for your kind words, Zach! The grocery store line was the very first one I wrote. Sometimes it works out that way. And I really like that device too! Some of my favorite stories have used it, so I'm glad my attempt worked for you!

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17:21 Jan 31, 2022

This is incredibly beautiful. I don't know much at all about astronomy but it was still perfectly accessible to me. The language is so precise and yet so poetic. I liked it so much I read it twice.

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Anna Nonymous
17:34 Jan 31, 2022

Katharine this comment just made my day. I am so glad you enjoyed it, and I'm relieved it was accessible. Thank you so much for taking the time to read (twice!) and for your kind feedback :)

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Amanda Lieser
06:07 Jan 31, 2022

Hi Hannah! The first time I ever read astronomy in a piece of literature was A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. I was instantly enchanted by the way that romance could blossom beneath the stars and I felt that you captured that theme in this piece, too! I really love how you created and built intimacy between the characters while educating the reader about the way the stars and planets were interacting in the universe. You blended the drama and the scientific knowledge perfectly. Thank you very much for writing this piece. If you’d be in...

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Anna Nonymous
17:39 Jan 31, 2022

Amanda, thank you so much for reading and for your kind words! While I'm definitely a fan of star gazing and astronomy, I ended up having to do a TON of research to make sure this was scientifically accurate. For instance, what moon phase occurred during each scene? Which celestial bodies are viewable when? I wanted to make sure I recorded the science with verity, but it's so easy to overwhelm the story with those details. I'm glad that for you, at least, that wasn't the case! I will gladly hop over to "The Sandman Ball" and let you know wha...

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Amanda Lieser
18:02 Jan 31, 2022

Hi Hannah, MAJOR MAJOR props to you for doing serious research. I love hearing that writers are learning and discovering new aspects of the world because of their drive to create!!! Once again, a great piece!!

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Thom Brodkin
04:48 Jan 31, 2022

As I read this I was reminded of Where the Crawdads Sing. Your writing has that kind of detail and flair. Your are a painter and words are your colors. Your stories, like a masterpiece, are not to be merely seen, they are to be experienced. The last line is so short and yet so full. It is the line that makes the story. You are definitely a palindrome, but oh so much more. Great work. I look forward to hearing you on the podcast.

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Anna Nonymous
17:41 Jan 31, 2022

Oh wow! Absolute highest compliment, Lee! I loved that book - the words were so pretty they about made me cry. So I can't tell you how much it means for you to draw that comparison. I'm so glad you enjoyed this, and again, thank you SO much. Made my day.

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Benny Regalbuto
02:25 Jan 31, 2022

I knew I'd love this story as soon as I read this line: "My teeth knock against each other in a hushed, sustained drum roll." It would've been so easy to just write "My teeth chatter," but you went above and beyond with the sensory detail—and took similar care with the rest of your story. Lovely work.

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Anna Nonymous
04:32 Jan 31, 2022

Thank you so much, Benny. I'm so glad you appreciated that moment. I think we all have little lines or phrases in our writing that are especially precious to us, and that was one of mine in this story. Glad you loved it :)

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Howard Halsall
02:01 Jan 31, 2022

Hello Hannah, I loved reading this story for many reasons. It was intriguing because it was both deceptively simple and yet complex at the same time. The contrast of bodies in close proximity and their celestial counterparts divided by infinite space was a wonderful idea and a subtle allusion to that delicate distance between thought and intimacy. In my opinion you made it sizzle with the measured and sublime tension of an untethered electrical cable dangling above a swimming pool. I liked your descriptions, for example; “My teeth knock agai...

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Anna Nonymous
02:25 Jan 31, 2022

Thanks so much for taking the time to read, Howard, and for this thoughtful comment. I'm so glad it worked for you. I know sometimes these deceptively "simple" stories can fall flat, and I always feel some relief when people are receptive!

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Howard Halsall
02:28 Jan 31, 2022

It worked so well, just keep going in that direction:)

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Kendall Defoe
15:06 Jan 30, 2022

As a lover of astronomy, I love this one. And I love the distance these characters can't cross as they jump through moments in their lives (another great touch). Same planet; different worlds? 🌎 🔭

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Anna Nonymous
17:21 Jan 30, 2022

Thanks so much for your kind words, Kendall. I'm so glad you enjoyed this. I always worry when I dive into something technical or jargon-y that it might not appeal to a more general population, but I'm hoping the human moments in this make it plenty accessible.

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08:00 Jan 30, 2022

Wow Hanna, this blew me away! Your words painted pictures of such heart-breaking beauty it made me both sad and inspired at the same time. It also triggered a kind of cosmic loneliness as throughout both celestial and human bodies came together briefly before drifting inexorably away again...'To everyone else they'll appear to touch, to us they'll be keeping a cordial distance, like two strangers queuing at a grocery store; ' The telescope magnifies the infinity between them, as they drift, slowly into the black void...'His hand hovered ov...

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Anna Nonymous
15:05 Jan 30, 2022

Scoop, you are just way too kind. Thanks for giving me the warm and fuzzies this morning. I love LOVE Carl Sagan (I dressed up as him for Halloween one year after a rough haircut - resplendent in turtleneck and corduroy) and I was really inspired by him for this story. As he says (as only he could say): "The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself."

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20:26 Jan 30, 2022

Amen, Sister!

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23:44 Jan 29, 2022

I really liked your story and I know nothing about astronomy at all. I liked the description of the stars. I love looking up at the stars and living in the city, I don't often get a good view. Thanks for sharing your story. I appreciate your kind review of my story thanks!

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Anna Nonymous
23:48 Jan 29, 2022

Thanks so much for reading, Kathryn! I'm so glad you were able to enjoy the descriptions of the stars - especially if you aren't able to enjoy them in the city.

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Deidra Lovegren
22:41 Jan 29, 2022

Another intellectually intriguing story -- with sweetness sprinkled throughout. How do I love this? Let me count the stars :) On a side note, any chance you'd like to come on the podcast? Russell Norman (from Sydney) and I interview writers from around the globe. We'd love to discuss your reading and writing journey :) https://www.readlotswritelots.com/wp/episodes/

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Anna Nonymous
22:55 Jan 29, 2022

Awww thanks so much Deidra. I'm glad you enjoyed it. This one was hard! I don't know why, but the more open-ended prompts really throw me for a loop. And I'd love to be on your podcast!

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Deidra Lovegren
23:04 Jan 29, 2022

Great! This is my website: https://deidrawhittlovegren.com/ Email me at lovegren.deidra@gmail.com for the details. We're booked into mid-March, but we'll find a suitable time and date for all.

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Silva Fox
02:41 Jan 29, 2022

I love this story Hannah! I love the stars, and this really touched my heart!

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Anna Nonymous
02:00 Jan 30, 2022

Thanks so much for reading, Silva! I really appreciate it. And I'm glad it touched your heart :)

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