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A Look Through the Telescope
There had been nothing exceptional about the night I first saw the universe. I had finished my addition and subtraction homework for my 1st-grade class, brushed my teeth, combed my hair, gotten into my favorite pink nightgown, and sunk under the weight of my blankets, letting my eyes flutter shut and allowing sleep to overtake me. But something that night urged me to go check the window. I opened my eyes, blinking away the sleep that tried to hold on, swung my legs over the bed, and dropped to the carpeted floor. I crept to the window facing the street, and pushed myself onto my tiptoes, the top of my head barely passing the wooden window frame. Outside, I could vaguely see my father in the dim light from the streetlamp. He was hunched over, peering through some sort of machine that was propped up in our driveway. What was he doing? I had to know, so I slipped on my bunny slippers, grabbed my teddy bear for good luck, and crept down the stairs, avoiding which ones I knew creaked. I hugged the railing as I descended the staircase, still rubbing the sleep from my eyes. My feet hit the hardwood floor, and I made my way down the dark hallway towards the front door. The hallway lights were off, and the way to the door was filled with shadows. I clutched my teddy bear closer, the only sounds I could hear were my own footsteps and the gentle rumble of the air conditioning. I reached for the doorknob, quiet as a mouse. The door opened with a low groan, and I was met with the hot night air. I shut the door quietly, my father still looking through the machine. I made my way down the driveway, the soft pitter-patter of my slippers joining the late-night symphony of chirping crickets, ruffling branches in the breeze, and the fluorescent flicker of fireflies. I stopped at my father’s pant leg and gave a gentle tug.
“Dad? What are you doing?”
My father immediately looked away from the machine and down to the little girl clutching the fabric of his pant leg. I stared at the machine in front of me. It was some sort of tube set up on three rickety legs. It had a large glassy eye that stared up at the night sky. My dad smiled.
“Hey sweetie, what are you doing up so late?”
“Wanted to see what you’re doing,” I answered, still looking at the staring machine.
“Do you know what that is?” My dad said, noticing where my attention lay. I shook my head and lifted my arms in the universal request of up.
My father honored this request with a laugh, and lifted me into the air, letting my head rest against his shoulder as he brought me closer to the machine. “This is a telescope,” My father explained. “It makes things that are super far away appear closer.”
“Could I see Kate’s house with the tele-cope?” I asked. Kate lived twenty minutes away, which was pretty far.
My father adjusted a knob on the tele-cope. “Even farther than Kate’s house. I was looking at the moon.”
The moon? I looked up into the night sky, and through the light of the streetlamp, I could see the large ivory orb in the sky. It illuminated the night sky, breaking through the scattering of clouds that lined the horizon. From a distance, I could vaguely see gray spots along its surface, and I continued to stare at the object as my father adjusted the lens focus. He moved dials and pressed buttons while I watched the sky. He then turned to me.
“Do you want to look?”
I nodded. I wanted to see what he saw through the tele-cope. My father leaned down so that I could see, and I hovered over the eyepiece, carefully grasping it so as not to move its main body. I slowly leaned in, one eye squinted shut and the other wide open as I peered into the lens.
It was as if the sky had broadened, the earth beneath my feet disappearing and the celestial being that had only been a speck in the sky moments before taking up my entire field of vision. The spots along its surface had sharpened into giant craters that rose and fell along the milky exterior. It was so much more compared to the posters that were mounted on the walls of my science classroom, laminated, flat, and collecting dust. This was different. This was big, bright, and it was real. I gasped, and my breath fogged up the lense. My face broke out into a wide, squinty, toothy grin. My father laughed and shifted me in his hold as he moved the magic machine to the right. He flicked a dial, turned a knob, and turned back to me, a knowing smile on his face.
“Look now, I have it set for the stars.”
I leaned down and looked through the glass.
The stars weren’t a mystery to me. I had listened to my teachers drone on about the solar system as I dabbed white paint onto black construction paper, creating my own splotchy constellations. I had seen the tiny specks of light through my bedroom window, some bright and twinkling, others red and green, moving across the sky from the airport. I knew what the stars were, what planets were, but I had never seen them… never like this.
The ground disappeared once more, and my vision was enveloped in the warm velvety blanket of the night sky. The light of the streetlamp was gone. The polluted atmosphere was gone, the faint lights of the city disappeared, and I saw stars. They filled the sky, shining, shimmering, and dancing across my vision in a waltz all their own. Millions of years of the universe lay right before me, and I was completely and utterly enchanted. My gaze darted from one light to the next, my brain mapping out the constellations I knew. I could see the big dipper right in front of me, imaginary lines connecting the dots to form the shapes I had only ever seen on paper. They spread across the skyline brightly and loudly. Each one’s small whisper of existence previously hushed by the veil of city lights became a triumphant cry. Each one’s tiny voice filled my mind with the ancient words, “I’m here. I’ve been here long before you. Hear me.” And, looking through that telescope, I listened.
“Cool, huh?” I distinctly heard my father’s voice, interrupting the voices of the stars. I looked away from the telescope, and I was back on Earth. I could feel the fabric of my dad’s shirt and the cold metal of the eyepiece underneath my small fingers. I looked up. The sheer magnitude of the stars had disappeared, and all that was left were the tiny flickers of lights able to breach the atmosphere. I could still see the big dipper, glimmering overhead. It seemed to still whisper to me, and in hush words, it said, “keep listening. We’re still here.”
“That was really cool,” was what I said that day. It was all I could think to say. How could you possibly fathom seeing the cusp of the universe? How do you say that your world has just become infinitely bigger? My dad smiled, and for a moment I thought I saw a flicker of understanding. I felt as if a secret had just been shared with me. I suppose, in a way, one had. Under the starlight, I realized just how small I was. Instead of fear, I had never felt happier, because there was a universe all around me, enveloping my little world in its arms, and it told me to listen.
It was the first time I had used a telescope, and it wouldn’t be the last. As years went by, I would look to the stars over and over again. I would watch the stars on my father’s arms, standing tiptoe on a stool, and with my feet firmly planted on the ground. I would be able to recognize constellations and planets like old friends, and I would promise that one day I would give voices to the stars that begged to be heard through the fog of the atmosphere. One day I would be reading, painting, writing about what the universe beyond us meant to me, and my college letters would be filled with my desperation to explore it. One day I would not just listen, but respond.
But that night, under the starlight, I smiled in my father’s arms, and let my head rest on his shoulder. I felt my eyes grow heavier and heavier as he pointed out constellations and planets to me. I fell asleep under the stars that I knew would be there when I woke up. I had seen the universe, and I hoped it had seen me because I was never going to stop looking up.