The Conquest of Space, and Other Dreams

by Lawrence Buentello

Some propositions were fairly simple; for instance, cooking breakfast, scheduling the car for regular maintenance, or visiting the beach on a Sunday afternoon. Becoming a space explorer was an example of a profoundly difficult proposition, one that required any number of complex steps, the least of which was a background in aeronautics. Herbert Wilhelm possessed nothing of the kind, which made his declaration that much more exotic. On hearing it, his wife, Rayna, thought he was surely joking with her, something he wasn’t usually predisposed to do, but the suggestion was so outlandish it could be nothing else.

I’m going to become a space explorer, he’d said from bed, still dressed in his pajamas and lying beneath the paisley comforter. His sharp gray eyes were focused on the bedroom ceiling.

Rayna, a short, middle-aged woman of reserved beauty, considered herself long-suffering, though extremely patient. And what she’d been suffering was her husband’s pessimistic nature. He wasn’t the sort of man to shirk his obligations, but he was the sort to complain miserably about them, which made his statement about space exploration even more puzzling.

She stood by the bed staring down on him, wondering if he was ever going to get out of bed to do his chores, but he only gazed back at her and smiled.

I don’t understand, she said, shaking her head. Are you going to buy a telescope? Books on astronomy?

No, no, he said. I’m going to leave this planet to explore the farthest reaches of interstellar space.

But you won’t even get out of bed, she said, perplexed.

I leave in two hours, he said, gazing once again at the ceiling, his voice entirely sincere.

She thought, he has to be having a nervous breakdown.

Since his psychosis seemed genuine, and he showed no signs of staging a prank, she searched in the directory and found the number to Wilhelm’s closest friend, Andy Bell.

Andy Bell came over right away, concerned by her inability to clearly state the problem involving her husband. Certainly it couldn’t be what he thought she’d said-

Bell was a tall man, with a tired, sober face, and crowned with warm, blond hair. He’d worked with Wilhelm for many years at the university, and had never known Herbert to engage in flights of fancy. Bell was himself a serious man, self-important about his field of study, but not embarrassingly so. He knew the limits of human intellect, as well as the disingenuousness of an academic pose.

He listened to Rayna’s explanation of the events of the morning and nodded to show her that he understood the gravity of the situation. He patted her hand and told her to wait in the living room while he interviewed her husband.

Wilhelm still lay beneath the comforter gazing up at the ceiling. It seemed to represent to him some whitewashed field of teleological interest, though of what design Bell couldn’t say. He found a chair and sat next to his colleague, already concerned by Wilhelm’s seeming dissociation from the world.

Herb, what’s this I hear about you becoming an explorer? he began, probing gently.

Wilhelm turned his head briefly to acknowledge his old friend, though he resumed his study of the ceiling almost immediately.

A man has the right to change his profession, he said, quite calmly. I’m only sorry I can’t take any of you with me.

Take us where?

To the stars, of course. But a space explorer is a solitary agent, working alone to uncover the mysteries of the universe.

How do you propose to accomplish this?

What do you mean?

Well, Herb, consider your resources. You’re an English teacher, not a scientist. You have no engineering background, you’re not a pilot-you don’t even like to fly. And since you’re not part of the space program the last time I checked, how do you intend to become a space explorer? You would be an old man before you ever managed to acquire the proper education, and I’m sure the space program has pretty rigid requirements.

Wilhelm smiled, appreciating a private joke.

Yes, all that’s true, he said. But it’s true only for someone wishing to enter into space exploration through conventional means. I don’t intend to become a space explorer through conventional means.

Bell scratched just underneath his lower lip, considering.

He said, Through what means do you intend to accomplish this goal?

There are physical explorers, Wilhelm said, as if explaining to a very young child, and there are metaphysical explorers. A physical explorer would certainly have to train in the manner you described, but a metaphysical explorer uses a different means of apprehension. The mind itself becomes the vehicle through which the universe is known. Therefore a metaphysical explorer must work through metaphysical means. A physical transference, as it were. Once I leave I’ll begin my explorations in earnest.

Once you leave? When do you leave?

A little less than an hour from now.

Really? From here? From your apartment?

Wilhelm’s brow knitted a moment.

Of course, he said, of course from here. Where else?

Don’t you see how foolish this all sounds? Don’t you realize that what you’re talking about can never become a reality?

Andy, you’re a decent man, but you’ve never been much of a dreamer. A man who doesn’t dream can’t possibly begin to appreciate the immensity of his own potential. When we stop dreaming we abandon that potential for some prescribed reality. Don’t you see the difference? I can become anything I choose, because my potential is unlimited.

I’m sorry, but you can’t become anything you choose because your potential is not unlimited. Some dreams just can’t come true. Especially when our lives are set and our paths have already been chosen.

Spoken like a man who’s stopped dreaming. But my dreams are still vital, and I intend to see them come true.

Bell sighed and patted his old friend on the shoulder. He rose from the chair and left Wilhelm alone in the bedroom to gaze eternally on the ceiling.

I suspect he’s suffering from a psychotic episode, Bell told Rayna in the living room. I’m not certain what brought on this break from reality, but he seems to be suffering a powerful delusion.

How could this happen so suddenly? Rayna asked, her fingers pressed to her temples. He’s never shown any signs of mental illness.

