Lunar Deceptions

“Genetically, all women are mosaics.” In utero, the double X chromosomes need paring: we can’t have the same gene expressing twice. So, some genes turn off, allowing their parallel to do the work instead. But “in certain cells, the X chromosome inherited from the mother is inactivated, while in other cells the X chromosome inherited from the father is inactivated.” The XXs glimmer differently, prisms that can’t quite mirror each other exactly.


Under the steady shine of the Harvest Moon, I lie to my pajamaed son, tell him Mars is a star, because he wants to wish on “The Wishing Star” and none are visible. I’m trying to get him to bed on time. It’s just a fib.


Of course you’ve heard that women’s menstrual cycles sync up with the stages of the Moon. In a study of twenty-two women, some did show alignment. But night owls bathed in artificial light never synchronized, and one researcher notes that when we lived in a darker world, women who were pregnant or breastfeeding “had perhaps 40-50 cycles in a lifetime—which means there was not much opportunity for … syncing with the moon.”


The Moon causes our ocean tides—but it’s not that simple. The water in a backyard pool doesn’t lift up toward the full moon, whose gravity is anemic. Instead, in the “liquid body” of the interconnected oceans covering seventy percent of our globe, each molecule pushes on others, under the influence of the rotating, gravity-heavy Earth. When the Sun’s force comes into play too, we get spring or neap tides.


In the school drop-off line next to the parish cemetery, my son wants the Harvest Moon still full in the pink western sky to be closer, so he can see the astronauts. “Are they real?” he asks, meaning every cartoon has an episode with fictitious star-travelers, a challenge overcome. He knows already some things we tell ourselves are just pretend. I try to explain low-earth orbit and budgetary restraints as we idle, some grave plinths and monuments seared white by the Sun on their eastern edges. We make lists of O words: oak leaf, on/off, outside, and my mind keeps spawning them after he’s wriggled out of the car: overcast, octave loosely linked to its sestet, ovary smooth without the scars of age, doling out its largesse while it lasts.


The Moon is not an O; it has a tail dragging behind it, irradiated sodium catapulted from the surface after meteor strikes. Every month, during the new moon, Earth wears the tail “like a scarf.” My son does not believe this tidbit because he cannot see it. And anyway, that morning Moon can’t be the real thing, must be a projection, as convincing as the soundstage where they filmed the landings, too sublime to be real.


If women trying to conceive want to align with the Moon, they can try lunaception. Sleep in complete darkness for two weeks starting with the new moon, not a hint of light in your room. Get blackout curtains, cover your alarm clock, eschew nightlights. Then, turn on a dim lamp while you slumber, for three days in a row (this is your fertile period). Then, during the waning moon, back to the darkness. When you’ve tried everything else medicine has to offer, this might seem like a reasonable, affordable option.


Eighty percent of those with autoimmune issues are women. One theory: the differing X chromosomes brim with immune-related genes ready to mutate, or the X prism-sisters don’t recognize each other and form antigens to their kin. And in pregnancy, a woman’s immune system squelches the urge to destroy foreign bodies, is weakened and primed for mismanagement.


Or maybe we just don’t have enough babies these days. The placenta communicates with the immune system, fine-tuning how it works. In those times with darker nights, when women were pregnant much of their lives, that placenta regulation happened often enough. Our bodies evolved to expect it. But if we’re not constantly bearing children, without the intervention of the placenta, the immune system gets confused and aggressive, “starts looking for things to attack that aren’t dangerous.”


I didn’t meet my husband until I turned thirty, then we struggled to have children, then we had one. Then we miscarried, struggled to have more. I’ve spent only forty-four weeks of my life pregnant. Then I developed an autoimmune arthritis. Sometimes, now, I’m relieved I don’t have to parent-through-pain more than one child. Sometimes.


The goddess of the Moon, Selene, drove a two-horse chariot. She loved a mortal shepherd, Endymion, and asked the gods to help him slumber eternally so she could visit him nightly. In one version, she bore him fifty daughters, the number of lunar months between Olympic Games. If the sky was dark, she was at his white-rocked cave with him, perhaps conceiving.


Nixon’s staff prepared a speech in case the Moon landing failed, words that ring false now: “They will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. … In their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. … For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.” Mother, sons, brotherhood, man, mankind. A Mother full of children, far from other worlds. Her own enclosed sphere, in which well-intentioned warriors attack what seems foreign but isn’t.


Sometime later this decade, a woman will step onto the Moon. Her menstrual cycles will likely be suppressed to avoid complications. She might not be allowed as much time in space over her lifetime as the male astronauts, since the risks for radiation cancer are higher. She might be a mother. XX chromosomes will shimmer prismatically in her cells. We’ll see her presence there as a foretold legend. She will lie to us, out of kindness: It’s worth all the sacrifices, or This feels like home, or I wish you all could be here with me.

Lisa Ampleman is the author of a chapbook and three full-length books of poetry, including Mom in Space (forthcoming 2024) and Romances (2020), both with LSU Press. Her poems and essays appear in journals such as 32 Poems, Colorado Review, Ecotone, Image, and the Southern Review. She is the managing editor of the Cincinnati Review and poetry series editor at Acre Books.