The Soft Moon

by Italo Calvino

According to the calculations of H. Gerstenkorn, later developed by H. Alfven, the terrestrial continents are simply fragments of the Moon which fell upon our planet. According to this theory, the Moon originally was a planet gravitating around the Sun, until the moment when the nearness of the Earth caused it to be derailed from its orbit. Captured by terrestrial gravity, the Moon moved closer and closer, contracting its orbit around us. At a certain moment the reciprocal attraction began to alter the surface of the two celestial bodies, raising very high waves from which fragments were detached and sent spinning in space, between Earth and Moon, especially fragments of lunar matter which finally fell upon Earth. Later, through the influence of our tides, the Moon was impelled to move away again, until it reached its present orbit. But a part of the lunar mass, perhaps half of it, had remained on Earth, forming the continents.
She was coming closer; I noticed it as I was going home, raising my eyes between the walls of glass and steel, and I saw her, no longer a light like all the others that shine in the evening: the ones they light on Earth when at a certain hour they pull down a lever at the power station, or those of the sky, farther away but similar, or at least not out of harmony with the style of all the rest-I speak in the present tense, but I am still referring to those remote times-I saw her breaking away from all the other lights of the sky and the streets, standing out in the concave map of darkness, no longer occupying a point, perhaps a big one on the order of Mars and Venus, like a hole through which the light spreads, but now becoming an out-and-out portion of space, and she was taking form, not yet clearly identifiable because eyes weren't used to identifying it, but also because the outlines weren't sufficiently precise to define a regular figure. Anyway I saw it was becoming a thing.

And it revolted me. Because it was a thing that, though you couldn't understand what it was made of, or perhaps precisely because you couldn't understand, seemed different from all the things in our life, our good things of plastic, and nylon, of chrome-plated steel, duco, synthetic resins, plexiglass, aluminum, vinyl, formica, zinc, asphalt, asbestos, cement, the old things among which we were born and bred. It was something incompatible, extraneous. I saw it approaching as if it were going to slip between the skyscrapers of Madison Avenue (and I'm talking about the avenue we had then, beyond comparison with the Madison of today), in that corridor of night sky glowing with light from above the jagged line of the cornices; and it spread out, imposing on our familiar landscape not only its light of an unsuitable color, but also its volume, its weight, its incongruous substantiality. And then, all over the face of the Earth-the surfaces of metal plating, iron armatures, rubber pavements, glass domes-over every part of us that was exposed, I felt a shudder pass.

As fast as the traffic allowed, I went through the tunnel, drove toward the Observatory. Sibyl was there, her eye glued to the telescope. As a rule she didn't like me to visit her during working hours, and the moment she saw me would make a vexed face; but not that evening: she didn't even look up, it was obvious she was expecting my visit. "Have you seen it?" would have been a stupid question, but I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking it, I was so impatient to know what she thought about it all.

"Yes, the planet Moon has come closer still," Sibyl said, before I had asked her anything, " the phenomen was foreseen."

I felt a bit relieved. "Do you foresee that it'll move away again?" I asked. Sibyl still had one eyelid half closed, peering into the telescope. "No," she said, "it won't move away any more."

I didn't understand. "You mean that the Earth and the Moon have become twin planets?"

"I mean the Moon isn't a planet any more and the Earth has a Moon."

Sibyl had a casual way of dismissing matters; it irritated me every time she did it. "What kind of thinking is that?" I complained. "one planet's just as much a planet as the others, isn't it?"

"Wouldn't you call this a planet? I mean, a planet the way the Earth's a planet? Look!" And Sibyl moved from the telescope, motioning me to move approach it. "The Moon could never manage to become a planet like ours."

I wasn't listening to her explanation: the Moon, enlarged by the telescope, appeared to me in all its details, or rather many of its details appeared to me at once, so mixed up that the more I observed it the less sure I was of how it was made, and I could only vouch for the effect this sight caused me, an effect of fascinated disgust. First of all, I could not the green veins that ran over it, thicker in certain zones, like a network, but to tell the truth this was the most insignificant detail, the least showy, because what you might call the general properties eluded the grasp of my glance, thanks perhaps to the slightly viscous glistening that transpired from a myriad of pores, one would have said, or percula, and also in certain points from extended tumefactions of the surface, like buboes or suckers. There, I'm concentrating again on the details, a more picturesque method of description apparently, though in reality of only limited efficacy, because only by considering the details within the whole-such as the pale swelling of the sublunar pulp which stretched its pale external tissues but made them also fold over on themselves in inlets or recesses looking like scars (so it, this Moon, might also have been made of pieces pressed together and stuck on carelessly)-it is, as I say, only by considering the whole, as in diseased viscera, that the single details can also be considered: for example, a thick forest as of black fur which jutted out of a rift.

