What Falls to Earth

Grieving the mysterious death of her father, Susanna Space seeks refuge in the study of meteors.

Susanna Space | Longreads | January 2019 | 13 minutes (3,200 words)

On June 30, 1908, a star-like body with a fiery tail tore through the clear morning sky above the vast Siberian forest. As it neared the ground, a column of light shot twelve miles into the air. Booms like artillery followed, and stones rained from the sky; houses shook and windows shattered. A wave of intense heat threw people from their chairs. Hundreds of reindeer scattered and burned.

I came upon the story of the Tunguska meteor by accident. It was 2014 and I had watched a documentary about Russian girls, children of 12 and 13, sent abroad by American modeling agents to work. The film made me curious about the girls’ home in the Siberian countryside, a backdrop they were eager to shed.

My interest in the girls receded as I read about the meteor. I was online, trying to learn more about Siberia when links to articles popped up about a similar event, this one a century later and 3,500 miles away in Chelyabinsk. A meteor had exploded over the city one February morning, the flash recorded by hundreds of smartphones and dashboard cameras.

***

As a child, I spent two weeks each summer in a rental cottage overlooking the Atlantic. My father had served in the Navy during the 1950s in order to pay his way through college at Harvard before moving on to law school. Despite his persistent seasickness, he grew to love the ocean.

The house was modest, with wood-paneled walls, built-in sofas and a galley kitchen. But along the east-facing side, past the metal table where we dined on steamed clams and swordfish, a wall of windows opened to a majestic view of the shimmering blue water beyond the dunes.

In 2016, two years after I began researching the events at Tunguska and Chelyabinsk, my father committed suicide. He was 78 years old.

Each summer, my mother led me and my older brother down the long path to the beach to swim at low tide; my father read history books and buttered hot Portuguese muffins for our breakfasts. After my parents divorced and my father gained custody of us, he continued renting there. By then we had nicknamed the place “Cooke’s Green,” combining the name of the owners, whom we’d never met, and the deep emerald of the cottage’s weathered exterior. We had friends there, too, kids like us who returned each summer to collect starfish and play in the waves. In the evenings we breathed the cool, briny sea air, read books and watched the sky for shooting stars.

It was only much later that I learned shooting stars aren’t stars at all — that we were watching the incineration of an asteroid, rock flecked with metals as old as our solar system. We call the rock a “meteor” the moment it’s set ablaze by the invisible shield between us and the heavens. I would shout out at the sight of these burning bodies, pointing up at the field of pin-pricked blackness. Even then it felt odd to me, this pastime in which we celebrate the spectacle of annihilation.

***

In 2016, two years after I began researching the events at Tunguska and Chelyabinsk, my father committed suicide. He was 78 years old. I had seen him just two weeks before, during our family’s annual visit to the coast. He had rented a different place than when we were children, a house rather than a cottage, as Cooke’s Green had long since been demolished.

That summer my father was the same as ever, keeping the communal kitchen stocked for our families: my husband and our two sons, and my brother and his family. In the mornings he drove to the gym, stopping at the grocery store on his return. If I asked him to pick up sunscreen or seltzer, if he thought we might be low on paper towels or that the children might enjoy a puzzle for a rainy afternoon, those items would be dutifully acquired.

After my husband and I were home and in the midst of preparing the boys for the new school year, I received a call that my father was missing. A few hours later, I learned he was dead. He had jumped from an overpass near his home in Connecticut onto the concrete below.

***

Nearly 200 of the 2,996 people who died on September 11 are believed to have either fallen or jumped from the towers of the World Trade Center, their bodies hurtling through space for several seconds at more than 100 miles per hour before hitting the concrete with such velocity that they nearly disintegrated. Some, forced by fire and smoke to their windows, chose one death over another. Others, perhaps starved for air or blinded by smoke, stepped off accidentally.

EMTs refer to people who attempt suicide by leaping from bridges and buildings as “jumpers.” But none of the 9/11 victims were categorized by the New York City Medical Examiner’s office this way. Instead, every death that day was ruled a homicide. The examiner’s office insisted the people, whose grainy images were captured by photojournalists’ telephoto lenses, fell rather than jumped.

***

When my father’s house had been cleared out and his papers gone through, I returned to the meteor stories. They held a peculiar solace for me with their looming certainty, their terrible shockwaves, their communal trauma. I longed to travel with my father in his last moments, to feel the hot wind just before the impact, to stand in the epicenter of his destruction.

In Chelyabinsk, the meteor first appeared as a burst of light above the city, like an enormous flashbulb. It was morning rush hour. Residents who weren’t in their cars or on the streets were drawn to their windows by the otherworldly glow. Moments later hundreds of those windows burst inward, carrying their frames with them. Car alarms shrieked and mobile networks went down. The air smelled of gunpowder. Some 1,500 people were injured. Rumors swirled: it was a nuclear test, or an attack by the Americans.

