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Dark Matter

The future of the Universe may depend on how much dark matter there is. If there is too much, its gravity will eventually stop the Universe’s expansion, make it shrink again.

If the boy continues to ruminate, he’ll have dark thoughts. No one to stop him. Not even the girl he is always thinking about, the one who plays with toads, talks to them, and squints hard when he talks to her, when they meet near the village square. 

To distract himself, he constricts his universe to his immediate surroundings: the darkness descending upon this fragment of the cosmos; time in space before which he must stop chopping logs for the fire. Thinks of the woman who is a stranger to him, who pretends to be his mother. She, who might have dozed off by the pile of laundry by the deep well. And his father? He’s on a train to bet on the race horses. If it’s an average day for Dad, he’ll kick on the door way past midnight, sloshed, all his money lost.

Unlike stars or the moon, space matter or dark matter is known by volume, does not give off light.

Boy completes his errand, ties the chopped wood into a bundle with a dry creeper, carries it on his head. At home, he hangs his muffler on the hook behind the door; washes at the well, rubs his heels on the moss near the steps, hates the creepy feeling. In fact, he detests everything about his birth, about his fractured home, about the endless copious arguments his father and that stranger woman have about him daily. He never says a word that’d reveal his mind; grateful telescopes can only see into light, not darkness.

In the shed for cattle, that is now also for his sleeping, he doesn’t light the lamp. 

As time passes, he measures distances between galaxies with his arm spans through the broken tiles on the roof. Only sometimes, etches the girl with her toads on some unnamed constellation. 

Astronomers know about dark matter because of its gravity’s pull on stars, the way it changes their orbit, and the way they rotate.

On another night, he pulls the beige rucksack to his chest; checks, one last time, that his sparse belongings are packed.

Tonight, his thoughts are gravitating to another orbit, away from the father who doesn’t care and the woman who’ll never be his mother. Marking a corridor between the Big Bang and an inevitable collapse of his life, he plans an escape. 

Nothing here, not even the girl who plays with toads, will be part of that new cosmic explosion. 

He repeats this line to himself countless times until he falls asleep, like a lie he wants to be true.

Between the Libra and Hydra is the Bufo, the toad, a fifteen star constellation. It is marked by the brightest star, named Brachium, said to represent the toad’s eye.

It is not known if the boy’s new universe is any more remarkable than his first. He’s only gone as far as his orbit will allow. An escape only thus far, as gravity will permit.

But he is said to mark Bufo, the toad constellation on the night sky, wherever he toils. 

Passers-by have seen his eyes dig deep into the spectacular abyss, as if screwing into the black veil. 

Sometimes, he imagines the girl playing with the toad, talking to them, talking to him. 

Believes what the people in these parts say, that Bufo, the toad, is a passage between different worlds.

Mandira Pattnaik writes flash prose and poetry about alienation and identity, and is on the masthead of Trampset and Reckon Review. Her story in Contrary, “Dark Matter,” was selected by Wigleaf as one of the top stories of 2022. Her work can be found at mandirapattnaik.com.