I really don’t know, Bell said, he’s always seemed a very centered person to me.

We should take him to his doctor.

His doctor would only tell you to hospitalize him for psychiatric evaluation. That would be the best course.

You mean place him in the state hospital?

Just for evaluation.

But think of his career, think of what people will say if I do that! Let me go in and talk to him again, I’ll bring him back to his senses.

What possible good could it do now?

If you tried to reason with him and failed, I might succeed if I appeal to his emotions. Don’t you think it could work?

Bell might have tried to sway her opinion more forcefully, but he knew, too, that she had to internalize her husband’s need for psychiatric care in order to support it. He simply nodded, and she moved past him nervously.

Andy told me that you intend to leave me, she said after entering the bedroom. Why would you want to leave me?

Wilhelm’s gaze was intent, but not on her.

I’m afraid it’s true, he said. I have no choice but to leave you. I’ll be leaving everything I love behind, but that’s the price of becoming an explorer. I will miss you, though.

You’re not leaving. You’re staying here with me.

No. I’m leaving in just a few minutes.

Herb, look at me. Will you look at me? You’re not going anywhere. You’re lying in bed. You’re not going anywhere at all.

Just the same, I’ll be leaving soon.

Why is this happening? she said, touching his arm, her voice breaking with the strain. I’ve given you a good life, I’ve always been good to you. What’s happening to your mind? Why are you saying these things?

I realize this is all very upsetting, he said, patting her hand gently. But there comes a time in a man’s life when he simply has to follow his destiny. A man dreams of certain things, of certain accomplishments, and sometimes he buries those dreams to build a life he believes he should have. But his soul is never satisfied, even if it’s a good life. I was meant to explore the stars, that is simply it. I wish it could be otherwise.

And what about me?

Rayna, you’re an intelligent woman, you have a good career, you have a pension to look forward to. You’ve always been the sound one in our marriage. I know you’ll do well.

But I love you, Herb, you just can’t leave me. Even if you’re losing your mind, you can’t leave me!

I’m sorry, love, but I have to follow my calling. All the times that I’ve talked about space to my students, about the universe, teaching my students to appreciate the stars in their essays, all that time I was really yearning to explore space myself. And now I’m going to do so.

You’re not going anywhere, she said through tears, except inside your own mind. Don’t lose yourself there. Don’t leave me.

When a man’s soul leaves for what he truly desires, he no longer exists for anything else that once held his interest. It’s not a judgment. It’s only what’s necessary. I’m sorry.

She closed the bedroom door behind her, certain now that what Bell said was true. Herbert Wilhelm would have to be hospitalized, scandalized, and ridiculed for bearing some mental illness she couldn’t begin to fathom.

Bell hugged her briefly and sat with her on the sofa.

We’ll call for an ambulance, he said.

Yes, she said. It’s necessary now.

They called for an ambulance and waited in the living room. When the attendants arrived at the door, they rose from the sofa and guided the men toward the bedroom. But when they opened the bedroom door the bed was empty. The comforter lay sprawled as if it had been once covering someone. They fearfully checked the windows to see if he had jumped, but the windows were locked from inside. They searched the bathroom, but Wilhelm wasn’t there. They searched under the bed, the closets, everywhere he could have hidden in the small bedroom, but Herbert Wilhelm was gone.

At first the attendants thought it was some elaborate joke, but when Rayna became hysterical they knew it was something else. The only explanation was that Herbert somehow moved past them through the living room and out the front door. It was the only exit he could have taken. But they hadn’t seen anything at all, and it didn’t seem as if he’d taken anything with him.

The police were summoned, but despite an elaborate search Wilhelm was never found.

Rayna, miserable for some time after the event, eventually recovered and found new relationships, though she never remarried. She actually came to believe that her husband had crafted the absurd scheme in order to leave her.

Andy Bell, perplexed by his friend’s disappearance, often stopped beneath the night sky to study the stars, as intently as his friend had studied the ceiling of his bedroom; but he just couldn’t make himself believe that Wilhelm was up in the vast darkness exploring space. He was a practical man, after all, a reasonable man, a man deeply invested in his own reality, and couldn’t possibly believe in anything as fantastic as fulfilling a dream.

3 Responses to “The Conquest of Space, and Other Dreams”

  1. sdavis says:

    Interesting, reminds me of that movie PAX insofar as the character is no different from anyone else. He just claims something fantastic which people for the most part doubt. In the movie the man’s personality disappears; he sort of a vegetable. In this one the body leaves as well.

    I’m not as enthused about the deviation from normal punctuation. I can get it with a little extra work, but the work reminds me of the fact I’m reading a story. It’s a hindrance to immersion, forgetting oneself in the story.

    I’ll be interested in other stories by this author.

  2. Opened strong and held my interest until the interchange between husband and wife–seemed a little stilted. Great premise; didn’t mind the lack of quotation marks (Cormac McCarthy did the same in The Road). So . . . sequel? I’d like to see what Herb experiences next–but perhaps that’s the point: to dream our own dreams.

  3. John-Paul DeWalt says:

    I’m big on having dreams and seeing them fulfilled despite the nay-sayers among us. However, I prefer their outcomes to be possible – if miraculous, obviously fulfilled – if explanable. Just to disappear without scientific explanation dissatisfied me.

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