Brooks Rexroat is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio who has earned paychecks as a journalist, teacher, photographer, editor, musician, and coach. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in print journalism from Morehead State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
To the Stars
by Brooks Rexroat
Yulya peels a strip of aluminum from Anton’s spaceman suit, an inconspicuous piece from behind his left arm.
‘You’ll barely notice,’ she tells him. The boy’s eyes grow wide as she carefully moulds the foil until most of the static is gone from the television screen. The images now clearer, she begins to whistle and walks back to the kitchen, leaving her son to sit on the cool wood floor, his legs crossed, his back straight and proper as he fixates on grayscale men waving to crowds and placing helmets on their heads. Anton’s father is one of those men—he holds a helmet underneath one arm and wears a metallic suit that crinkles when he waves at the camera.
‘Papa!’ Anton shouts. Yulya ducks her head back into the room.
‘It certainly is. And very soon, you will see him again in full colour.’
‘That will be a good day,’ Anton says.
‘It surely will.’
Yulya leaves her son alone with the television images, tastes and then stirs the solyanka, cracks the oven to check on the pirozhky. She breathes in and smiles—the entire flat smells of flaky dough rising around little chunks of pork and sausage. She is making Anton his favourite meal, as she always does the night before a launch. The food is for her son; the preparation is a technique to keep herself busy, a guard against the uncertainty that follows her husband as his capsule climbs into the blankness above. Anton has not yet learned to understand doubt, but loves when his mother makes pirozhky and loves watching his father on the television.
As she chops and stirs and mixes in the kitchen, Yulya hears the men on television tell her son in deep, bold voices that his father is a hero. She plates the food while a commentator boisterously compares the space launch to the struggle of the worker—the shudder, the tremble, the inevitable ascent. Another voice says the man who will pilot the Vostok capsule carries on his shoulders the weight of a hemisphere.
‘Mama, what’s a hemisphere?’ Anton asks. Yulya walks to the doorway, using her hands and forearms to balance two bowls of soup and two plates full of pirozhky and sweet blini. She places the dishes on a small table, then reaches to the top of the bookshelf and brings down a globe. She sits down next to Anton on the sofa and points to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Anton watches as he starts eating.
‘There are two hemispheres,’ she says. ‘East and West. Some say there are North and South, but those do not matter. Here is East.’
She sets the globe between their dishes and traces her finger across the Motherland, then down through China, Japan, Australia.
‘East,’ Anton mimics, placing his own hand on the globe.
‘East,’ Yulya says, her voice quieter this time.
Anton runs his fingers across the contoured sphere, rests his palm on the smooth expanse of Siberia, climbs the Urals with the pad of his index finger.
‘That must be heavy,’ Anton says. ‘Papa must be strong.’
‘What do you mean, Anton?’
‘The man on television says Papa carries the weight of a hemisphere. On his shoulders!’
Yulya laughs and runs her fingers through his hair.
‘Your Papa is strong, indeed, and so are we. Strength comes from shoulders and also from minds and from hearts.’
‘And from the collective. Men on the television say that, too.’
‘Yes Anton, they do say that. They would not allow us to forget it. Do you know what the collective means?’
‘It means strength, Mother.’
‘Some say so. But do not forget that individuals, too, have strength when they’re allowed.’
‘Yes, like Papa, and like so many quiet others.’
She places her hand on Anton’s back, and draws him close for an instant, then reaches for a spoon.
Anton flicks his wrist and sends the globe spinning. When it stops, he points to an expanse of blue.
‘Is this West, Mama?’
‘That, Anton, is the ocean. There is West on both sides of it.’
‘Is a hemisphere supposed to have an ocean in the middle of it?’
‘Eat, child,’ she says. ‘And watch your Papa. There he is.’
Outdated training films play on the screen—the cosmonauts swim laps and ride great sweeping arcs in a centrifuge.
‘There we are!’ Anton points at the screen. In the image, he sits on Yulya’s lap, waving the state-issued red flag that was taken back and packed into a crate once the cameramen were finished. Yulya watches her son as he studies the film. She can almost see him try to apply colour to the screen: olive and tan to the uniforms, red to the flags, blue to the skies, gray to the great cubed buildings.
