Light travels 186,000 miles per second.
I was certain.
“It’s just like the story of Noah,” I said. “You know how, in the end, finally the earth dries up and Noah and his family get off the ark and God tells them to throw rocks behind them and people pop up where the rocks landed. That’s how they repopulated the earth after the flood.”
Blank looks. There are seven or eight other women in my book club and apparently none of them knew this Bible story.
“Really, that’s part of Noah?” Betsy, who was raised Catholic, looked dubious. We were overall a pretty godless group, and I prided myself on being something of an amateur Bible scholar. Not that I’d had any religious training, but I had studied some art history and a few years earlier at the university where I work had taken part in a staff discussion group about the Gospel according to Thomas (a/k/a the Gnostic Gospel, or the Gospel of Knowledge). I had also spent two childhood summers rehearsing a lip-synched production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” with the kids in my neighborhood. This Noah story, I knew, was one of the basics, like the parting of the Red Sea and the raising of Lazarus.
“Yes, you don’t remember that? Because everyone else had died in the flood, except for Noah’s family, so they had to do something.”
Distances in space are so are so far that they are measured in “light years,” i.e. the distance light can travel in a calendar year. One light year is approximately six trillion miles.
I could picture the scene. I know, the ark was supposed to have landed on top of Mt. Ararat, but in my mind it has come to rest on one side of a large field surrounded by mountains. Noah and his wife stand with their backs to the ark; Noah’s three sons and their wives stand facing Noah. Noah is explaining about the rocks; the animals seem to have wandered off, grazing. The landscape is strangely dry and, well, rocky, for a place that has recently suffered an apocalyptic flood. I don’t know what has happened to all the fish that were supposedly on board the ark.
I push “play” in my mind and watch Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law stoop down, pick up rocks, and toss them back, over their shoulders. As the stones land I see the new people spring up. They look around, and at each other, and then they look down, incredulous, at their hands, their arms, their bodies, which are already draped in biblical-style robes. They move their arms slowly, then feel their warm skin with their fingers. I watch as the stone-people become conscious and marvel, “I was rock, and now I am flesh.” My mental camera pans out to the distance. The post-diluvian world, starting over.
After the sun, the nearest star to the earth is Proxima Centauri. It is 4.24 light years away, about 25 trillion miles.
I knew this scene was in the Bible, pretty much as I had pictured it, despite the odd fact that no one else in the room had heard of it. But I insisted, confident that my friends just didn’t know the Bible as well as I did. Many are lawyers, myself included, and they are a tough crowd; as certain as I was, my uncorroborated testimony was not enough to convince them. The iPads came out. They started googling.
“How do you look up a Bible verse?”
“Is that in Genesis?”
“Just google ‘Noah.’”
“No, it’s really there, guys. In the Bible. At the end of Noah.” I was certain, and surprised no one could find any confirmation.
The stars that are readily visible in our night sky are hundreds of light years away. So when we look at distant stars, the light we see has actually taken years to reach us. In some cases, the light began its journey thousands or even millions of years ago.
There was a flood, and a husband and wife who survived in an ark and who repopulated the world by throwing stones behind them. But it turned out it wasn’t Noah. The stone-throwers were Deucalion and Pyrrha, and they were instructed to throw stones by the Oracle of Themis. It was Zeus who caused the flood, not the god of the ancient Hebrews. The story comes from Greek mythology, not the Old Testament. Which is strange because I don’t know anything about Greek mythology; I’d never heard of Deucalion and Pyrrha until someone in my book club found them on Wikipedia.
The thing is, I loved that story about Noah. The rocks were so biblical and they made so much sense. Without them, there was nothing but inbreeding to explain how human life resumed after the flood. And rocks seem to show up a lot in the Bible. A few chapters after Noah, in Genesis, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt after she takes that fatal last glance back at Sodom. Sure, salt and stone are not exactly the same, but the stories seemed to reinforce each other, what with people transversing a permeable divide between soft, living, flesh and cold, inanimate mineral.
Rocks get thrown in the New Testament, too. Jesus chides a crowd for throwing stones at a woman caught in adultery, giving us an enduring metaphor for sinners who impose harsh virtue. And there’s that giant stone that was used to seal his tomb. When the stone was rolled away, it was revealed that Christ’s physical body had miraculously vanished, so rock is once again linked to an escape from corporeal reality. The imagery is consistent.
