Skywatching

We looked and looked––so as not to miss it, so as not to be missed.

Squinting, we studied the faces. It’s all Greek, you said, of the letters. We looked back and forth: the sky, the charts, the corresponding manual. We couldn’t help ourselves; we kept returning, flashlights wrapped in red cellophane. What are we doing? You asked, as if to acknowledge the elephant.

They circled us. Or, they held in place as we spun. Or, it was all spinning, all of it pulling apart. The lines, at least, indicated order. The wandering stars came and went. Those are planets, you said. We nodded, wearing grave expressions to indicate our intended recognition of the obvious.

You continued. See the hunter’s belt, his right knee, the blade of his sword. Notice the white spot at his crown, how he gazes toward the head of the bull. We followed the book, looked up. Back to the book. 

Daughters of Atlas, braiding bright––and across the way, the dog star. Now the she-goat and her kids; now the charioteer. We pretended, at first, to see them. We didn’t want the story to vanish. The Big Dipper was offered: Take this cup, and our mouths fell open, heads back.

Our own galaxy is ragged, irregular, its dark nebulae like curtains hiding the light. In the spring came Ariadne, and then Theseus after the Minotaur. Surrounded by the walls of the labyrinth he built, the craftsman must have plead his case to the same sky, dreaming Icarus’s wings. 

Now the head of the hydra, now the snake and the eagle behind it. Now the scorpion, and here’s the instrument of song with Vega its center. He played for love, Orpheus, until he lost it, looking back. 

Now comes the winged horse. We looked and looked––so as not to miss it, so as not to be missed. No, I think that’s it! That must have been it! Unless it was the southern fish, unless it was the dolphin, coming to save the poet and his songs.

Turning and turning, Andromeda’s spiral, and the ram bled before it––until the dragon was installed at the gates, to guard the fleece. The royal family stood beyond them. At last, another hero with a sword, looking for something to slay. He asks the three sisters, finds the gorgon sleeping, takes the head.

There were other monsters to fight, other maidens to scatter, and Look! Do you see them there? Strewn from the east to the west?

I am telling you, we tried. So great was our wish to understand something; so great was our need to be tied to something that the ancients also knew, to run our hands across some venerable form that had managed to keep living, even after the bombs and the weather, even now––that we believed ourselves when we said Yes, and Yes!

Yes, we see! There––and there! Seeming with our raised arms to behold what held us, but what was it? We didn’t care, not really. Its substance was beside the point. In that moment what we wanted was the relief of our surrender. To say Show us, and wait, deciding in the silence: We believe.

The Last Man

There is a story that the fathers used to tell, of the fire that burned the world.

After his brothers and his father, his father’s fathers, and his mother’s mother; after her sisters and their daughters and granddaughters were erased, he remained with his mother and his sisters until they died.

Then he was hungry. He took a calf. He was captured by a nineteen-year-old slaughterhouse worker and a self-proclaimed cowboy. He smiled as they handcuffed him. He did not resist. 

What is your name? Now they wanted to know.  I have none, he told them. They called him the last wild Indian, took him to the sheriff.  He sat peacefully. Many came to look. The Last Stone-Age man, one paper proclaimed, of this quiet survivor. His people, all gone now, had been egalitarian, reclusive, resistant to central authority. They once protected the canyons, but these canyons were near the fields of gold, and the newcomers, wild with fever, were armed for bear. They surrounded the peacemakers, hunted the gatherers, cornered them in a cave, in a ravine, and fired. A few had fled the fire, to hide on higher grounds.

Tradition, all but erased, lived in him. Tradition had been clear about his name. Tradition demanded: Never reveal your name to an enemy. Never reveal your name until you are introduced by a friend

Soon after he emerged from the mountains outside of the city of gold, soon after he was taken into custody, members of the anthropology department at Berkeley took note. They came to collect him from jail. They brought him on campus, made him a custodian, then a research assistant. He learned English.

