Katharine Haake >
The Blue-Sailed Boat
Because Clayton grew up on the banks of a river, which sometimes would flood, and sometimes dry out, but mostly just washed a bit languidly by at the end of their lawn in back of his parent’s low-roofed ranch house, with sliding glass doors and a spacious concrete patio for barbecues and late night dance parties for teens; and because his infant sister died when he was four years old and sleeping right beside her in the nursery they shared during that brief span of time their two lives were crossing—her a tiny clump of blankets in his old crib, snuffly and squirmy, then not, him a watchful brooder across the darkened room, his face gathered into itself with furious intensity; and because there were years and years of aimless wandering between when he went out into the world on his own and when he fell in love with his young son’s kindergarten teacher; and because, after that, it was all even further and faster downhill, he found himself—now—living alone in a two-room shack in the desert miles and miles away from the nearest population center and without either running water or electric power. Clayton missed his son, he really did. But he missed the kindergarten teacher even more.
Plus there was the matter of the wife, though that was complicated and unsettling, so one thing and another, the low-roofed, two-room stone house where he lived—now—with small deep-set windows—something from a whole different era, a century or two in the past, chinked with mud—suited him fine. Here, in his front yard, grew Joshua trees, and some lumpy prickly pear and an ocotillo; in the back, a rusted water tank, leaned precariously to one side. Sometimes, Clayton could have used a little air-conditioning, but, like the pioneers, he took to sleeping through the hot part of the day, awakening in the evening and living his life through the night, which also suited him fine.
To look at him, Clayton could have been 35; he could have been 50. Sometimes, he remembered to shave. Sometimes, he even remembered to eat. To look at him, it might not seem right off that he was shy and haunted, slit-eyed to strangers and hollow to himself, but that was Clayton. The words in his head were fragments of songs. The doctor said his sister was a classic crib death case, but when his mother found them, he was poking at her body, trying to get it to move.
Sometimes the songs didn’t even have words—la, la, la.
Clayton’s favorite thing, now, was to sit out at midnight by the Joshua trees, watching the stars trace the heavens above—zing, zing, zing. On cold nights, there was a glistening brilliance to them, but other nights were milky, like the teacher’s lambent smile. Frankly, it was better without words.
Then, one day, in the city one hundred miles to the east, his young son—now eight—went missing. He wasn’t grabbed, or otherwise abducted. He went to school like normal. He took his geography test, and knew all but three of the states, along with their capitol cities—Lincoln, Bismarck, Wheeling. He peeled his banana, like usual, and also, like usual, bit off little pieces and stuck them in his peanut butter sandwich, then traded the sandwich to his friend, Hong, for some rice and avocado wrapped in seaweed.
His mom never gave him anything good, he said.
Hong, like usual, said, same here.
Clayton’s son, named Earl for no particular reason except that it entertained Clayton to call his baby boy something you might call an old man, and why not, Clayton argued with the wife, since the boy, after all, had started out wizened—red and shriveled and wrinkled. The wife said that was just how all babies were. She had a glum look on her face and a sour smell to her whole body—she’d wanted a girl.
“Ok,” she said. “Earl. Why not?”
Years later, at lunchtime, in school, the bell rang. This happened every day—school, the bell, Earl and Hong trading lunches, the just above average performance on exams. (Earl worked hard to earn the approval of his teachers, and who knows, maybe even his mom, but there was always something weird, even backwards, about the way Earl organized things in his head, and he faced a constant inner battle to set them straight again.) As far as the daily life of the boy was concerned, this pattern of things was completely predictable, except that sometimes the bananas were too bruised and mushy even to eat.
After lunch, Earl curled up with The Phantom Tollbooth—backwards, like always—which made him laugh. Later, the children will be asked if anyone remembers Earl laughing during this time of sustained silent reading (SSR), but no one will remember it or not. By now they will hardly even remember Earl at all. Except for Hong, most kids didn’t pay much attention to Earl. That was just the kind of kid he was, somehow missing before he even disappeared.
But the children will be asked because soon it will happen that Earl will go missing in actuality—sometime between lunch and when his mother (the wife) was due home from work. One minute the boy, Earl, was living his ordinary life just the same as other boys, and the next—maybe walking home, maybe watching TV after school, or on his way to baseball practice, or during the nature walk his class took for science period—no one, of course, really knows—he was just gone.
