On her deathbed, a mother tells her children: “I went to the Moon”
A dying mother tells her children she’s been to the Moon; then they find a locked trunk
by Bondo Wyszpolski
(Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a novel that’s set in Brazil in 2002. Several writers and artists are drinking coffee at a café in São Paulo, regaling one another with stories. The conversation has already started, so let’s lean in and listen…)
“What I want to relate is what was occurring in a room just across the corridor, in which a middle-aged woman with early-onslaught dementia lay dying. She was leaving behind a flurry of children in their early or middle twenties, six kids who adored her, with two or three of them by her bedside at all times. As her health decelerated she began fabricating stories for her attentive but now incredulous offspring, tales of faraway countries visited, of meeting Lyndon B. Johnson and other heads of state. She also insisted that she had been to the Moon, literally, or at least close enough to reach out and touch it.“Her kids humored her. Sure, Mom; which moon, one of those circling Mars or Jupiter? No, no, she’d say in exasperation, shaking her head from side to side, that Moon, and she’d point to the ceiling. The kids would look up and see only a fluorescent globe, the base littered with dead bugs.
“This continued for days, a week, and then one afternoon the woman rolled onto her side, mumbled something that sounded like ‘ad astra,’ and died. None of her children knew a word of Latin, let alone two, and so her final utterance went unremarked until Fermento, one of the three sons, recalled it months later and a friend then told him what it meant.
“After what was billed as ‘big mama’s funeral,’ so at least we know which of Gabo’s tales they were reading at the time, the children gathered at their mother’s tiny apartment and, as children do, squabbled and fought over her meager belongings. There were six of them, which compounded the problem, and in addition to Fermento and his brothers Celso and Mateus, there were the daughters Josefa, Helena, and Ingrid. At the bottom of the deceased woman’s wardrobe was a sealed foot locker that Celso, who’d been schooled in the fine art of breaking-and-entering, was able to pop open with Ingrid’s hairpin. Inside, under layers of yellowed tissue paper, was a neatly folded spacesuit. There’s no other way to put it, and I won’t string you along by calling it a costume. It was, in every way possible, an authentic flight suit, but how it had come into the possession of the deceased was a complete riddle, not to mention that it had the family name, Oliveira, stitched over the pocket. Mateus ran his hands across it and shook his head. Anyone know where this came from? The others shook their heads as well.“There’s some sand here in the cuffs, Ingrid said. Maybe she wore this to the beach in Ipanema when she and Papa visited during Carnaval, when was that, back in ‘72? Or maybe it’s actual sand from the Moon, said Helena. Wouldn’t that be something? Yes, it would be something, Ingrid replied, but how likely is that? Not very, said Fermento, ‘cause if there was a beach on the Moon, Brazilians would be the first ones to know about it. But here’s an idea, maybe we could pack it up and send the suit someplace, like Cape Canaveral, and they can verify what kind of sand it is. No, said Josefa, sending the whole suit is too expensive; and besides, they may not return it. Helena chimed in, why not just a vial with some of the sand, and not to Cape Canaveral, because that’s where they do the launching, but rather to NASA headquarters in Houston. They’d be able to analyze it in a jiffy. “The task of running down to the post office fell to Mateus. I hope they respond, he warned the others. Chances are they’ll think it’s a prank and discard the sample, and my letter as well, the moment they read it. So I’m also attaching three Polaroids of the outfit. He then did just that and eleven days later Mateus opened his mailbox to find a short note written by some NASA underling who said simply: No, your mother never set foot on the Moon, and furthermore the sand is likely from one of the Polynesian islands.
“Mateus telephoned each of his five siblings and they walked, rode the tram, or bicycled over to his flat. But before passing the letter around he told them with a perfectly straight face that, yes, Mom had been on the Moon. Not only that, he continued, one of her three sons and three daughters had been conceived there. The others were stunned and looked closely at each other to see which of them might be an extraterrestrial. But then Mateus laughed loudly and told them he was joking. Really! Sex on the Moon! Okay, wise guy, his sisters groaned, feigning anger; let’s see what he wrote. The letter was then handed from one to the other, and Helena said, Well, that’s that. No moonwalk for Senhora Clarice Oliveira. The only mystery we’re left with is where on earth she found that uniform. Who sells things like that around here? It must have been for some party she went to years ago. As for Polynesia, well, that’s way off the mark. What, Mom on Bora Bora? I still think Ipanema. The others nodded, and Josefa and Celso stood up to grab their coats. Anything else, before we get going?“Yes, as a matter of fact there is, Mateus said, so why don’t you sit down for a bit longer. This’ll just take a second. He then went over to his desk and came back with a sturdy gray envelope. Just arrived last evening, he said, holding it up; this time it’s not from a NASA underling but from the guy who runs the place. Or at least that’s his signature. The letter verified that Mom never actually walked on the Moon, but… He reached inside and removed an 8 by 10 photograph. When I first looked at this picture with its gaggle of smiling astronauts I took it for one of those promos that public relation firms send out to tantalize the press. I was ready to trash it but then… As you can see, they’ve all signed it, Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, all the really big names. The big guns, as they say. But here, take a closer look. Stamped ‘DECLASSIFIED’ in red on both sides. Mateus held out the photograph and his five siblings huddled around him. And then, one by one, they cried out in astonishment. Oh dear God, said Ingrid as she fell to her knees and began to sob. Why did she never tell us? As Josefa tried to comfort their sister, who couldn’t stop bawling, Mateus looked up and grinned. Well, it seems she’d been trying to, hadn’t she? None of us listened. None of us believed. Now she’s back among the stars and this time it’s a one-way flight.” ER
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