But what is your name? They asked him. I have none, he insisted, because there are no people to name me. Among the Yana, now extinct, the word for man was Ishi. They called him Mr. Ishi. He was often ill. Over time, until he died of tuberculosis, he taught the white doctor who treated him to make arrows and bows, how to hunt. This white doctor became known as the father of modern bow hunting.  The original fathers were gone.

There is a story that these fathers used to tell, of the fire that burned the world. When Coyote dropped the fire that Fox stole, it burned the land, burned the people, burned everything. The eyes of Bear looked in all directions into fire, and finally popped off in the flames. Only Spider remained in the sky, weaving her invisible web. 

*On this day in 1911, the man known as Ishi, considered the last of the Yana to make contact with European Americans, emerged from the mountains near Oroville after the death of his mother and sister. He was handcuffed by a nineteen-year-old slaughterhouse worker and taken into custody. He became a public curiosity. Members of the anthropology department at UC Berkeley collected him from the sheriff’s office and brought him to the University. They gave him the title of custodian, then research assistant. Details of his life were documented by various members of the Kroeber family of UC Berkeley, and also by Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, who was concerned about the tendency of the so-called faithful to miss the divine light in the “others” that the self-proclaimed righteous are so often eager to erase or reform.

The Flying Man, Revisited

Reflecting on the myths we live by.

Once upon a time, there was a man who came walking from the land of fire, and he was badly burned. He sat on a rock by a cool stream and the woman of the river watched him with his shoulders stooped and she noticed how his eyes would blur so that he was not seeing the river, really, not seeing anything at all but his own broken reflection against the broken sky.


So, the woman of the river sunk her hands deep into the ancient silt of the riverbed and she pulled from this a pair of wings, and she released these into the river’s rush, and as she released the wings, she slowed the waters of the river by inhaling a deep breath, thick and musical with time, and she pulled it inside herself sharp at the edges like freezing air or smoke. She held it within her, resisting the urge to cough against the pressure.

The wings floated beneath the gaze of the man on the rock, and he bent at the banks of the river and reached one arm and then both, and then he entered the water: one leg, then both, and then he was up to his knees and then past the tops of his legs and then to the middle of his chest as he pulled on the wings. It takes more strength than anyone would think, to pull a pair of wide wings from a current, even when the current is slow. Eventually, he pulled the wings up the banks and set them on the rock where he had earlier been sitting. Panting and soaked, he had forgotten for a moment all about the land of fire from which he had escaped, and he sat and stared at the wings: large, black, and weathered, glistening beneath the dapples of sunlight pairing through the forest canopy above him. He stared at the wings as they dried and he dried as he stared at the wings, and then he fell asleep.

When the flying man woke, he picked the wings up and he noticed that they were attached to a harness that he could fit through each of his arms like a backpack, so that the wings were attached to his torso. Then, wings attached behind each step, he walked through the forest, beyond the last tree, to the base of a great mountain, and as the woman of the river watched him, he ascended the great mountains, carrying the full weight of his new wings on his back, and he walked three days and rested three nights until he reached a cliff, and there stood before a vast green valley, and as he breathed on that cliff he looked at the river running through the valley, catching sunlight. He stood, looking, and the woman of the river stood also, watching him, and after several long breaths, various cloud bands, and several movements during which he witnessed in the valley a retelling of all that he had seen before in the land of fire, and against this, a re-dreaming of all that was to come.

The woman of the river released the breath that she had been holding, and the man above her opened his winged arms, and he felt her breath through his feathers.

He felt his feet leaving the ledge and he leaned into the current of wind now lifting him above the valley, above the river, above all that he had ever known and all he had yet to see—and he flew.

***

This story was originally published in sections, embedded in a larger story, “Twilight at Blue Plate” which appeared in the August 2019 issue of Oyster River Pages. As I woke this morning, I noticed that this piece was demanding some reflection. I have recently been coming into awareness of certain understandings that appeared to me in this fairy tale before I was ready to consciously know them. It’s been my experience that stories often do this. I will be revisiting in tomorrow’s post and considering its role and possibilities in my own. It has been my experience (and I don’t think I’m unique here) that usually my reading and writing vision is a few years ahead of my conscious understanding.