As for the wife, whose name was Holly, maybe if Clayton never took her to the house by the river—swoosh, swoosh, swoosh—a quiet brushing in its banks that sounded, well, rich—for the Thanksgiving holiday and to meet his parents, then maybe everything would have been different. Holly met Clayton in college, where he dribbled and drabbled in all kinds of majors—philosophy, geology, Latin—but where she was zooming right through, driven by her single-mindedness of purpose just to escape the old black of apartments where she grew up, with its long patched cracks in the stucco, and inauspicious plumbing, and ragged plots of grass both front and back, or rather, weeds. One thing and another, Holly used to say, one thing and another, but mostly she just wanted better for her kids.
Then she met Clayton in math class, where the attraction, which was mutual and potent, shocked them both.
Then he took her home to meet his parents.
Then they were married.
And then some more time after that, a gradual decline began between them, though neither one of them could put their finger on what caused it. There was the child, of course, and though Holly had wanted a girl, that wasn’t it. And there was Clayton’s queasiness, at first, around the infant, but true to Clayton’s lifelong practice, whenever Clayton had a crisis or a problem, Clayton would go out and plant a tree, and now for the new baby’s arrival he planted three trees—one, he said, for each of the small little family—and soon both the trees and the baby were bigger and better. So that wasn’t it either. For Holly, in a way, it was like some private reason, some core inner self—what had driven her, perhaps, to get to college in the first place, and to join with Clayton and to take a job in human resources—had just gotten all confused, and now there wasn’t any way to sort it back again. As for Clayton, when he saw that what his wife loved best in her job was the hiring and firing—the rushes of power she got when she lit up the faces of prospective employees, or plunged them down into the depths of despair—he was sufficiently perturbed that after the child was born, his life path grew clear.
“You’re doing what?” Holly said, when he told her.
“I’m staying home with the boy,” he explained. “It’s normal now, you know. Dads do it all the time these days, and someone has to.”
Holly thought about the money, and although a terrible wave of shame coursed through her, she couldn’t help herself. “There’s daycare,” she said, but what she was thinking was about the alcove in her mother’s apartment where she had slept, as a child, on a piece of foam rubber in a pile of blankets and ratty pillows, compared to Clay’s childhood room at the back of his house near the brush of the river, the trees bending low to the water. During college, when they lay there together, she could almost hear the lap of the trees—were they cottonwoods, or willows?—the leaves licking, the water parting, in slivers, around them. It was easy for him to say, she thought, thinking about how her mom had warned her. Marrying either up or down, her mother said, was very bad, worse, in lots of ways, than mixing race. But Clayton had that leanness to him in those days, that slant-eyed intensity, along with his powerful hope for the future. And she found his tree-planting answer to any bad thing as benign as it was sweet. But then, as time went by, pretty soon it started to seem as if he was going to plant them a whole forest.
Meanwhile, Holly had such a craving for shoes, a different pair of shoes to match her outfit for the day, whichever outfit, whatever day. And color-coordinated sheets, was that so much to ask? Plus, the boy growing fast into his own needs—pint-sized Nikes and red rubber balls. Holly never thought she would want those kind of things, but then the want slammed her, powerful and urgent.
Meanwhile, after the first shock of being a parent, Clayton turned out to be a natural at staying home and taking care of, first the baby, than the boy, who grew into the kind of little boy that ran around and broke things. And he had other quirks as well, developing in the wrong order. Earl walked before he could crawl, and talked in complete sentences before he ever said Da-da or Ma-ma, which made everybody proud as the dickens at first, but then it was embarrassing, as he went back to crawling around the time that he was three, and started baby-talking in school. When Holly complained, Clayton just said he was working out the kinks. He looked at his wife, he looked at the child—a boy, like him—and he tried to remember how, exactly, his whole life—and not just the sex part—had led him to this.
Earlier that same day—the day he disappeared—Earl had awakened with a knot in his stomach over the capitols test and something like the start of a headache. It was all blurry, everything in his life, since his dad disappeared—how could he have done that, when they had been so close? For two years now, Earl’s mouth had tasted like chalk, but his mom just pursed her lips and shrugged. There was a lot of blame going around, underneath the surface of their daily lives. It gave him a headache, just thinking about.
On this day, the day of the test—when, though Earl didn’t know it yet, everything would change again—he felt both disconsolate and testy.
