“Garden Debris” by Paul Klee (1923 – 1924) via The Art Institute of Chicago.
Every day, it’s a getting’ closer
Goin’ faster than a roller coaster
Love like ours will surely find a way,
Light in the universe is rare. Light requires the presence of a myriad of atomic explosions within a star or the reflection of those cataclysms on the surface of lightless bodies. In between those engines of action and reaction exists an expanse where nothing happens, where voices are not heard, and where the shape of matter is in a constant state of flux.
I came home and sat down on my bed when I learned about light and dark in science class. I wept. I asked myself why daylight was so brief, why time was measured in the constant sunrises of our lives, and where hope could find a place to exist without the darkness chasing it away. That moment was a profound revelation to me. Every day I try to hold on to a little bit more of what enables me to see the world I live in and if that weren’t enough of a challenge everything around me changes with every second.
My mother wanted me to get help. I was only nine years old. Older member of the family who did not understand told me I thought too much. My Uncle Gary, the consoler-general of our clan, said I shouldn’t worry about it, that I needed to live life as it came to me and there was nothing I could do to alter the way the universe works.
When I was twelve I woke one winter morning with the idea that perhaps reality was an illusion, the I obeyed rules I didn’t make, and that there is always light in the world, somewhere, always a sunrise, and always a night but with a little bit of effort on my part I could alter the course of things. I could make light the predominant expression of the cosmos.
I didn’t want to tell anyone – at least not until I figured out how I could change the rules and make daylight the perpetual gift we all could receive. Our church minister had told me only God could change the way time and physics work. The disparity between light and darkness, after all, had been by His design, and that boys my age should rise early, use the precious daylight to read and study so we wouldn’t strain our eyes, and then go to bed early because that would make me healthy, wealthy, and wise. My mother had that saying on a Torquay ware candlestick. The motto had never meant anything to me until the Reverend said I ought to obey God’s work.
Then I asked who God was. He didn’t like the question. “Could God be any of us?” I said.
He told me I was speaking blasphemy. He said we all wear God’s image, meaning we look like him because the human race was His family, and he cited a philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas who argued that each of us bears the mark of divinity because we are made in God’s image.
I asked the Reverend that if that was so, if we looked like “Our Heavenly Father,” would we not also inherit some of his skills? I look like my father. My mother says so. My father is very good with tools. He spends long hours at his work bench in the basement fixing broken mechanical objects. He saved my alarm clock when it fell on the floor. Like that? I asked the Reverend. The man of God just shook his head and walked away.
Maybe he didn’t want to reveal trade secrets. That had to be it. Each of us inherited not only our looks from God’s side of the family but also the inclinations (a word I looked up in a dictionary) or predispositions (a word I found under the same definition) to be able to do certain things. So, if God was light, another of the catch phrases I heard in church, and God made the light, then maybe I had the power to make it too or at least to encourage its co-operation with the way I wanted things to be.
I started practicing. At first I realized that calling the sun to rise a few minutes earlier each day was kind of stupid because after the Winter Solstice, the days get longer so the planet can warm up and enjoy some nice summer days. The careful notes and tables I created during the winter were suddenly wrong, at least scientifically, and the real test of my will would come after the Summer Solstice in June, which in reality doesn’t mark the beginning of summer at all because everything is in bloom by then. My mother is already picking her cherry tomatoes and cutting them up into salads.
On the morning of June 22, I rose early (with the help of the alarm clock my father was able to salvage) and I stared at the northeastern horizon where I knew the sun would come up. The day should have started later but instead the sun came up early by about five minutes. The sudden change in the time of sunrise made the news but I wasn’t ready to make any claims for my skills.
All summer long, I repeated the experiment and got amazing results – not the same results which would have been a form of insanity but sunrises that came earlier and earlier. Then I set to work on the sunsets and got an even better reply from the universe. The days were longer and longer. The problem was that too much sunlight made the summer a scorcher but I wasn’t going to stop training myself.
There were complaints to the local and national media that starlight was becoming more difficult to see, that something had gone wrong with the universe. My answer, had anyone asked me, would have been that nothing was wrong. I was just correcting a situation where darkness was the prevailing presence in the heavens.
Then, one day, after I had stayed up not just all night but for three days and my mother was worried I was hallucinating and thought I had gone manic, I did it. I flipped the structure of the night. The stars, with the exception of our Sun, became pinpoints of darkness in the night and the darkness became bright. The crew from the Space Station discovered they could take off their helmets and talk to each other where, before I learned to use my skills inherited from God, they would have drifted in an empty and lightless void and their heads would have exploded into the vacuum of space.
But I hadn’t anticipated the effect perpetual light would have on the universe. Grasslands and forests burst in flames. The sea began to boil. The Reverend said it was the “End of Days.” And I realized, perhaps too late to save many people, that the starry night sky served a purpose – that the light of stars, so distant and lonely – made days, however few they were worth living and worth seeing. The sunrise, I decided, was a flash bulb like the kind Uncle Gary used on his vintage camera when he took family pictures.
We would line up, as he asked, and arrange ourselves with the creases smoothed out of the aunts’ dresses and the men’s shirt collars straight, and we would smile. We would smile and say “Cheese,” and show our teeth because in that brief pop of life we were saying everything we possibly could say about life. We were saying, “Here we are in this moment, a moment on a summer afternoon that we will not live again and look at how happy we are even if we weren’t, and how we long to exist forever if we could only hold the light in hands the way I cupped fireflies in the dark and their tiny behinds glowed because they wanted other fireflies to know they were there.”
I had to go to a lot of work to put the night back in the sky. I wanted to write an apology letter to the people on the other side of the world but even if I wrote it they probably wouldn’t bother to read it or want to read it. The document, a world changing statement, would just be to them some piece of garbage penned by a kid who was probably out of his mind.
What I learned – and this sounds like the sort of essay teachers expect everyone to write on the first day back to school after a long summer – “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” – was why the stars appear tiny in the night, and so small and so few compared to what surrounds them. Maybe God really is love and light, and if love is hard to find so is light. A person has to look for it. Too much love and light isn’t good and the fact there isn’t much of either to go around complicates things. The stars are infinite but so is the darkness and in terms of proportion there is more absence of light than presence. That’s sad but that’s just the way things are and for a good reason.
I have to look hard for love and light though there are times when I am with my family I can’t help but feel the whole house or cottage is full of their shining expressions.
The following summer I decided to pursue a new skill. I began my study of waves and whether water was liquid or merely an illusory absence of solidity. After all glass is a liquid and I have seen pictures in magazines of rooms and swimming pools where people installed glass floors – surfaces they can walk on. The question of density is the fly in the ointment but I am working on a way around that. Water became my new passion as the world returned to normal and my family, Uncle Gary included, spread themselves on towels in the sun on a long, sandy beach where the ocean sparkled with millions of tiny stars twinkling and thanking me for giving them their brief months of freedom and the opportunity to know why they must remain so rare.
Bruce Meyer is author of 67 books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and literary non-fiction. His stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international prizes including the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction, the Retreat West Fiction Prize, the Tom Gallon Trust Fiction Prize, the Fish Fiction Prize, the Thomas Morton Fiction Prize, and the Carter V. Cooper Prize. His most recent collections of short stories are Down in the Ground (Guernica Editions, 2020) and The Hours: Stories from a Pandemic (Ace of Swords, 2021). He lives in Barrie, Ontario.