Luis Katigbak exclusively shares an excerpt from his latest book, ‘Dear Distance.’
I am sitting in the darkness of the Planetarium, alone. I am 10.
This cannot be a memory. The Planetarium only plays to crowds, usually crowds of uninterested schoolchildren, sticky with sweat and noisy with exposure to the world outside their usual walls. Its stars and planets wheel for nothing less, and rarely anything more.
I’m waiting for the program to begin. It seems to be taking a long time. I can hear myself breathing. I shift my weight in my seat, stretch my neck by looking to the left and then to the right. I try to tilt my head so I can look straight up but I am too short; the seat’s back is in my way. I can barely make out the shapes of the other seat-backs, empty, all around me. I am not uncomfortable. I wonder if my grandmother knows where I am. I hope she is not worried.
I am outside, in the hallway with the exhibits. I don’t remember leaving my seat in the dark theater. The hallway seems too bright. When my eyes adjust, I see a young man and a young woman outside the dome’s doors, just about to enter. They are laughing; the woman is pretty, with dark wavy hair. She has never been to the Planetarium, never seen the show. She was sick the day all her classmates went, years ago. He has rented the entire place for them on a Saturday, so they can watch simulated night skies and a galaxy turning, and hold hands and talk in hushed voices in the dark. They enter and I do not follow them.
It is raining outside. I can smell the rain from here.
I am standing in front of the great machine that casts the images on the roof of the Planetarium. It looks much like it does in the pictures. It occurs to me that there are machines whose purpose you can divine right away just from looking at them, even if they are motionless: bulldozers, cranes — you can infer actions like lifting, crushing, piercing. Then there are machines like this, forged with some mystery to their metal. My 10-year-old mind imagines a catapult, a death ray, a starship engine. What could I not do, I wonder, with a machine such as this.
I am on the steps outside leading up into the Planetarium. I can see the street from here, the cars passing by. It is a sunny day. The plants outside radiate a sharp green, almost painful to the eye. I am sitting on the steps next to an old man who is wearing clothing that resembles pajamas, in an unfamiliar material that is very light yet sturdy. I ask him if he is going inside to watch. He says that he is nearly blind and that there would not be much point. He has been going blind for decades. The doctors with their lasers and scalpels and medicines only ever took more of his sight and made him poorer. He sits on these steps and wonders why he is alive.
You can still go in, I say. You can listen. He turns his nearly blind eyes in my direction. He smiles in a way that opens trapdoors of sadness inside me. There is something about him that reminds me of my grandmother. I think she had the same smile before she died.
Inside the building, there are pamphlets briefly outlining the history of astronomy. There are charts of the constellations. There is a rock from the moon.
I have forgotten the title of the big hardbound book my grandmother gave me. It was about the constellations and the stories behind them. I do remember that night when I clambered up on the trunk of our family car, recoiling a little as the cold metal met my hands and my knees. I remember sitting on the trunk, resting my back on the glass of the rear windshield, and looking up at the sky. The stars seemed vague, insubstantial, little more than bright dust trailed by something unspeakably more marvelous that might have passed through our galaxy on its way elsewhere. My gaze flicked from dot to twinkling dot, as I tried to see the connections, and trace the imaginary lines that would reveal gods, heroes, monsters. I could find nothing, not even the constellations that my book told me were the easiest to discern.
Inside the domed room, I can hear the man and the woman murmuring in the dark. I cannot make out the words exactly, but I can tell they are happy to be here, together. It is like overhearing a language I once knew, or will know someday, like how I imagine I will one day understand Japanese just from all the cartoons that I watch.
I am standing beside the counter where the tickets are dispensed. It occurs to me that I can flee. I cannot tell what is outside, whether sun or rain awaits me, or how I might get home. I do not know if classrooms or libraries or comic book shops are out there, or if I can reach the room where I sleep. Somewhere there might be a TV with my favorite shows.
I can cross the street. I can just keep crossing streets. But everything outside this building is uncertain.
I remember a riddle my grandmother taught me. Walang puno, walang ugat, hitik ng bulaklak. No tree, no roots: these millions of flowers. What does it mean, Lola? She answered me by pointing up at the night sky.
One of the posters in the hallway says: “The GM-15 Goto Planetarium Projector was acquired through the Japanese Reparation Program in the Philippines. Through the years, improvements have been made in the Planetarium building through the efforts of its former Directors. In May 2010, funds were approved for the major repair of the Planetarium Projector which is considered to be the heart and soul of the Planetarium.”
With the great machine, I can give the old man his sight back, better than before. I can make sure that the young man and young woman make each other happy for always. I can revive my grandmother, and she can accompany me to the British library, and use her card to let me borrow the books that I want. I can bring everything back; I can make sure nothing is lost.
I am sitting in the darkness. A voice is speaking. Is it live? Is it recorded? Is it somebody’s job to read the same words, again and again, day after day, making adjustments only when new discoveries come along, so few and far between? I listen for mistakes, for a slip, for a cough. The voice tells me that we are about to see what the night sky of centuries ago looked like. Lights appear one by one in the darkness of the dome.
Dear Distance is available via deardistance.ph. Special thanks to Luis Katigbak, Micaela Benedicto and Anvil Publishing.