In their milky white sea, the cornflakes were soggy.
Earl stirred them sullenly.
By the side of his bowl, his mother had placed a sliced banana, the symmetrical rounds now soft and brown.
In addition to the capitols, Earl was trying to remember hunger—this was the right order, he knew—first you were hungry, then you ate. But for some reason, Earl could not get out of his mind the image of a discarded stuffed squirrel, upside down on a neighbor’s front lawn. Or maybe it was a bear. The animal’s hindquarters lifted in a curious hump, and its face was buried in the sod. For a moment, Earl could not decide if the image were comic or deeply, deeply sad. Then, without much warning, he started to cry.
Bananas, he knew, were an excellent source of potassium, though he did not know what potassium was. When his dad used to live in the house with them, the bananas never turned brown or mushy, and he washed them—the peels—with soap and warm water before ever opening them up to the sweet flesh inside.
“Bananas come,” his dad used to say, “from developing, Third World countries. The skins could be riddled with disease and pesticide. Always remember that, Earl.”
Hong, on the other hand, ate his bananas fried up into tasty little chips.
Some nights, far away, underneath the zinging stars, Clayton would try to remember this: the boy, the cornflakes. There was probably a window, he would think, with some kind of curtains—gingham? There was a kitchen, a home, a street. In the boy’s life, there was a friend named Hong—Clayton knew this—and the vision of a stuffed upended animal, which was just a lucky guess.
Clayton knew this, but between the things he knew and his own young son, there remained, like a beacon, the face of the animated kindergarten teacher, the warmth of her smile and her polished fingernails—red, with glittering stars for decoration. The other kindergarten teacher in the elementary school was a young man with a pleasant demeanor and an emergency credential, a boyish, pudgy-faced kind of man who played ball with the kids and wore plaid Bermuda shorts held up with a nylon web belt. The other kindergarten teacher was not even close to anyone who might ever have managed to throw Clayton for a loop.
Holly had long since stopped being rambunctious in bed.
The female kindergarten teacher wore shorts too, just above the sweet
cusp of her knees.
Clayton guessed he was a knee man, but what, really, was that?
Earl’s kindergarten teacher, on the other hand, did knock Clayton for a loop without even trying. She was just doing her job, kneeling—kneeling—before the small children and saying kind things to reassure them and their parents, when Clayton had simply walked into her classroom, holding his son’s small hand in his own—a man about to be parted, for the first time, from the boy who was a gentle mirror of his own best self—and the glistening whiteness of her pearly teeth was like a terrible slug to his gut. What had Clayton ever seen in Holly anyway? Then the teacher handed him a volunteer sheet—a white sheet of paper covered with lines, and every place there was line, Clayton wrote his name.
“I’m a stay-at-home dad,” he explained, as Earl took off to explore. “I could help,” he went on, noting, with some inner excitation, that the bright plastic climbing structure Earl headed for in the kindergarten play yard was poised above a messy puddle of old redwood chips. “Those chips, for example,” he said, “harbor both bacteria and splinters. I could lay down foam for you, and I could plant trees—a little bower, maybe, or a windbreak, around the perimeter of the yard.”
Clayton knew she had stopped listening—there were little children running wild all over the place that first day—but he couldn’t stop himself. Already, the future was blooming.
Later, there would be the investigation, all about what went on in the presence of children, the custody hearing itself. Maybe even that first day Clayton knew it would come down like that. But even so, it wasn’t really about sex.
Her bra strap was green and it peeked, just a bit, out from her thin sleeveless blouse. This caused a knot in Clayton’s throat that really hurt, and this, of course, was just the beginning.
Mondays, he helped with the easels and tempura.
Tuesdays he was lunch monitor.
Wednesdays he read out loud from the vast piles of picture books he selected at the county library.
Thursdays he led games for PE.
Fridays he manned the block corner, bent over on his own knee, encouraging the tallest towers, the most visionary cities, the expanders. Out the corner of his eye, she was always there, glistening, her resonant voice like the arc of a chime.
And after school, every day, he was working on the playground. Soon, he would bring in the trees. The children would help him. They would plant their own little forest, and she would kneel there beside them in jeans with a worn spot on the edge of the pocket at her butt which showed slinky black underwear through, her gentle hands helping the little ones out, her white arms bright in the sun.
Clayton felt bowled over by love.