" Does it seem right to you that it should go on revolving around the Sun, like us?" Sibyl said. "The Earth is far stronger: in the end it'll shift the Moon from its orbit and make it turn around the Earth. We'll have a satellite."

I was quite careful not to express the anguish I was feeling. I knew how Sibyl reacted in these cases: assuming an attitude of blatant superiority, if not of downright cynicism, acting like a person who is never surprised by anything. She behaved this way to provoke me, I believe (that is, I hope: I would certainly have felt even greater anguish at the thought that she acted out of real indifference).

"And...and..." I started to say, taking care to formulate a question that would show something to appease my anxiety (so I still hoped for this from her, I still insisted that her calm reassure me), "... and will we always have it in sight like this?"

"This is nothing," she answered. "It'll come even closer." And for the first time, she smiled. "Don't you like it? Why, seeing it there like that, so different, so far from any known form, and knowing that it's ours, that the Earth has captured it and is keeping it there...I don't know, I like it, it seems beautiful to me."

At this point I no longer cared about hiding my mood. "But won't it be dangerous for us?" I asked.

Sibyl tensed her lips in the expression of hers I liked least. "We are on the Earth, the Earth has a force which means it can keep planets around itself, on its own, like the Sum. What can the Moon oppose, in the way of mass, field of gravity, orbit stability, consistency? Surely you don't mean to compare the two? The Moon is all soft, the Earth is hard, solid, the Earth endures."

"What about the Moon? If it doesn't endure?"

"Oh, the Earth's force will keep it in its place."

I waited till Sibyl had finished her shift at the Observatory, to drive her home. Just outside the city is that cloverleaf where all the superhighways spread out, rushing over bridges that cross one another in spiral patterns, held up by cement pillars of different heights; you never know in what direction you're going as you follow the white arrows painted on the asphalt, and now and then you find the city you're leaving suddenly facing you, coming closer, patterned with squares of light among the pillars and the curves of the spiral. There was the Moon just above us: and the city seemed fragile to me, suspended like a cobweb, with all its light, under that excrescence that swelled the sky. Now, I have use the word "excrescence" to indicate the Moon, but I must at once fall back on the same word to describe the new thing I discovered at that moment: namely, an excrescence emerging from that Moon-excrescence, stretching toward the Earth like the drip of a candle.

"What's that? What's happening?" I asked, but by now a new curve had set our automobile journeying toward the darkness.

"It's the terrestrial attraction causing solid tides on the Moon's surface," Sibyl said. "What did I tell you? Call that consistency?"

The unwinding of the superhighway brought us again face to face with the Moon, and that candle dripping had stretched still farther toward the Earth, curling at its tip like the mustache hair, and them, as its point attachment thinned to a peduncle, it had almost the appearance of a mushroom.

We lived in a cottage, in a line with others along one of the many avenues of a vast Green Belt. We sat down as always on the rocking chairs on the porch with a view of the back yard, but this time we didn't look at the half-acre of glazed tiles that formed our share of the green space; our eyes were staring above, magnetized by that sort of polyp hanging above us. Because now the Moon's drippings had become numerous, and they extended toward the Earth like slimy tentacles, and each of them seemed about to start dripping in its turn a matter composed of gelatin and hair and mold and slaver.

"Now, I ask you, is that any way for a celestial body to disintegrate?" Sibyl insisted. "Now you must realize the superiority of our own planet. What if the Moon does come down? Let it come: the time will also come for it to stop. This is the sort of power the Earth's field of gravity has: after it's attracted the Moon on top of us, all sudden it stops the Moon, carries it back to a proper distance, and keeps it there, making revolve, pressing it into a compact ball. The Moon has us to thank if it doesn't fall apart completely!"

I found Sibyl's reasoning convincing, because to me, too, the Moon seemed something inferior and revolting; but her words still couldn't relieve my apprehension. I saw the lunar outcrops writhing in the sky with sinuous movements: there was the city, below, where we could see a glow of light on the horizon with the jagged shadow of the skyline. Would it stop in time, the Moon, as Sibyl had said, before one its tentacles had succeeded in clutching the spire of a skyscraper? And what if, sooner, one of these stalactites that kept stretching and lengthening should break off, plunge down upon us?

