by Katherine Riegel

…It is colder now,
there are many stars,
we are drifting

—from “Epistle to be Left in the Earth” by Archibald MacLeish

Our eyes weakened by glowing screens, everything we saw was only seconds old. Even if the light in the sky was from stars already dead, at least they had once been alive. Centuries since we could see so many.

Winter marooned us, when the storms came and we were not prepared. Some of us fled south, as if that would help. There was nothing for it but to get in the ship and cast off.

Crows, jays, finches, sparrows, warblers, wrens, gulls, hawks—so many birds! There were experts among us to identify and sing to them, to draw them and feed them from little boxes in the garden. If only they could escape, fly out of the atmosphere and populate the universe with wings and feathers and song. Asteroid fields become flocks of space geese, calling in their wild voices, Follow.

In one of our old stories Orion was a hunter who boasted that he would kill every animal on the planet. That seemed impossible.

What we know now is how little we know.

Some of us chose to stay where we were. Some of us liked it better after the lights were gone, and everything got quiet.

Humans, humains, mennesker, menschen, emberek, humanos, manungsa, mmadu, moun, pathetice, tao, tangata, binadamu, bodau dynol, ihminen, ljudje…

There were too many of us, and we never valued what seemed plentiful. We thought multitudes meant infinite. Some thought science would save us. Some thought art would redeem us. Most learned weeping from their mothers. A few believed in magic.

We were always cutting things. We loved our earth, but like a disciplinarian father we thought punishment would improve it. We noticed the elms because they walked away into the mists in great swaths and disappeared. It was dramatic.

Eventually we came to question everything. Were we the observers, or the observed? The thinkers, or the thoughts? We were constantly trying to redefine real. The poets said only fingertips brushing the sensitive skin of the inside of an elbow mattered, only touch, word, kiss. It came to be widely believed that we were Something’s experiment, in which case the stars and the trees and the grass and the birds knew everything we wished to know.

It is too easy to lose hope. We only wish to spare you, to keep you from our own painful delusions. Despair feels like trying to breathe lead. Many of us couldn’t bear it.

What is the Something that oversees the experiment that is us? The earth itself? Our own thoughts and yearnings, twining together over the millennia, connecting us despite ourselves?

Wind as friend, wind as enemy. Those words dictated too much of our lives, waking and sleeping. What is enemy now that we are lost and lost, drifting, floating, unmoored? We are friend. We are friend.

So many strange things, out here. How did our little earth stand it, the cold and the solitude and the strangeness, the times and distances measured in trillions?

And it comes to this: void, vacuum, nothingness, it is still our sky. We cannot help but listen, and if we listen we will always hear something. Please, vastness, have a name. If you do not have your own, we will give you ours.

KATHERINE RIEGEL is the author of Letters to Colin Firth and two other books of poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brevity, The Offing, Orion, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is co-founder and poetry editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection.

Photo: “Milky Way” by Dennis Behm