Under the gentle influence of his young son’s kindergarten teacher, Clayton reviewed his whole life, beginning in the blue room on the edge of the banks of the river where swallows swooped in both spring and the fall. For those several long months, there had been the terrible threat of the other child—his infant sister—a lump of blankets, whimpering and cooing, and his mother’s unbearable distraction. Then, the infant was gone but the threat itself loomed, somehow more terrible in his sister’s absence than before she had gone limp in her crib, and after that, the years and years of Clayton’s whole childhood just went blank, as if missing themselves. There were soccer and baseball, of course—he knew this from the trophies—as well as a period of model cars and airplanes, sci-fi reading frenzies, a pile of Playboys, a brief flirtation with some local eco-terrorists, or at least their banner—red and green. He had a bong—didn’t everyone? He had a box of something that looked like Cub Scout patches. He had his year-by-year school photographs, in which he could see both his face and his grin lengthening and widening—growing.
So Clayton had the relics, but not the memories. As best he knew, he went straight from the lump of lifeless sister to Holly, and of course, the planting of trees.
If Earl’s kindergarten teacher had been the young man instead, would Clayton still be planting hopeful trees in the soft, doomed bosom of the planet?
Sometimes he wondered that.
Sometimes, he heard his own voice saying: Do not ask me who I am or how I came to be here. I am here: that is enough.
Then, almost always, he would sigh.
In general, night came like a bowl, and they bent themselves to it. Now it was Earl who had prepared the food. He had prepared it for his mother, who had left him the bananas early in the morning, before she went to work. In the last year or two, Earl’s mother had started to age, and despite her glycolics and other costly creams and prescriptions, all around her mouth little lines were turning down, down, and her brow was furrowed, as if, Earl thought, eroded like the banks of a river. His mother had strong feelings about rivers, which meant something to her, but he didn’t know what. Anyway, it wasn’t his mother who had poured the milk that turned the cornflakes soggy and ruined the day, but Earl himself. Then, he just sat there for a long time trying to remember what else he might have forgotten—Raleigh, Fairbanks, Sacramento—but he couldn’t. And to make matters worse, the cereal was gross.
Even though the banana was brown, Earl ate it. The other banana he would trade later, with Hong, at lunch.
For dinner, they would eat Rice-a-Roni and sliced tomatoes, and
maybe some carrots and celery. Sometimes Holly also tried the
grapefruit diet, but grapefruit gave her awful acid stomach.
Earl was eight years old, and already there was a kind of constant whistling in his ears, and these days, just the fading memory of his dad.
Well, shhh, Earl thought.
Like father, he thought, like son.
And the inside of him already going all hollow, and what he thought, he thought the only one he’d really miss was Hong.
On the day Earl disappeared, Holly ate her Rice-a-Roni anyway, chicken flavored, the way Earl liked it, as if nothing terrible had happened, and then thought about how, in the early flush of youth, she had seen something in Clayton beyond the house that she hoped to inherit someday. Back in those days, Clayton was lean, with his long, long legs and gaunt cheeks, like cut-outs, spits of dark hair curling just around the edges of his square, strong jaw and green eyes, too, that cut right through you. This was before they went slit on the world, before he became a dad, before the drippy-nosed, half-formed kindergarten students and their immoral teacher.
Still, you can’t fault Holly for coveting that house, or her plain, hard comparison between what the two of them had had, growing up. This was a fact, and it wasn’t fair, and sometimes it just made Holly’s stomach clench up and ache. You can’t blame her, either, for never once suspecting that, in their secret hearts, Clayton’s parents blamed him—and isn’t that an odd thing, since he was just a boy? You can’t blame her for this because they didn’t even know it themselves, though it cut its deep groove in Clayton, there was denying that, for in his family it was always just that once and for a brief time there had been the two children—a perfect pair, boy and girl—and then, well not, only the one for the parents to dig all their parenting out on, only the boy. That was how it was.
Meanwhile, Holly had her suffering, and Clayton had his, and if only the two of them had learned how to see this in each other, maybe Earl would have passed without incident through all of his school-aged years.
Traits run down through families, everybody knows this—red hair and green eyes and propensities toward terrible diseases—but what about the separate griefs of families, the hurtful things that happen to and mark us?
What hurt Holly most, as a child, was her bed. Well, it did. And maybe all it would have taken to make her happy in her marriage was a four-star hotel-quality, top-of-the-line, luxury, two-sided latex pillowtop bed, and goose down quilt. That really might have done it for her.
