The Boiler

Wes Jamison

LAIKA

There was a race. And we were flying, barely touching anything, as if propelled only by our selves, learning how to go faster and farther. It’s dark. But it’s a test run, preceded by tests and training and practices. She was a test. Of our ability to survive weightlessness. Even though we are never not under the pressure of gravity. Even though we are always, even if only slightly, weighed down. No matter how far away we get from here. The gravity never doesn’t hold us, the hold, the weight, simply continues to diminish to almost nothing though always still there. I want to tell them that what they did was wrong, that she could have been saved: Can’t you see that she, we, will never be weightless.

We can’t be, but we often feel it. I have often felt it. Jumping on that trampoline, it is the moment in the exact middle of ascent and descent, though too short to register. In water, but not even, floating. Freud says we are comforted by the illusion of weightlessness, as it reminds us of the womb. Water, then, holds power over our psyches. We take long warm baths. We enjoy hot tubs. We suspend ourselves. We wrap ourselves into the fetal position. To again be one with our mothers. Neurosis.

And I think about what it must be like for all those people who jump from buildings, not the ones who are pushed or fall, but the ones with intent: If we fall far enough and fast enough, do we get a sense of euphoric weightlessness. But there is a limit to how fast we can fall, though the distance is seemingly limitless. The farthest I’ve jumped—fallen, really—is from a single story. And I think about what it must be like for all those people who drown themselves: Surrounded by only water, do we feel as if we are floating, weightless, in space. I’ve never drowned. But I came close once. And I wish I could remember how I felt, but I was so young that my memories from that age are only visual, only recorded, captured, without judgment: legs, white, pale blue, though I convince myself of yellow. I can’t speak of weightlessness.

But how often do we weight ourselves to ensure our drowning—how much care do we take in picking the largest and heaviest rocks to place in our pockets or boots, absorbent clothing so we are not merely pressed under our environment but become part of it, swallowed by it. Part of something larger. I’m told not often at all, but there is a certain weight in specifics, in the individual. Metonym.

They’d have prevented her from feeling weightless: they had her strapped, chained. Her harness weighed down on her, as she weighed down on the spacecraft, and together, they weighed 1133lbs. And that is not not having weight; that is being weighted, burdened.

Zero-g is an impossibility—and the scientists should know that. But we test weightlessness. Not the feeling of, not the actual, but what we call just that. And I think about the shock: the doubled heart rate and the quadrupled breathing produced by the feeling of having lost all our weight. The sudden shock of being insubstantial.

But they used her to test the effects of zero-g on life. They used her as a stepping stone or a scaffold for their future endeavors, for their dreams. And that certainly burdened her more than the 1120lb. craft to which she was bound.

It could not have been a lack of weight that stressed her so. Traveling 10km/s, then eventually slowing to 7.8. The heat rising to 104ᵒ Fahrenheit. The inability to move. The inability to see further than only a couple of inches in front of her face or to either side. The sounds of which she’d only previously heard simulations. The looming hypodermic.

It was a race, and the craft was planned and built carelessly, in haste. There was no possibility for successful reentry, not intact. That would be her cremation. But not her death. Death was to come by that needle, timed for injection after seven days. Seven days of looking only immediately ahead, eating blue, gelatinous high-nutrition food, licking water from a tube—like a good dog, as she was taught to do—too afraid, too stressed to defecate or urinate, even in the diaper attached to her, covered in iodine and alcohol, waiting to die.

And I like to think that she knew, not because I believe we can foresee our deaths, but that I think we all know the signs of our own ends: She was taken to Vladimir Yazdovsky’s home only days before the launch to play with his children in what I imagine to be a yellowing and hardened-brown yard, although it would have been too cold for that—for those colors and to enjoy canine company outdoors—but was likely a small, dark room with grey overstuffed furniture. Something nice was done for her for the first time in the three years of her life. A change always must signal the end. Why else would so many animals hide under porches, under houses, simply flee before death, only to be found days or weeks or never later. They know. They anticipate. They sit, don’t move, and wait for it.

They lied and said that she had no more oxygen. Then they lied and said that the needle had been used just before—the timer overrode, so that her suffering might be spared. And then the same science that suggests that we might ever lack weight, have weightlessness, be outside of gravity, said she overheated. They said after four days. They said within hours.

I haven’t seen anyone die, not in person, except for a cat, by needle, head in palm, the sudden expansion of pupils and the heaviness. I can imagine most deaths. How they would go. What they would look like. But not overheating. I don’t know that that is even outwardly visible. But sometimes I like to think about what deaths would feel like—what it feels like to die in various ways, genres of death. I know that heating causes boiling. And I think of those tiny bubbles and the hissing that come from the bottom of the pot on my stove. And then the bubbles get bigger. And I imagine our insides turning into a cocoa-colored dark rolling boil. I imagine, but of course cannot describe, the pain that would cause.

And I associate overheating with fire. I oftentimes imagine it as combustion, though I know that is inaccurate. I like to think of it as burning hair. I like to think of it as cracking, peeling, then erupting then erupting flesh. The boil is only caused by the flame under the metal. But there is heat without fire. And that is what I cannot properly imagine. Laika’s overheating.

But there was fire—fire that I can easily imagine. Though it may only be imagined. I may actually be thinking of heat being made visible, a sort of Schlieren vision. She reentered. Her corpse. Five months later, after 2570 orbits of a dead body around our earth, after the onset of decomposition, she reentered. More than 3000ᵒ Fahrenheit, more than enough to cremate our dead. And I imagine the heat sparking. Then the peeling away of nose-cone and foil and hair and flesh and insulation and muscle and metal and bone—breaking and breaking and breaking smaller and smaller until only marrow, until only dust. But maybe not even that.

She never reached the ground. Never fell. Just disappeared.

Her fluids and her drinking water would have been vaporized. But her muscle, her teeth, her hair, her harness, the heat shields, all that metal, her bone, her flesh, the curved tissue of her ears would have sublimated. Would have gotten so hot that it turned immediately to gas. In one swift process. No melting. She turned into air. And slowly, thinly spread herself, divided herself amongst all that which we’ve inhaled since. Always breathing canine and shuttle.

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Wes Jamison received his MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. His work appears or is forthcoming in 1913, Columbia Poetry Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Gertrude, GoneLawn, and Wilde Magazine. “The Secret Garden” (South Loop Review Essay Contest Winner) was selected as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2013.