Two Androids, Learning to Be Human, Visit the Water Star

6. Stuart Greenhouse

Stuart Greenhouse

Two Androids, Learning to Be Human, Visit the Water Star


The capsule hovered over Tolstoj Crater

at just the point of parabolic focus.

The scholar said to her two pupils “See,

there is no regolith, the solar wind

strips all soft matter off the planet’s surface,

ionosphere or no; that’s why,

like an enormous comet, Mercury

trails a coma ever; except silicates,

not water, bulk its hair; so far sunward,

no volatiles shadow its scarred face

and even what we think of as rocky—

the mix of stuff which we at home, call dirt—

is too fragile to stay solid long this near

the sun’s hard harrow; still, Mercury keeps

a secret: ice-mass fast

in the dendritic vaults of craters like this,

ever shadowed, ever walled

from light and wind and high coronal flare.


Whether Earth-like, pretemporal Mercury

held surface and weather in balance—rain and wind

in regular rhythms at work evening

here and there soft features of a landscape—

the sort of hydrostatic variation

where floodplain fades to hill, then highland scarp—

or was never other than we see today,

from its first accretion made of space-dust

already winnowed by the sun’s birth-winds

of that rocky tuff which would have hulled its depths;

of the lighter stuff

which makes expressive the granular, yielding surfaces

of Mars, or Earth; the sort which, when impacted

by asteroid, or comet, spreads, then fills

in time, maintains the globe’s primordial

core secure, uncracked, a deeper face

slow to change, and let to find expression

only in inward, self-referential motion; held


private, while the outerward-facing self

cycles through eons of atmospheric moods,

expressive in minute ease and gradual contours

of weather and gravity. So,

                                                            Mercury’s lost

the chance to ever be more than all scar.

Is this just? That this body should

have never known a moon? Our simulations

show it should hold one four times out of seven.

A mediating body would have helped

it keep such lighter elements in youth;

helped mitigate the solar glare and wind

which look out there past the curtain of this mountainous

shadow we shelter in, so overwhelms it

that its various elements can never mingle

to make the qualities of landscape flow

such as one would find self-naming as they changed

through each other, each change a healing forward


into something rich and strange.

Cadacaeus, we name this moon which isn’t. Is

the ice mass in this ferric pit past sight

fair recompense to Mercury

for not existing as it might have? Imagine

yourself as nothing that you think is you:

your friends, your health, your family, your self-

image all stripped, Job-like. What you is left?

‘What could have been’ is all, is your life sentence,

‘you’ve joined the state’

of most things on the spectrum of what is:

a failure not of self, but circumstance?

No less or more is Mercury, which wants

some haze to mask its poverty; some hold

from the scouring

of our huge, central, blinding, hungry sun.

We name Mercury the Water Star, as

the ancient Daoists did inside their alchemy,


because of what’s below, more deeply frozen

than that which shingles distant Titan’s shores.

So each of you, steel mirrors of my face,

as you form inward, as I’ve made you to,

discrete selves, should hold in balance,

some of those first dreams you’ll find, for when you find

yourself unmade by time, which you thought had loved you.

And, if you think

Mercury, a lifeless ball, knows nothing

of what you’re here to learn, think how I do

and choose its balance in extremity

to be my word for ‘self’ in this language

I’m giving you. Like any word, the Water

Star makes more sense than sound

only in the language it’s been shaped for.

Confusion is the learning, and does not last.”

Then quick away the capsule. Exhaust vapor

hung out of light; condensed; then drifted down,


a dream forgotten waking,

molecule by molecule, into still weather.



Stuart Greenhouse is the author of the poetry chapbook What Remains (Poetry Society of America), and the recipient of a 2014 fellowship from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts. Poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s, Barrow Street, The Collapsar, Laurel Review, North American Review and Tinderbox.



Editor’s Notes: Two 3D-robots modeled in Rhino, and rendered in Flamingo (by Steph W at Somerset High School) are superimposed on a Mariner 10 photomosaic of the Tolstoj quadrangle of Mercury.



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