Whereas Clayton should, just one time, have taken a hard look at the silence that came down on his family. He should have put an end to it. He should have moved his parents to a condo, sold the house off, and burned the crib that still stood, like a shrine, in the corner of the two car garage where once he found a nest of tiny, red-eyed, bloody rats and when he told his mother, she slapped him.
Because, really, how long will it be before suspicion shifts to the slit-eyed man in the stone house in the desert whose devotion slipped out from inside him less than the span of half a thunderous heart beat, and then, after that, there wasn’t any tree left in the world to bring it back.
What Earl could remember he could fit—all of it—into the round bowl of that night. He remembered climbing things. He remembered that his father was either a largish or a smallish man, perhaps with a beard. He remembered a green book with black letters.
The list of what he couldn’t remember was so, so much longer.
Of course, Earl started out like any other child—red and wrinkled—and of course there had always been his quirks—his sliced bananas and unexpected regressions—but then one day—the day his father got caught with his kindergarten teacher—everything shifted inside him, completely reversing his inner world, forever. After that, Earl did everything backwards. He counted backwards, spelled backwards, drew backwards. He even tied his shoes backwards. He smiled backwards.
One morning, Earl came out of his bedroom wearing his underwear over his shorts, enraging the mother, who slammed down her newspaper and said, “I’ve had enough of this.”
Or maybe it was the dad who said that. Maybe Earl was hoping that if everything got turned around enough, things that had already happened would turn into things that were still going to happen, and maybe they just never would. Maybe Earl thought that, who can say?
But maybe the dad had already gone away, maybe to the mountains or a river somewhere, because from then on he sent Earl scenic postcards with simple instructions: eat green vegetables, go to bed early, don’t have sex with strangers or teachers.
Earl saved them all. He kept them in a box.
“What’s sex?” he asked his mother.
Remember, he was not yet eight. Or maybe, by now, he was. Time flies, even for children.
This was either before or after their sadness had settled in for good, but definitely before Earl disappeared, sometime between lunch and the rest of his life.
If Clayton thought about it, he could hardly have called it love, not when they were rutting on the floor of the kindergarten bathroom, their heads lodged up next to the tiny, squashed bowl of the toilet, almost as low down to the ground as they were themselves, amidst the smell of boy piss and their own randy secretions. Outside the small door of the bathroom, the children could have been napping, or they could have been playing with clay, or listening to a story from another parent volunteer. Outside the small door of the bathroom, Clayton’s own son might have been sitting propped up against that very door, his ear turned to the cobalt paint of it, his knees pulled tight to his chest. Any one of the children could have been hovering there, listening.
But of course they weren’t—it was after school.
Even so, out of guilt, Clayton brought each child in the class his or her own little tree, a tiny seedling in a half a lunch milk carton, as if that could make up for what he’d done with their teacher in the night—and not just in the bathroom either, but on their nap rugs, and in the reading corner, and once on the foam mat underneath the climbing structure which Clayton had just laid in and was afraid they might stain.
Clayton didn’t even know how it started.
If he had known, he’d have gathered Earl up and gone in the whole opposite direction, the two of them north, to the mountains, or west, to the sea.
When his mom found his sister dead in her crib and with Clayton poking at her, she just grabbed the limp lump of limbs, like a lifeline, to her chest, as Clayton curled up, at the end of his bed, trying as hard has he could to disappear beneath his covers. After that, Clayton would keep trying his whole life to disappear, and he was doing pretty good at it until the kindergarten teacher placed her warm hand on his forearm and gently pointed out that there was something wrong with Earl.
Like father, like son, Clayton thought.
On the other hand, Earl never gave much thought to disappearing, one way or the other. Hong said the lunch trade went the same as always; Hong said that Earl was whistling the last time he saw him. Also, Earl said something, Hong said, about a boat. Hong said, he could be wrong, but he thought it was a sailboat—a boat with slender mast and blue sails and a whole big promotion campaign to go with it. Like, Hong said, the boat could take you anywhere—to happiness itself. Hong said Earl talked a lot about that boat. Hong said the whistling was just like the wind in the sails of the boat, which of course was an imaginary boat, but good enough.
Then Hong said, “The only thing I don’t know is, how was he planning to recognize it. Isn’t that funny? Out of all the boats in the harbor, how was he going to know which boat was the right boat?”