"Something may come down," Sibyl admitted, without waiting for a question from me, "but what does that matter? The Earth is all sheathed in waterproof, crushproof, dirtproof materials; even if a bit of this Moon mush drips onto us, we can clean it up in a hurry." As if Sibyl's assurance had enabled me to see something that had surely been taking place for a while, I cried: "Look, stuff is coming down!" and I raised my arm to point out a suspension of thick drops of a creamy pap in the air. But at that same moment a vibration came from the Earth, a tinkling; and through the sky, in the direction opposite to the falling clumps of planetary secretion, a very minute flight of solid fragments rose, the scales of the Earth's armor which was being shattered: unbreakable glass and plates of steel and sheaths of nonconducting material, drawn up by the Moon's attraction as in an eddy of grains of sand.

"Only minimal damage," Sibyl said, "and just on the surface. We can repair the gaps in no time. It's only logical that the capture of a satellite should cost us some losses: but it's worth it, there' simply no comparison!"

That was when we heard the first crack of a lunar meteorite falling to the Earth: a very loud "splat!", a deafening noise and, at the same time, a disgustingly spongy one, which didn't remain alone but was followed by a series of apparently explosive splashes, of flabby whip strokes falling on every side. Before our eyes became accustomed to perceiving what was falling, a little time went by: to tell the truth, I was the slow one because I expected the pieces of the Moon to be luminous too; whereas Sibyl already saw them and commented on them in her contemptuous tone but also with an unusual indulgence: "soft meteorites, now really, who's ever seen such a thing? Stuff worthy of the Moon... interesting, though, in its way..."

One remained stuck on the wire hedge, half crushed under its weight, spilling over on the ground and immediately mixing with it, and I began to see what it was, that is I began to assemble some sensations that would allow to form a visual image of what I had before me, and then I became aware of other, smaller spots scattered all over the tile pavement: something like a mud of acid mucus which penetrated into the terrestrial strata, or rather a kind of vegetal parasite that absorbed everything it touched, incorporating it into its own gluey pulp, or else like a serum in which colonies of whirling and ravenous micro- organisms were agglomerated, or else a pancreas cut into pieces trying to join together again, opening like suckers the cells of its cut edges, or else . . .

I would have liked to close my eyes and I couldn't; but when I heard Sibyl's voice say: "Of course, I find it revolting too, but when you think that the fact is finally established: the Earth is definitely different and superior and we're on this side, I believe that for a moment we can even enjoy sinking into it, because anyway afterward . . . " I wheeled around toward her. Her mouth was open in a smile I had never seen before: a damp smile, slightly animal...

The sensation I felt on seeing her like that became confused with the fear caused almost at the same moment by fall of a great lunar fragment, the one that submerged and destroyed our cottage and the whole avenue and the residential suburb and a great part of the county, in a single, hot, syrupy, stunning blow. After digging through the lunar material all night, we managed to see the sky again. It was dawn; the storm of meteorites was over; the Earth around us was unrecognizable, covered by a deep layer of mud, a paste of green proliferations and slippery organisms. Of our former terrestrial materials not a trace was visible. The Moon was moving off in the sky, pale, and also unrecognizable: narrowing my eyes, I could see it was covered with a thick mass of rubble and shards and fragments, shiny, sharp, clean.

The sequel is familiar. After hundreds of thousands of centuries we are trying to give the Earth its former natural appearance, we are reconstructing the primitive terrestrial crust of plastic and cement and metal and glass and enamel and imitation leather. But what a long way we have to go! For a still incalculable amount of time we will be condemned to sink into the lunar discharge, rotten with chlorophyll and gastric juices and dew and nitrogenous gases and cream and tears. We still have much to do, soldering the shiny and precise plates of the primordial terrestrial sheath until we have erased-or at least concealed-the alien and hostile additions. And with today's materials, too, concocted haphazardly, products of a corrupt Earth, trying in vain to imitate the prime substances, which cannot be equaled.

The true materials, those of the past, are said to be found nom only on the Moon, unexploited and lying there in a mess, and they say that for this reason alone it would be worthwhile going there: to recover them. I don't like to seem the sort who always says disagreeable things, but we all know what state the Moon is in, exposed to cosmic storms, full of holes, corroded, worn. If we go there, we'll only have the disappointment of learning that even our material of the old days-the great reason and proof of terrestrial superiority-was inferior goods, not made to last, which can no longer be used even as. There was a time when I would have been careful not to show suspicions of this sort to Sibyl. But now, when she's fat, disheveled, lazy, greedily eating cream puffs, what can Sibyl say to me, now?

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