The 1908 meteor, by contrast, drew hardly any notice. It took a decade for a newspaper article about the mysterious explosion to reach 37-year-old mineralogist Leonid Kulik. As head curator of meteorites at the St. Petersburg Museum, he was tasked with acquiring and cataloguing rock samples from throughout the Soviet Union. He departed St. Petersburg by train, planning to locate the heart of the blast, which at that time was hardly more than a rumor promulgated by a few unreliable “country people.” He hoped to collect rock samples and better understand this bizarre event that had arrived with no warning.

***

When bodies began to fall from the Twin Towers, most witnesses on the streets below turned their backs out of respect. Others aimed their smartphones at the spectacle.

On the 72nd floor of the South Tower, men in a boardroom watched, uncomprehending, as bodies streamed past their large window. A woman, a blur of hair and fabric rippling in the wind, finally oriented them. She wasn’t screaming, one of the men who survived later said.


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I do not know who saw my father. I do not know the precise moment when his body — the age-freckled hands and pale, sunken cheeks, the favorite khaki pants and white T-shirt that would be cut away by EMTs — left the overpass and plummeted to the concrete below.

It may be, though, that someone saw him. It may be that he was wondered about, an old man in wire-rimmed glasses making his way along the edge of the elevated roadway. Perhaps a motorist, a young woman driving home, witnessed a blur of body momentarily airborne on a late-summer afternoon. It may be that she stared, or that she turned away.

***

Most asteroids enter our atmosphere at roughly 50,000 miles an hour. The gasses encircling our planet slow the body to about half its original speed as friction causes the rock — now a meteor — to glow with intense heat. A small meteor will disintegrate during this process, but a large enough body can survive the journey.

In 1989, an asteroid the size of the Eiffel Tower passed so near to Earth that the rock and our planet inhabited the very same space within six hours of each other. The near miss alarmed astronomers. The asteroid was previously unknown to them, and its approach was discovered nine days after it happened.

Astronomers named the asteroid Asclepius, after the Greek god of healing who fathered five daughters. Scientists say that if Asclepius had struck Earth that day, the energy released would have been roughly equal to that of a 600-megaton atomic bomb.

 

***

My family waited four months for my father’s autopsy report. I longed for an explanation as to why a normally rational man would behave in a manner that seemed in direct opposition to his character. I wanted a brain tumor, an aneurysm, a faulty wire, something we could point to, a physical fact we could insert into this story that otherwise made no sense.

When my father’s house had been cleared out and his papers gone through, I returned to the meteor stories. They held a peculiar solace for me with their looming certainty, their terrible shockwaves, their communal trauma.

Some years before my father’s death, he lost his pancreas to cancer. He was on the brink of retirement at the time of the surgery, which left him severely diabetic. Letting go of his work as an attorney allowed him to devote himself fully to tracking his diet and insulin, noting the details in a small leather-bound book. He was an excellent patient, always careful about monitoring his blood sugar, “shooting himself” before meals, as he used to say, a wry smile on his lips.

During the last two weeks of his life my father received calls from phone scammers, people pretending to be IRS agents. They had called him before, and they repeated that he owed the government for unpaid taxes, and demanded money. A quick search of his bank records confirmed he never paid the scammers. But they phoned again, and he continued to take their calls. His final conversation with them occurred just a few hours before his death.

If he’d had a brain tumor, we reasoned, it might help explain why he failed to dismiss the callers as frauds. In fact, my father had connected the callers’ words with some long-ago legal case. Always scrupulous, he attempted to explain an error he thought he might have had made in a typewritten note he left on his desk. It begins with a lawyerly and reasoned formality. But paragraph by paragraph the words trail off into abstractions and forgetfulness. He couldn’t be certain, he wrote. He was unable to recall precisely. Around and around he went until any meaning fell away, until the words themselves seemed to drop off the page.

 

***

 

When Kulik arrived at the impact site at Tunguska, he was surprised to find no crater. Instead he was met with a vast wasteland littered with millions of singed and uprooted trees. Ruin as far as the eye can see, he wrote. The burns were distinct, he observed, from those of a forest fire: the vegetation had sustained a blast of continuous, scalding heat, as if from a massive blowtorch. Acres of tall pines lay in a radial pattern, indicating a center of intensity. A few remained upright, blackened and stripped of their branches. The forest floor was fixed in waves of black soil, he observed, as though the earth had liquefied and then frozen in place.

Kulik returned again and again to Tunguska, surveying the damage and laboring to establish a record of what had happened there. He spent years interviewing witnesses and photographing the charred forest, investigating an event that even today is unknowable, devoting his life to a single, massive devastation.

His most enduring contribution is the 700 testimonials he collected. “The sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the forest,” one man said. A woman who was a girl of 8 at the time of the blast recalled having seen through to the bones of her hand as she shielded her face from the terrifying brightness. A man reported having lost hundreds of reindeer, which ran in all directions when the “thunder,” as some inhabitants described it, came.

***

Down the high dune from Cooke’s Green, the Atlantic rocked and churned. Some years, a disorienting fog snaked along the shore, making it impossible to see past the grassy edge and too cold to swim. Sometimes at night the sea air grew so raw that my father would light a fire.