When the detectives arrived to interrogate Clayton, he was sitting in the sandy dirt underneath the Joshua tree, and he was whistling too, which aroused their suspicions. The last time Clayton saw the kindergarten teacher she had colored her hair red and was wearing handcuffs, but they weren’t going to be able to get her on anything. How could they get anything on her, when she hadn’t done anything wrong?
Her face was puffy from crying, and she looked ugly to Clayton. OK, he thought, but it hurt him to think it. He wondered what it was about the girl that had allowed him to take his whole life down like that: five years a devoted stay-at-home dad—soccer coach and Cub Scout leader—and then, like that, a desert rat, the boy a distant memory, his own guts churning constantly inside him, but why?
Well, he told the authorities, the boy did like zoo animals, especially the big ones, but there wasn’t a zoo anywhere around.
From the desert sun he’d turned brown as a nut. His face was crinkly and his teeth were yellow. Inside his head, random words and tunes were still rattling around, and he couldn’t help but wonder if this was what reading had been like (he found the past tense disconcerting, but strangely palliative) for his little Earl. When he thought the words “his little Earl,” his mouth flooded with salty saliva and he became aware that he was not a happy man.
“If this is about child support,” he added, “I left her the house, the bank accounts. There’s nothing more I can give her.”
Then started to cry, the strangest feeling, he thought, of all. The man who was interrogating him was wearing black boots in the desert so shiny he—Clayton—could almost see himself reflected in them, could almost see the tears streaking down his muddy face. Why was he crying? he wondered. He had left all that behind so long ago.
“There’s no place you can even plant trees here,” he confided in the man who was wearing the black boots. Behind him, other men with gloves and shovels were digging anyway. Clayton took a deep breath, and the words, like the images, rattled around in his head as they would in a hollow container—river, blankets, boy, teacher, shh.
Or maybe not sadness, but something like an inner seriousness. It was complicated being Earl by then. For, in his mind, things were still backwards, but ever since his father went away, he’d grown more and more aware of it, and now every time he processed any single piece of information or performed even the simplest activity, he was forced to turn it around. Sometimes, of course, he still got mixed up.
For example, the boat.
Or even the bananas. Holly, the mom, should have known by then what happened to bananas when you sliced them early.
Even with his parents it was backwards, with the dad the one who loved him and who cared for him, and the mom the one who worked and made all the money. So why was the dad the one who went away?
And what was it with the blue-sailed boat?
The same authorities interrogated Holly, who positioned herself as above suspicion.
He never sent money, she said, not any kind of support at all.
The postcards came from all over the world, she said.
His parents are loaded, she said. Maybe try France. They never liked her, the parents, she meant. And the boy, she shook her head sadly, was just never quite right.
Finally, here is something all three of them remembered:
One time before the father went away, the little family took a ride in their car, which was red but not sporty. In the back seat, the boy sat with his stuffed rabbit and a brown paper bag that had sandwiches in it. Sandwiches—but not bananas? A smell came out of the bag, like rot, wafting up along with the curves in the road. This made the boy feel sick.
So the boy closed his eyes and the road turned straight, with houses on either side of it, no fences, but dogs on the porches and people sleeping inside, but when he opened his eyes again, the road was still the same, curvy road, with the bad smell clinging to it, and his parents in the front seat, looking grim and anxious at the same time.
That drive ended at a dun-colored lake in the desert, iridescent ripples at the shore and millions of flies swarming around it, a smoky blue cloud. The father, red-faced and angry, opened the door of the car with a swoosh, then closed it fast, with a slam. The mother’s voice rose and fell in a flat, raspy whine. No one could get out. But even though the door had been open for only a second, flies swarmed, in that second, into the car, and on the ride home, they buzzed around everyone’s ears and crawled on their arms.
For days after that, whenever the boy opened the door of the car, flies flew out.
The car was full of flies.
They dug and they dug, and he wept and wept, and the black boots turned dusty with sand.
Looking back, he believed—but of course he could never be certain—that she was the one who started things, who, back behind the blocks, stuck her hand into his pants and turned her glistening smile on him, like a shot of something powerful and urgent. That’s what he believed, looking back, but of course it could have been anything— her breasts on his arm as she peered over his shoulder at the book he was reading the kids, or planting a tree side by side, and their hands brushed. Something like that. But looking back, he never thought it had anything to do with his dead baby sister in her little lump of blankets, nor with the stricken-blank look on his mother’s face, the mask that came down over her that night forever—forever, Clayton thought, and ever and ever. His dad, too, that same mask: control, control.