I think this is true for many people. Has it ever occurred to you what stories are shaping your life? I never would have known precisely how central this flying man story was to me, except that I was in a class where we were challenged to spend fifteen minutes on the spot writing a fairy tale, and after my initial eyeroll, thinking “I don’t write fairy tales” this came out whole, in that one brief sitting. This is because it had been in me all along, as so many myths, legends and fairy tales are. In my notes this morning, I began to uncover some layers of understanding that I hadn’t been ready to see before. To share them here would make for an over-long post, so I’ll save these for tomorrow.

Perhaps you may find value in considering what myths and fairy tales are central to your life. As Joan Didion writes in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Story and Mystery (Part 2)

For me, the point was to reveal what I hoped might be, some dazzling “is” beneath the rush of being that I considered alternately terrifying, mundane, and dizzying.

Occasionally, a writer will be punished for writing fictions of the ingredients of real lives. I know no one who writes without doing this, and yet it remains an area under surveillance. One is at risk, it seems, of being found out. It is not clear for what: fictionalizing “the real” or realizing the fiction. Whatever the case, I may as well report myself ahead of time, as I have no knack for the genre called fantasy, even though constructing elaborate fantasies is something I do as easily and regularly as making meals. 

Which is real? Is bread a dinner food, or breakfast, or a snack? I can answer neither question to any degree of satisfaction. Once, to support a friend going without bread, I gave it up. It was short-lived and made me very sad. Why were we doing this? I could not remember. I suspect the same would happen if I tried to abstain from the imaginative realm where I spend most of my waking hours, which is no more separate from “real life” than bread can be, from any category of meal.

Story comes from shaping moments in language into a form. It’s the easiest thing in the world, said someone I did not fundamentally trust. He seemed often to be deliberately lying, in ways that puzzled me. I could more easily understand an unconscious lie or the ones of omission when the telling of a whole truth would just be so much, but the accumulation of so many deliberate ones for no apparent reason was confusing. But, he most likely had reasons of his own, I just didn’t know them. If he did, I thought he might know better than anyone how fraught storytelling was. But there I go, making assumptions about motives and even about the accessibility of truth. 

For me, the point was to reveal what I hoped might be, some dazzling “is” beneath the rush of being that I considered alternately terrifying, mundane, and dizzying. For him, “story” may have meant something else entirely, as it does to many. Simple entertainment is a valid impulse. I am also reminded of the way that, in certain circles, a child accused of “telling stories” will be punished, because the act is deemed synonymous with lying, and in this way a child “telling stories” is considered a danger, to themselves and to others, because they can obscure whole parts of their being, their doings, and their knowledge, beneath a cloak of invisibility.

Which would you be if you could be anything? – a common playground question, shimmering with the terror and delight of never-ending possibilities. 

––Invisible, or able to fly? What made it a great question was how almost everyone had wanted each of these and both, with urgency at different times. 

But which one? This was one question that I never had to waffle over. The answer was always and easily flight, the soaring, butterfly-stomached, kiting lens, the viscous air like water and me with outstretched arms, floating and turning in it. An escape whenever needed, as in dreams when the “bad guys” gave chase. 

This is the funny part, I think now. Not that I wanted to escape, or to soar, but that I believed that I might get there by working over a tale, into some truth ––not something shaped on a whim, but something revealed, by polishing the stone until the gem shines through ; by peeling back the layers to reveal the fruit––as if what was covered in flesh and alligator skin, in armor and bruises and tearstained, turned-away faces, in layers of sediment and dirt, was actually a hollow-boned, feathered body, mostly heart and wing, made for song, soaring flight, and for carrying the endless metaphors we were always tying them, passing back and forth like food to each other as we were waited in our nests, un-feathered and unwieldy bodies, bound to fall quickly as soon as we leaped, and unable to avoid the need to do so, knowing that we had at least one thing, however small, over the birds, and this was a capacity for turning even an act of falling into a story of flight.