Sunday, January 12, 2014

van Winkle

This time of year the stars are so bright, they’re like the eyes of god staring out of the sky. There are so many of them that the only place to hide is in the city, where all the lit up buildings throw a camouflage blanket over the actions of the people below. That’s why life is so different in the city, that’s why there are all those murders and robberies and people doing whatever they want without asking their conscience if it’s really such a good idea. It isn’t that the cities meant to be bad, but when they found out god couldn’t see because of all the light, they forgot all their Sunday school in the hustle and bustle. Electricity more or less wrote the obituary for omniscience.

But this isn’t about the city, because the city people don’t really matter. They don’t care anything about us, and that goes both ways. This is about last night, and all the stars were so bright I could almost touch them, the air was so thin it made the distance disappear. Sometimes the stars get all close like that and it makes me afraid that it’s time to die, that the stars are coming to get me, and sometimes when the Geminids fly overhead, I’m convinced that the stars are jealous of us, that they are coming to Earth to live as humans. I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s a bit confusing, thinking of how it would be to live surrounded by powerful radiance: part of it would be the most amazing experience and part of it would be feeling like the clumsiest, stupidest, ugliest thing to ever live. So usually I’d rather wait to die to become a star myself and join them, rather than have the stars decide to take human form when I’m not ready for them.

Last night the stars were bright even though there was a full moon; everything glowed brighter together instead of competing for space in the sky. It was cold and the air was thin and I almost forgot to look, but then I did, right after the moon rose above the old elm tree, and it was just so much that I had to be outside, too, sharing the night with the stars. These days I don’t move as easily as I used to, my knees are stiff and my hearing’s not so good, and the cold makes it that much worse, but it didn’t matter. I found my old peacoat from back in the shipyard days, and the grass was frozen as I walked out into the yard. The moon had cleared the elm tree and stood high in the sky, surrounded by a court of stars, and I tried to look at all of them at once, but there were too many, in every direction, to see standing up.

Then, even though the ground was frozen cold, I laid down, and the stars spread across the sky above me, so numerous and so close it felt like summer rain falling. I lay, perfectly still, and watched the stars dance across the sky and the moon move to its own tempo, and then I must have fallen asleep. I do not think I died, but I might have.

This is not what I was told death would be like, for I was not a star, I was still myself. When I awoke, though, I felt like I was both myself and every human who has ever lived, all at the same time. I was young and old and weightless and heavy, and I still spoke in my voice and had my thoughts, but my mind was full of more memories that I had ever imagined. They were cascading, shuffling through me, dance lessons turning into working a plough turning into a dinner party lit only by candlelight with fantastical wigs and dresses turning into the acrid smokey smell of an oil rig turning into a field of marigold overwhelmingly glowing and then into a family of monkeys chittering to one another in the canopy of a forest. The images and memories kept coming, faster and faster, and I tried to watch all of them and relive all of them, until I felt myself growing dizzy with the effort. I opened my eyes.

The entire night had passed, without me being aware of it. It was still my hillside, but something was different. Something important had changed. With my eyes open I tried to suppress or calm down the memories so I could concentrate, and I squinted my eyes to see what was there. It felt like home, the same way it’s easier to breathe when you’re at home than anywhere else. The air smelled the way it was supposed to smell, rotting leaves and woodsmoke and pine tree. There was something off about the old elm tree, and I got off the ground to look more closely. The first thing I noticed was my knees didn’t hurt the way they used to, but they way they felt was that they remembered hurting, they just weren’t swollen and painful anymore. My vision was sharper, too: colors seemed brighter and richer. Maybe my vision hadn’t been so great, or maybe those cataracts were worse than I had thought, but even though I could tell that things seemed clearer and more vibrant, I wasn’t completely sure why.

I walked towards the elm tree, the tree that I had made up stories about since I was a child, the tree had been a knight and a dragon and a princess and an evil stepmother and an old sage. When I was close enough, I reached out a hand and touched the bark. It was like an electric shock, but it wasn’t unpleasant. I had pulled my hand away in surprise, but now I put it back, and the electricity buzzed through me and I felt the pulse of the tree. The sap rose and fell and rose and fell just exactly like my heartbeat, and with one hand on the tree I placed my other hand on my pulse. It was the same rhythm. I listened more carefully, tuning out the chatter of all the memories in my head, and I could hear the zinging humming of the sap as it moved. Then I could hear the gurgling murmuring purr of my own bloodstream, synchronized with the tree.

The tree’s bark was alive, shifting and moving, not the inert armor I had always assumed, and I watched it turn a thousand shades of russet under my hand. The branches overhead were not merely swaying in the wind, but were moving of their own accord, dancing with the wind. As I continued to focus on the branches, I felt them lift up and form silhouettes, the shape of the knight, the dragon, the princess, the stepmother, the sage. I wondered if I had known I was telling the tree’s own stories, or if, instead, the tree had heard my stories and become them, but as soon as I thought this, I realized it didn’t matter, because the tree and I were the same. Our cells moved in harmony, its experiences passing as easily beneath my skin as my experiences became a part of its branches.

Overhead, the sky grew cloudy, and as the rain began to fall, it did not bounce off or form droplets upon my skin but was being absorbed into me. As each raindrop landed, I could feel every lake and ocean where it had been before, in some droplets I could even taste the sadness of former tears, and as all of these drops fell onto and into me, I felt myself become the ocean.

It was still afternoon, and although I was nourished by the falling rain, I knew it was time for tea, and I returned to this farmhouse where I have spent my entire life. The kitchen was full, filled with a dozen women I recognized but did not remember meeting, until suddenly I saw they were my grandmothers, all of my grandmothers, gathered together. In the spaces between them were all of my grandfathers, settling down in the chair by the fire for an afternoon cup of tea, and I could feel the house filled with cousins and aunts and uncles beyond counting. For a moment I wondered how there was room for all of us, but just as my body had absorbed the rain, so all the people in the room were able to exist in the same space at the same time, absorbing one another. We spoke in turn and out of turn, each of us filled with our memories and the memories of everyone else before us.

The tea was poured and the early winter twilight began, and I remembered that it was only yesterday that I had gone out to watch the stars in their clear, perfect sky. I began to describe the moon, how it glowed soft yellow through the tree, and then, as I looked out the kitchen window, I caught my breath. I was paralyzed by the emptiness. The sky was empty, completely empty. Where there had been planets and constellations and shooting stars was now only the moon, disappearing into the darkness. All around me, the kitchen grew brighter, the conversation louder. The stars had arrived, joined us, become us. Their time had come, and we breathed each other, one together in the night.