The newsmen tell stories about Grigory Novakov, how he grew up the son of a peasant outside Kyiv, how he thrust his hand upward in school when asked who might be willing to sacrifice for the Motherland, and how the Motherland will now thrust him upward to the heavens, to history, toward his role in the collective glory, all because of his willingness to serve. Anton thrusts his own hand up into the air. Yulya smiles—he wants to be like his Papa.
The men explain Grigory’s rise through school and university, how he met and married the daughter of a grain farmer, a true worker of the earth. Yulya rolls her eyes, fairly certain that her father, a police officer from Riga, had never turned a shovel of dirt in his life.
‘Have you had enough food?’
Anton nods and Yulya takes away the empty plates.
There are footsteps at the door, but no one knocks. Yulya and Anton do not flinch—it is just the sound of soldiers changing shifts. There is always a man with a gun outside the Novakov flat—two or more on days preceding a launch.
‘So that you may be kept safe,’ Grigory had explained when the family moved into their assigned flat.
‘So that we may be kept silent and present,’ Yulya had mumbled. Her husband had nodded his agreement, but placed a finger against his lips.
‘So that our bellies may remain full and our bodies clothed without waiting in lines.’ Many conversations in the Novokov household ended this way.
There are other soldiers, too, like the one who uses his thick, stubby fingers to puff on cigarettes when he walks Anton and the other children of cosmonauts to school. There are soldiers in classrooms, soldiers at the train station, soldiers at restaurants, each one with a shiny black gun and a bored face. Sometimes, Yulya quietly says their town should be called Soldier City, not Star City.
Anton looks at the globe in front of him and tries for a moment to read names of places in the West. He says a few out loud: London, Lucerne, Detroit. He shakes his head.
‘Mother, those names sound soft and weak.’
‘Are you finished with your food?’
He shakes his head and picks up his fork again.
‘I didn’t think so. Quickly, before it grows cold.
Yulya is tired of the parade film, tired of hearing men talk about the husband she’ll see in passing tomorrow—a quick wave between training and mission. But she knows Anton is fascinated, and sits with him as he stares at the christening of a new missile train, Leninka. The wheels turn together, and Anton’s eyes grow wide as he watches the powerful machine. He finishes his food and leaves the table to sit on the floor, close as he can get to the screen. ‘You’ll hurt your eyes sitting so close,’ Yulya says. Anton turns, sticks out his tongue and turns to the screen. Yulya laughs and clears the table of dishes.
‘Today, you will ride a real train. Are you excited?’
But she’s lost him. The train engine disappears from the screen, replaced by pictures of the missiles it carries. A band plays in the background and men talk about Soviet unity and the Army of the Proletariat. Test missiles spout flames and fly—then men march straight and tall. Perfect rows move down a street, and Anton claps softly in rhythm to the military anthem—just as he’s been taught at school.
‘Anton, would you like to be a soldier?’
‘Yes, Mama. Or maybe, I could be in the band.’ Anton makes his cheeks puff out like the trumpeter on screen. He holds up his hands and plays an imaginary horn.
‘My little one is a musician, eh? You’ll damage your eyes and won’t be able to read your music if you keep sitting so close to the screen.’
Anton scoots back a few centimetres and looks at his mother, whose face tells him to keep going. He scoots farther, until she nods.
‘I want to play in the band and drive a train and ride rockets like Papa,’ he tells her.
‘So much to do, you will never have time for ice cream,’ she says, holding up a cardboard box. Anton stands so quickly that pieces fall away from the remainder of his foil spacesuit fall off. He races to the kitchen and finds two bowls from the cabinet. She reads his face: it is a very good day.
‘I choose … train driver,’ he says.
‘A fine choice,’ Yulya says. ‘Good, sensible work for a strong boy.’ She drops a scoop into Anton’s bowl. She puts just half a scoop in her own bowl.