One evening after dinner I went outside and lay down on the sand between those two vastnesses — the stars above, the ocean below. There, for the first time, I saw my reflection in the far universe, understood my life for the minute thing that it was, no more significant than the marooned starfish doomed to stiffen at the drift line or the minnows my brother scooped from the marshes to study in his plastic bucket. I watched the sky for a long time before returning to my bunk with its cool sheets and threadbare bedspread. When I think about the universe now I think about that small place in the dunes. I think about minutiae and immensity, and how the two can collapse into a single whole.

In his books, astrophysicist Carl Sagan described sea and sky as twin elements. The Earth, he wrote, is the shore upon which we encounter the great ocean of the cosmos. Rocks and gasses traveling through space are our planetary tsunamis, extinguishing human life as a crashing wave erases a sandcastle.

It strikes me that Sagan’s metaphor is comfortable to the human mind. We love the ocean because while vast, it is also finite. It holds unfathomable mystery but ultimately can be contained. With a finger we can trace its edges on a map. The universe, though, is beyond our capacity to hold or conceive of. It refuses to be contained. Is it possible to love it, then, this thing that never ends?

 

***

My father photographed our family often. There is my brother dangling upside down from the top of the metal geodesic dome in our backyard, and the close-ups of my small face, blond bangs scissored in a firm line. Sometimes my father attached a flash to his Nikon, the silver disk threatening to eclipse his features. Blind spots remained with me as I wandered our home, looking up to the dormered windows or down at the patterns on the rug. Pots! I would exclaim when I was very young, pointing to the patch of light hewn to my pupils. Daddy, pots!

Back then I was friends with a girl whose dad was a colleague of my father’s. I found her fascinating mostly for her hair, which curled neatly into sand-colored ringlets. We were very young when her father asphyxiated himself in the garage of their family home. One day when we were bouncing superballs or running barefoot in the back yard, I asked her what happened.

I asked because someone dying in a car inside their own garage made no sense to me. I pictured Becky’s father driving his car through the garage door. I kept trying to imagine this, to bend and twist the facts into a story I could understand. But before Becky answered, my mother intervened. Privately, she scolded me for asking. It was only after years passed and Becky moved to another state that I finally understood what had happened.

When I was told my father had jumped, I imagined a bridge, a grand and historic structure. I imagined that the man I knew to be my protector and confidant leapt from its muscular steel frame into the glistening black water. I imagined that when he plunged into its current he would do as he had always done in the freezing Atlantic: kick his legs, fill his lungs with air. I trusted him to survive.

***

Months after my father’s death, I received a scam call. I listened patiently as a young man with a heavy south Asian accent who called himself David Cook cited an IRS file number and the amount of money I owed.

I told him people like him had killed my father. I asked him why he was working for criminals. I asked about his mother. Was she alive? Did she know what he was doing for money, that he was a thief, a murderer? Do not speak of my mother, the voice on the other end spat, a sentence pitched and deep as a moonless night.

***

As a young man, Kulik was imprisoned by his own government. Later, he fought in two wars. As his research into Tunguska was just gaining notice, he volunteered to fight again, this time against the Germans, who had invaded his homeland. Not long afterward, he was taken prisoner by the Nazis. He died in a prison camp in 1942.

Thirty years later, Kulik was honored for his contributions to science when Russian astronomers Lyudmilla and Nikolai Chernykh named a large asteroid for him. Another asteroid, Valdaj, is named for the Valdaj Hills near Moscow, where Nikolai’s father died in battle the same year Kulik perished. Today the asteroids orbit the Sun alongside hundreds of others, including bodies named for Carl Sagan and the Chernykhs themselves.

***

My father was 4 years old the year Kulik died. A child of the World War II era, he grew up in New York State playing war games with his friends. Even into his 70s, my father enjoyed making the sounds of explosions and whirring airplane engines, the memory of that time of heroism and adventure sparking in his blue eyes.

The books he brought with us to Cooke’s Green changed each year, but always Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling, the words in heavy gold typeface, was there. A bible of nautical survival, the 600-page manual of responsible conduct at sea was written in 1917 at the command of the US Secretary of the Navy. My father kept it on his shelves until his death, proud of his journeys across the world’s great oceans, of having become a man of the sea. I keep it now beside my desk.

When I was just out of college, I returned to that same coastal town where my father’s love of the ocean had taken us for so many years. I worked in a restaurant and shared a cottage with friends. Before our shifts we swam in the ocean, and at night we felt the cool sand underfoot as we watched for shooting stars.

Two months after that summer ended, a two-ton asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere above the Eastern US. It blazed across the night sky as it burned and broke apart. The largest known fragment, a twenty-six-pound, bowling-ball-sized chunk of rock and metal, tore a hole in the fender of a car parked in Peekskill, New York.

The car’s owner, a young woman named Caroline, heard the crashing sound and rushed outside. She found the meteorite inside a small crater beneath the trunk. It smelled of sulfur, she said, and was warm to the touch.

* * *

A native of New England, Susanna Space lives in the mountains of New Mexico. Her essays and flash works have appeared in numerous literary journals, and she’s at work on a memoir exploring the enduring effects of second-wave feminism.

Editor: Sari Botton