Carroll Dale Short
I wake up in a cavern of dark polished surfaces. Starlight through a far window, turbulent acres of it. As my eyes adjust from the hard tropical sunlight of the dream I've just left, the tiny black hourglass shape against the window becomes Elizabeth kneeling at the telescope, and the polished surfaces become our room, and the tang of bright exotic fruit at the back of my throat dies away into the grief of dispelled imagination.
The floor is bitter cold through the back of what I remember is my summer tuxedo, and the planks smell so strongly of the same cedar wax as my old grammar school that those jangled songs come back to me, desks and chairs dragged discordantly into place under George Washington's prim scowl. I wonder how many months or years I've slept.
"Come see," Elizabeth says, though only my eyelids have stirred and I'm sure I've made no sound. "It's Orion."
For some reason this news shoots fear through me. I had known this night was coming, was surely told to prepare for it, had my whole life prepare. So how have I pushed it out of my mind till this minute? I can't move, can't speak.
By the amplified starlight I can see now that she is naked, kneeling on the rough straw mat we picked up for a song in Algiers that time, or was it Mexico, and I wonder why she isn't cold.
‘Buying for a song’ is not just a phrase, you know, she had said that night in the cabana, where we lay on the new mat watching the wrong constellations bubble up out of the ocean. There's really a song in it, can you hear? But I could never hear it above the dirges from my childhood, preserved intact in my hearing as sung by all of us, together and apart, our pinched voices insubstantial as wind chimes.
Why haven't I prepared?
"Come see," she entreats me, more desperate now. The waves of starlight at the window are intensifying, dangerous as surf, and I wonder why she isn't afraid.
"Tell it to me," I say to her. "Make believe I'm blind."
She turns from the waist and looks at me silently for the greater part of a century, and it's only by the irregular heaving of her silhouetted breasts that I can tell she's holding back tears. Push 'em back, push 'em back, harder, harder, the children all scream from the vast dark bleachers, and the bass drum on the sideline thunders like artillery shells.
"You can't put it off forever," Elizabeth says. The telescope eyepiece beside her dark head is brighter than a welder's torch, the whole dancing cosmos resolved into one perfect eye of light. She turns back around to her solitary watching, and the torch eye is hidden again. "Or maybe you can," she says sadly, more to herself than me.
The room is so quiet I can hear the individual molecules of air in it, can hear dust mites strutting across the cold taut wires of the piano's entrails, making not so much a song as the pure crystalline lack of one, the place a song would be if I could cry.
I don't know, but I been told!
My drill sergeant ain't got no soul!
The anxious faces leaning over me, a forest of green fatigues, black sooted eyes like in a children's game. The white sky's monumental sadness as it sees that I will live.
"Tell it to me," I say to her. "Make believe I'm blind."
Children are born, grow, and die before she answers. Some of them are ours.
"First you look for the three stars of the belt," she says, patient as a widowed teacher. "A nearly horizontal line."
"Three stars," I repeat. "Belt. Horizontal."
I hear her sigh. "You make it sound so cold," she says, not looking around. "I'm trying to tell you where the fire is."
Slap slap THREE slap LEFT slap DOWN my sister chants, and looks with pity at the disarray of my tentative hands paused in the air between us, never quite connecting with hers, never where they're supposed to be. You can't just count. You've got to feel it.
She's so beautiful in the sunlight saying this, her small blue dress crisp with new starch, her hair hot with the scent of something growing wild in the woods, that for the instant I can almost forget I've invented her, can almost forget that I'll never have a sister. Past her shoulder, the shadow of my father waits in the door of the house, the shape of a doubled belt in his hand.
"And the three stars of the sword, pointing down," Elizabeth says.
"Three stars," I repeat. "Sword. Down." This time she just sighs patiently, doesn't correct my coldness. If I were to open my eyes, the raging surf of stars would crash through the thin glass of the window and wash over her, cleansing her of me, of her desire for me.
He is my sword and my shield and my redeemer He is my sword and Grandmother stands at the cookstove repeating into the rising steam, like a magic spell. She weeps at our lives crumbling around her into strife and wickedness my shield and but she knows that if God continues to spare her at least we will be well fed my redeemer He is my. . .
"Bay," I say.
"Tell. What are. . .?"
"Shhh. Say Jews."
"Say it all together," she whispers from the telescope. My bones ache with the cold.
"A bright red star of the first magnitude, seen near Orion's shoulder."
"It must be a wound," I say.
The dark air is resplendent with her unspoken sorrow for me.
"Everything doesn't have to be a wound," she says.
"He's a hunter, isn't he? Maybe he was shot."
"Come and see," she says. "It's beautiful. It's like a flower made out of fire."
"You said blood, before."
"No. You did."
And the moon became as blood and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth and from the opened window of my childhood room I watch the apocalypse begin, the frozen December night that the heavenly chorus woke me from a troubled sleep and I leapt up, robbed of speech, and watch and wait for the end-time. Not realizing except on reflection that the moon was more the color of a worn-out penny, not nearly the regal red of blood on white cotton, and the celestial voices were most likely just the ladies' choir at the old church down the hill, staying late to practice after service. I did hear for certain, off above the forest, the stars being chopped loose from their moorings, even though they didn't fall then. I still watch and wait for them to, and always will.
"What's the name of the cloud?" a voice says. "The one halfway down the sword?"
Elizabeth, asking this.
"The Great Nebula," I say. Over the years I've memorized the answers, though I've never seen the objects they refer to.
"Beautiful clouds of swirling gas," she says, as if it were the words to a song. "The way life began."
I want to curse at this. Not my life, I want to scream. Turn the telescope around and look through the big end. Put the other on my heart. I'll show you swirling clouds.
But I hold the words all in, again. If the scope were ever fully turned on me she could never turn it back around, and I would still live in my same heart but without the wonderful pictures she tells me. Heart-Braille, I call the pictures to myself, and the one time she overheard me she didn't understand. She thought it was a foreign phrase.
The words of the nebulaic song swirl and lengthen. Before I know it, before the last of our children die and are swept away in the waves of light, the words become the lady-choir's song, that night, and by Elizabeth's warm hand on my forehead I know she's not at the telescope any more, though I'm afraid to open my eyes.
. . .The hopes and fears of all the years, she sings, they sing, are met in thee tonight. . .
"And also in thee," I tell her.
And also in thee.
from Canopic Jar #10, 2003