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Breath & Shadow

Summer 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 3

"Reverential Notes from a Late Summer in Socorro, New Mexico, 1945"

written by

Nick Hilbourn

  1. I remember purple lightning staining the sky.  The strange clarity of the night.  A lavender caul enshrouding the neighborhood houses.  Streets as if underwater.  Grasses calcifying in violet tones.  The light had lost its shape and its colors were spread throughout the atmosphere.  I remember burgundy, maroon and an ocher eye desperately peeking through.  And I remember that the air as sultry and wet.  Which was fine.  It was New Mexico, yes, but we’d accepted recent inconsistencies in the climate.  Weather was just another organism prowling the desert.  There were others.  My brother had told me of devils buried in the sand from before the Fall.  Bigfoot stomping through redwood forests in the west.  Dinosaurs, so I’d heard my mother say, still lived in swamps out in Tennessee.  Adam and Eve across the sea in an underground forest.  An apple still fresh with saliva rolling in fresh soil.  We accepted it!  Yes!  We’d accepted all the world, in fact, without even knowing what that entailed!  And it, whatever it was, knew…

  2. Things changed for us.  Was it a comet?  Was it the government?  I’d heard different theories.  When it occurred though, there was only silence.  For a moment, until people formulated explanations about cosmic phenomena interfering with meteorological patterns, there was quiet.  Patterns set into gestures of wind and movement of air.  The Coriolis Effect had been distorted.  Gamma rays from a distant nebulous cloud; thus, the strange colors in the sky.  (Another theory that I’d heard on the radio.)  But for just a moment in creation’s history: quiet.  Eden.  That’s what it felt like.  We were beginning again, starting at Genesis. It was at that moment that I began taking notes.  Organizing the world in fragments within my mind...

  3. The fathers were standing on their roofs, gazing at the strange incongruities juxtaposed in the heavens.  Purple blooming around an ocher eye.  Overhead their translation into one another could be seen.  Only looking from side-to-side would seem like a paradox.  Two different worlds.  Yet, it was night.  That couldn’t be denied.  A silk fabric of night undulated somewhere beneath the resilient strength of a ceaselessly descending star.  One we could not see.  Its light unfathomable; yet, this was the case: light without sun.  The day held dangling without respite over its own vanishing.  Night refusing to budge as well.  We were in the middle of a celestial war of attrition.  It was not strange to think that we were at the center of the universe at that moment.  If you had been there, then you would have been assured that no other place on earth was necessary except the one that you were in…where heaven was such and earth was such-and-such...people’s ideas changed rapidly.  From minute to minute even.  A husband falls in love with other wives and husbands.  Dreams of running his fingers through a beard or sliding hands over a breast.  Wives lost in reveries of a neighbor wives removing their aprons in the kitchen for play, neighbor husbands pressing their body into the floor until the foundation cries out.  These desires saturated the neighborhood and caused some children to have disturbing visions.  Not all.  Only the most vulnerable.  Those with the fewest barriers.

  4. The mothers were standing on the lawns.  Feet eclipsed by indigo grass.  Their presence seemed, from afar, to be a nagging one.  Housewives pestering their husbands to come down.  Each mother speaking in unison as if they were nodes of a single great Mother reciting an ancient hymn of vexation.  As the men heard its song take shape, its verses sounded like this:

“Why are you on the roof anyway?

“Climb down.

“Come to bed.

“It will be ending very soon.

“It will be dark and you won’t be able to see.  You will trip and fall off the roof.  “

“Look at the children.  Can’t you hear them?  They’re upset.

“Your footsteps sound like thunder.

“The baby will never get to sleep now…”

Appearance.  All appearance, you must know.  Everything said was a metaphor for uncertainty and fear, for love and wonder.  Appearance.  All appearance.  The mothers?  I know that from afar they looked like this…but I believe that the mothers actually said nothing.  They gazed as the fathers did, only from a different level.  Later, for years later, the mothers and fathers would discuss how that day had looked as they tried to explain to children born afterwards.  Years and years passed in that moment.  Visitors?  It occurred to people that the enormous object were visitors.  The visions, the desires?  No one talked about that.  People were embarrassed and would prefer to forget some things.

  1. Memory is an imp.  It is careless.  It hops capriciously from house to house and precious things tumble from its pockets.  As a result: a couple would disagree over essential details.  They would say things like, “But you did not see it clearly.  You were too far up.  From down on the ground, the colors swirled about you like a whirlwind!  They coated your skin.  They drenched you, soaked into your cells and for weeks, with no warning, you suddenly felt a great calm.  A feeling that you would suddenly become only a color or only a shape in the universe...” or  “How can you say such things?  You should’ve been on the roof.  From there it was clear that the sky was like an eye or a hand reaching out for you, but it was not frightening.  I thought, ‘The voice of heaven.’  That night I felt such peace.  As if I would be taken into the very heart of the universe.  Then, you called for me –”

“I did not!”

“You called for me, but I did not want to come down for all the world.”

“I did not.”

  1. A rumor circulated that that night the children had been made upset by the strange events in the sky.  That there was crying and that many of us could not sleep well for years afterward.  Birth defects.  Learning difficulties.

Well, no, that is not true at all.

Most of us were fine.

Some of us stood on the roof with the fathers and others stood on the ground with the mothers.  Many of us wore headlamps with crystal blue lights peering at the cosmic event.  It had been an unrelated trend in the neighborhood.  A novelty in the backs of comic books that had found a new outlet.  A new expression had been born that night.  All along that street were small, azure-eyed Cyclopes. Gentle beings gazing fixedly, venerably at the sky.  Over the street a cloud passed through a prism.  Indigo at one end, yellow at the other.  Billowing, twisting over one another.  As if they migrated from one side to the other before dissipating.  “Odysseus parading his mute and invisible ship before us,” one child said.  “The stomach of God and His stomach is a bird,” said another. We who had no lamps could not see it.  We missed it forever.

