When Stars Killed

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October 3, 2016 by The Citron Review

by Corrina Carter


After the Titanic sustained her fatal injury but before she entered her stern-to-the-sky death throes, crew members flashed a Morse lamp at a passing ship. The night gleamed with the brittle radiance of spring in the North Atlantic. The sea wrinkled and spread, wrinkled and spread, as quietly motive as blown milk. (At least that’s how I imagine the scene based on eyewitness accounts. An acceptable liberty, I hope.) In such lucid conditions, rescue was possible, maybe probable. But the mystery vessel, later identified as the SS Californian, ignored the distress signal, dooming over 1,500 men, women, and children. Their screams must have roused the slumberous water, if only for an instant.

Historian Tim Maltin blames the stars. They didn’t just shine. They trembled. Quaked in their berths until the world turned into a wavering, wimpling place. According to Lawrence Beesley, a British schoolteacher who survived the disaster, the heavens “seemed to be alive and to talk.” In other words, natural light outshimmered, then effaced the Titanic’s luminous SOS. The implications are harrowing. If the fate of hundreds can hinge on an atmospheric phenomenon…Is there any order to the universe? Any shape to fill or solid to touch when seeking purchase in the dark? Yet, when I reflect on the unseen cry for help, I don’t want to contest the facts, to beat them like a soft metal until they conform to the world I wish to occupy. Instead, I’m awestruck. Undone by wonder.

The firmament talked to Lawrence Beesley. He never revealed what it said. Perhaps it told him, as it told the first human and will tell the last, that his existence wasn’t sacred or precious or even valuable. Perhaps it boasted of its longevity, of eons spent watching the slow boil of the earth in development. But, if my own close calls, those adrenaline-enhanced moments in which I counted the delicate veins in a leaf or tracked the graceful flight of a songbird, are representative, I give most weight to this possibility: Aboard Lifeboat 14, feverish with cold and crazed by the hush that followed the mass drowning, Beesley received a message from a constellation awash in heat billions of miles away. Look at me. Look at me and ask yourself how you can forsake my beauty. The schoolteacher listened. In the morning, when dawn arrived in a pink blaze, ruddling the sails of the Carpathia, he was still alive.


Corrina Carter is a graduate of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. Her work has most recently appeared in Alligator Juniper, Permafrost Magazine, The Fourth River, and The Kenyon Review Online.

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IMAGE CREDIT: Jill Katherine Chmelko. Protest Road, Winter. 2019.

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