When we see the Big Dipper, we are seeing the light from where the stars were several decades ago. Other constellations are even farther away. The light from the stars that form Orion the hunter must travel for centuries before it is visible to us on Earth. The Andromeda Galaxy is the farthest heavenly object visible to the naked eye. It is 2.5 million light years away.
The point is not the literal truth of the Bible, or Noah, or Jesus. I never believed that people actually sprang to life from stones, any more than I believe that Noah packed up all those animals in an ark and floated around in the rain for 40 days and 40 nights. The point is certainty. I was certain that the story of Noah and the ark ended with people being born from stone. I may not have believed the story was true, but I was certain of the truth that the story existed. It was one of my favorites.
But I was wrong; and if I was wrong about Noah, I have to wonder what else, how much of the knowledge of which I am certain, is not true. If Noah’s family never threw stones, there must be other events of which I am equally certain that in truth never happened.
So we never really see stars. When we look up into the sky, we are looking at the past, at a memory of where the stars once were.
When I was 21 I went to Europe for the summer. I spent my last week in Brittany, along the coast of France, visiting the Merciers, parents of an exchange student who had lived with my family when I was in high school. As we were out walking one day, Mme. Mercier told me that Nazis had occupied their village. Nazis had lived in the beautiful white cottage where I was spending the week, and Mme. Mercier, a teenager during the war, had been arrested for helping the Resistance and had been sent to a Nazi prison camp. All of which was fascinating, but even more startling was that, although we had been speaking French as Mme. Mercier told me the story, when she got to the part where she was arrested, she switched to German. She switched without pause, without comment, without any outward sign that she was aware she had begun speaking a different language.
I was terrified. We were alone on a beach and I was afraid Mme. Mercier was having a breakdown. But she eventually started speaking French again and we continued our walk and I ended up holding on to that story as one of the most interesting things that had ever happened to me. Not just because it meant I knew someone who’d been a prisoner of the Nazis, and not just because it was the first time anyone had confided in me as an adult. That day was the first time my meager facility with foreign languages had mattered. I was grateful, and proud, that I not only knew enough French to manage the week-long visit, but enough German to follow along and keep the conversation going when Mme. Mercier, like a sleepwalker, fell temporarily into another world.
The stars are so far away that by the time their light reaches us here on earth, they are gone. Some have moved past the spot where we have the illusion of seeing them, and they have traveled somewhere else in the darkness. Some are so far away that by the time we see them, their light has died.
I kept a journal during my two months in Europe, thinking I might write about the trip someday. It was a small book, easy enough to keep in my backpack, easy enough to pack and bring along over the years as I moved across the country and back, ultimately settling in the middle. Thirty years later, that journal is in my dining room in St. Paul, Minnesota, locked in a built-in-cabinet with old yearbooks, high school English papers and shoe boxes full of negatives.
And after some decades, I did end up deciding to write about my time with the Merciers. I’d told the story a number of times; I was confident of the basics. But I couldn’t remember if Mme. Mercier had shown me a number burnt onto her arm. She was not Jewish; she had been in a German prison camp, not a concentration camp. But somehow in my mind I saw a number and I wasn’t sure if that was right. So I went to my journal, as I always knew I would.
There was nothing about Mme Mercier. I’d written about the boys my friend and I had met at the hostel in Norway, about the day I was mistaken for a real Italian in Rome, even about our visit to the concentration camp at Dachau. But as far as the most important event of my trip, the pages were blank.
Even without the entry in my journal, I am certain that Mme. Mercier spoke to me in German about what had happened to her during the war. Then again, I was certain that the story of Noah ended with people springing to life from stone. Certainty, it seems, is as intangible as the permeable divide between flesh and stone, as the words we call on to describe the present and the past, as the light that travels to us from the stars, and I am each day less certain of what I do and do not know. Small matter. If I drive out to the country at night I will see hundreds of stars, maybe thousands. And I will know those stars are real, although when I see them I will see only a memory.
Tracy Harris lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Mason's Road, Lunch Ticket, and the Tahoma Literary Review, among others. She is a former board member of Water~Stone Review and participant in Cracked Walnut, a series of literary readings in Minneapolis/St. Paul.