  1. I was nine at the time, staring at the sky out of my bedroom window facing away from the sun, away from the descending object that many were transfixed by.  Later, there would be explanations.  A group of people in town said that it was a test run for the second coming.  God shaking up the last few who refused to believe.  They only spoke in whispers though.  There was a fear that whatever was said would become true, so people were careful.  Science fiction was becoming fact.  Later, there would be stories of large-headed creatures and impending destruction.  The moment though was quiet.  Like the eye of a hurricane.  My brother was sixteen at the time.  He was yet to die in the war in that far-off place that none of us had ever heard of, that all of us would soon hear of.  A true horror story.  No one could ever imagine such a cataclysmic reality.  But at that time he was alive and well, kissing a neighborhood boy of the same age enclosed by the tall garden hedges that surrounded our backyard.  Lit by the fantastic, accidental light of that summer night.  A forbidden yet mystifying act, a revelatory act.  No words stuck to it.  A moment that only I would know of.  A moment that would soon collapse on itself, never to exist again.  Like Odysseus’ ship, like the reveries, like visions.  All of it extinguished.  Only I retain it.  Its existence, unnecessary as it is, absolutely relies on me.  I had only wanted to see the sky without the sun because it seemed like an abandoned horizon.  And I felt that I could understand its sorrow of lack.  The world without a center.  How it existed itself outside of itself.  How colors and shapes left to themselves would come toward me in a new way.  Perhaps I imagined that they would cure me.  (I still imagined such things about the world then...later...much later...these ideas evaporated like the nebulous ship overhead...)

  2. I could not then and still cannot now speak.  I can hear, but who cares about that?  I can think marvelously, but who would ever know?  Most people assume that I am an idiot.  A child.  A moron.  Perhaps you have a name for me as well?

  3. My brother would die at nineteen somewhere over There: a mystical land that no one was able to pronounce.  He died in a rapacious thunder and in the middle of it there was a small space of eternal quiet that I’m sure my brother glimpsed.  A vortex that appeared for a second.  Like the name of God.  A mystical land of death.  Its location was given to us on maps and globes, but no one ever thought it was a real place.  Like those places in the Bible.  A fairy tale that somehow relates to Truth.  It was a real place though.  A vacuum that swallowed the young.  It was a jungle, I’d heard.  A swamp.  I wonder if my mother had known that.  If she’d considered that perhaps he’d accidentally died in paradise, that he’d been consumed by silence…

  4. My brother was swallowed at nineteen.

  5. At nineteen, I would be put into a day program slipping disposable forks, knives and spoons into plastic slips.  When my parents died, I would be placed in the complete care of the state.  Placed in a group home with other speechless idiots.  I would be fed countless medicines so that my body became a prison cell.  Even more than it already was.  Now we idiots stare at each other helplessly.  Night after night after night.  We are planets floating in space unable to make the slightest contact.  Science fictional beings simmering in our bodies-made-silent.  But yet, aware.  So aware of everything...

  6. My brother’s kisser would survive.  I heard echoes of him.  People speaking over me.  Sounds drifting through my deep, medicinally-soaked dream of life:  he would go to dental school.  He would become larger than himself, a family of three children.  The beginnings of an Abrahamic quilt.  No one is aware that they were the first, that millions of others will look back at their mythical face.  Soon he will be the mute picture of an era, a time now commodified into colors and shapes.  Echoes will play and people will swear that they occurred during that time.  Nothing occurred then.  It was a fantasy.  They used narratives to describe the night.  They emerged from origin-less patches on a blank quilt.  Still. they will say that surely the one in this picture knew these echoes and celebrated them as it says in the Bible.  Then, they will turn to the page.  They will already have it dog-eared, in fact…

  7. No one is aware that they are the first and that millions will follow in the wake of their dispensation.  Someone else said something like this.  I dreamed of him speaking to me.  A writer.  A philosopher.  He said that we cannot imagine what death will transform our absence into.  His name?  I don’t know.  Dreams are so difficult to recall.  Perhaps it is one of those unpronounceable names that so often accompany truth.  It rhymed with “roost”.  The sound once ran past my room.  An echo from an earlier time.  (Perhaps if I could see a picture of my brother I would remember…)

  8. My brother’s kisser would never think of that moment again.  He would perhaps never remember it at all.  With my brother’s dispensation, one might assume that memory went with it.  Certainly, the kisser can’t be expected to hold on to it.  So many other things have happened to him since then.  Marriage and children and so many days and nights unavailable for digging through his mind for an object that may not even be there anymore.  He and my brother never took a picture together, you know.  Perhaps that was the problem…

  9. How beautiful, how terrible: the freedom to forget!  I keep it inside me though… how privileged I am.  This moment that would be obliterated if not for my incredible memory, my astonishing intelligence.  A privilege.  Also, perhaps, a condemnation.  It is a singular moment for me after all.  It is the center of the universe.  The vortex of a great storm. A thunder world.  This is where I live.  Condemned to be so, yes, but so thankful for it.  My soul is secret.  I do not spend it frivolously in careless syntax, in mindless habit and activity.  My soul is special.  It lives outside my body.  It travels.  It lives eons because it knows so much that the world, whatever this world is, has neither time nor space nor power to consider.  My soul lives in conversation with itself.  The only way that I know I am alive.  How pitiful, yes?  But also, how beautiful.  The window.  The backyard.  That night.  My brother.  Myself.  The world.

Nick Hilbourn's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rain Taxi, Prairie Schooner and A Minor.  He writes about online poetry on his blog and has a chapbook, Pacha, available from Kattywompus Press.

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