So loosely is it committed to its dark nothingness, it barely moves.
It doesn’t even know it’s going around the sun.
Then something perturbs it, maybe the gravity of a passing star. And the comet starts to fall.
Just a rock — I’ve stubbed my toe on one — it has bent the propeller on my boat — a rock, a billion miles away, this thing which began almost with time itself, is falling into the sun.
Time, measured by waking and sleeping, light and dark, tracks the comet’s descent from morn to noon, from noon until evening, its day a hundred years.*
What once flung it away now urges it back in. It is pulled by the sun.
The comet emerges from the dark.
We’ve never seen this part of the solar system before.
Disturbed from its vast sleep, the comet is on the move. It becomes a growing source of light.
The mile long rock sweeps back a tail which grows until it is a million miles long. From less than a plod, it’s now traveling 50,000 miles an hour.
I lose sentience, trying to keep in mind all these fabulous facts.
What can help me understand any of these numbers, help me count them out when once, using my ten fingers, I understood how old I was? I was five, then six, as my age danced on my hand. At eleven there was some kind of abyss.
How can my fingers help me now?
Once we blasted a hole in its side, to find out its composition, to learn more about the formation of our solar system. A crater answered with a shower of rubies.
And maybe there were also emeralds and sapphires.
This solid, inert, annoyingly rocky thing, with no brain or heart or any way of caring — despite my projections — this thing, which sat in darkness, comes closer, begins to feel the heat of the sun from millions of miles away.
I’m on my deck. Above me, the clouds shift to reveal the sun. I feel a little warmer.
We kitchenize these ideas which blow beyond the range of our minds. On November 11, 2014, a spacecraft, the size of a car, dropped a probe, the size of a fridge, onto comet 67P. Although its landing sounded like something falling out of a cupboard, it was as chancy as a bullet hitting a bullet.**
Some say the comet is like a hill going 50 times the speed of shot from a rifle. Its surface starts to sizzle and crack; it’s losing mass; it’s shrinking. Its orbit changes. It tumbles. Maybe it will be a sungrazer, compelled to hurl itself into the central fire and boil away.
Or maybe not.
Instead, it flings itself around the sun; it’s on its way back, gradually quieter, a ball of ice and dust, its geography rearranged, becoming, again, what it once was.
Perhaps it’s my intractable habit of seeing myself everywhere, even in a comet, but the solid science of its story connects me to it even more. We are all bound in birth to the instant when nothing became something, and the universe began.
Will we be able to remember all these numerical thoughts as we slowly wither from our atmosphere having no substance, being strafed and shredded until it’s as thin as cotton candy? Still, you have to admire us a little, as we hurtle into the sun. Maybe we can save ourselves even yet.
A friend, as though in another orbit, disturbs my dark and lonely space. I start to move. We are in one another’s arms.
And still, I long for the hubris of an earlier day, when we believed that although we could not make our sun stand still, we would make him run.***
Now I begin to know too much about comets. Too much to even say the sun is ours.
I suddenly see myself as a flicker of light, not even from a candle, but a flicker from a Bic lighter, and that’s all. And you, the same. Still, I see you for an instant. Let it be enough.
* This is an intentional chiming with Paradise Lost when the dark angel is thrown from heaven and drops like a falling star.
** A comment made by one of my Tuesday night “understanding the universe” friends.
*** This is taken from Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress.”