‘How will you grow strong shoulders like Papa if you don’t eat?’ Anton asks.
She places a hand on her stomach. ‘My tummy hurts today, dear. Go eat.’
‘Thank you, Mama,’ Anton says.
A soldier gives the door three stout raps when a black sedan arrives in front of the building.
‘Come get your suitcase,’ Yulya says, and Anton rushes to his mother’s room. She hands him a small plastic case. Anton shakes it and nothing moves inside.
‘Is it empty?’ he asks.
‘It is as full as it needs to be. You must have grown stronger since last time.’ He shakes the case again.
‘Stop,’ Yulya says. ‘Come, the driver is waiting.’
The two soldiers guarding the Novakov doorway walk with Yulya and Anton from the doorway to the waiting vehicle, no more than twenty metres. There are small red flags anchored to each of the vehicle’s corners, and the driver wears a black suit with a thin black tie. The soldiers each open a door and help Anton and Yulya into the vehicle. One soldier takes a seat in the front and the other motions for Anton to scoot toward the center so that he can sit between Anton and the door. The driver’s foot is off the brake pedal before the doors have closed, whisking them away from the their family barracks at Zvyozdny Gorodok—Star City—toward an army train waiting to take them to State Test Range No. 5 in the secret city, a place that cannot be found on any maps or globes, East or West.
Yulya steadies Anton’s shoulders a he climbs up metal steps into the last car on the train, the State car.
‘You want to watch from the window, Anton?’ Yulya asks. Anton enjoys the deep thump of the platform door—the only one in the car—as it is shut and locked from the outside.
Anton smiles and bobs his head up and down. Yulya knows how he loves to watch the tree trunks move closer and closer together until they make a solid fence of brown beside the train. She also knows that this puts him more quickly to sleep. Yulya motions for one of the two blonde soldiers who slouch in their chairs at the rear of the car. One stands and hands his rifle to the other soldier.
‘Both?’ he asks.
Yulya nods, and the soldier grabs two plush armchairs and jerks them around to face the window.
‘Halfway, for mine,’ Yulya says. ‘No matter how much practice I’m given, I cannot seem to enjoy the idea of having my back to a gun. I’m sure you’ll understand.’
The man scowls as he angles her chair farther to the right and returns to his seat. Anton admires the soldiers’ beards and rubs his own soft chin. Anton examines the black steel weapons that rest in the men’s laps.
‘Do you think he’ll let me hold his gun?’ Anton asks.
The soldier who moved the chairs grins and holds his weapon forward.
‘Safety,’ the other soldier says under his breath. There is a soft click.
Anton stands, ready to visit the soldiers.
Anton’s mother grabs his shoulder and gently pushes him back into the seat.
‘You’ve got plenty of years ahead of you for gun holding. No need to start today.’
The soldier shrugs and reaches in his shirt pocket for a cigarette. Anton finds the cigarette far less interesting than the gun, and turns back toward the window.
‘The best part is just before the wheels move,’ Anton says. ‘When you can hear the engine, but you haven’t moved yet. You know it will happen soon, though.’
‘That,’ she says, ‘is called anticipation.’
Anton and Yulya stand with a crowd of people on a concrete platform in front of the launch pad. They are in the front row, but Yulya feels Anton struggling to see the rocket over the heads of men who point cameras at him, so she lifts him for a moment. A man with a clipboard shouts at her to put him on the ground, so she places him on the platform, his feet atop the blocking marks drawn on the floor. Men tell Yulya and Anton when to wave and smile and look at his mother and salute. Directors place red flags in their hands and tell them when and how to wave—lower, not in front of the face—no, higher—right there—hold it. He laughs at the men, seems more and more pleased as Yulya works harder and harder to maintain her posed smile.
‘A beautiful day,’ Anton says, and looks up into the sky with wide eyes. He wears a coat, but not the heavy wool hat and gloves Yulya had bundled him in last time, when wind stung at the boy’s eyes until that froze on his cheeks—little Volgas, Yulya had called them during the drive to their barracks, when they thawed enough that she could wipe his cheeks.