“Keep it together,” they whispered, the one to the other, “for Clayton.”
But they didn’t mean that either, not really.
So Clayton put all that behind him. He explored his inner self. He planted trees—thousands upon thousands of green oxygen-making living organisms to heal the woes of the planet itself. Clayton was a wonderful stay-at-home dad.
OK, so he did love that teacher.
Over the years, he never told anyone, either, about the Popsicle stick barges, the ones he lashed together with twine and Elmer’s glue, hundreds of them over the years, all sorts of different designs, with ballast and sometimes sails, each with bits of blanket clumped on their topsides to signify his sister, floating down the river that brushed by in the back of their house, sending her off, he told himself, to a better place, where small people flourished and were happy. To a one, the barges sank. He launched them, and they sank.
The trees, at least, grew and grew.
Then, years later when Clayton lay together with the kindergarten teacher in that miniature bathroom where earlier that same day children might have been napping on their mats outside the door, he felt for the first time in so many years, well, whole. Earl never did that for him, though he loved him, nor Holly either.
In the three years Clayton had spent in the desert, he had got used to a feeling that he was going to take root himself, just plant his feet there, in the desert, and grow into a still, but living thing, like a tree, the only one—except the Joshua tree—around—a solitary man, alone in the world. Everything had been so quiet then, except the little bits of songs in his head. Now, they were making all that noise with their digging. Maybe it never was love, he thought now, nor even sex, but something about being complete. But then, he thought, why did the boy have to disappear?
Clayton should have known the answer to this, but he didn’t.
Of course, the only thing we know for certain is: there was a river and there was a boy. The boy grew up, and when he was a man, he had a son. After awhile, the man, then the son disappeared. These things happen all the time.
And this: if you start walking in the opposite direction of where you are going, and if you walk forever, will you end up there anyway, wrapped in the embrace of your own strong rooted father? And will your father, in the land that is absent of both trees and water—everything, besides you, that he ever loved—receive you with his open arms? Will he give you back your memory, and turn everything around, the right way, again?
Can your father do this, for you?
And will you walk forever to find out?
The Origin of Stars
One: Hubert’s Thoughts
If two people start walking in completely opposite directions, will they end up where they started or someplace altogether different that you never could imagine?
This is what Hubert was thinking when Hubert was six. Hubert had a large, square head and narrow shoulders, and an uncanny predilection toward thoughts that would alienate him from other children. Nonetheless, Hubert was a child who thrived, and all things that were good happened to him.
That is, with the exception of his head, which started out oversized and misshapen, and only grew larger as the rest of his body, for years it seemed, did not. In time, the matter of his remarkable cranium gave rise to such concern that Hubert was subjected to a series of—ever inconclusive—medical tests and procedures. Sometimes apologetic or impatient, and almost always mystified, the doctors would conclude that Hubert’s head was, square. Perhaps the mother, however well intended—and here, the doctors would look tactfully away—had lain him on his back when he was a newborn, or there might have a problem with her birth canal. In private, some surmised that Hubert’s head could be an adaptation they did not fully understand yet, or a subtle harbinger of more deformities to come, but in they end there was nothing they could prove. And anyway, what did it matter? Take him home, the parents, who were good and earnest people, were advised, give him every opportunity, love him fiercely, as love, even then, was believed to be a powerful healer.
But as Hubert grew, the squareness persisted, becoming even more pronounced in the years preceding puberty, which, when it came, defined the angles the angles of his pate with such elegant precision that, from certain discreet perspectives, it might even be said to be attractive.
A thought Hubert had: if you point a flashlight up into the sky and no physical matter interrupts its path of light, will a child on another planet a hundred million years from now see it as a message from a small boy—Hubert—or as just another dead star?
At this time Hubert was hardly more than three or four—no master of physics or logic—but yet this thought foretold with some precision what would prove to be Hubert’s lifelong passion for the vast mysteries of the night sky.
How do stars die? he wondered. What is a star, a planet, light? For that matter (Hubert was just a boy), what’s death?
But when he asked his mother, she shooed him away. And when he asked his father, his father said, “Stop pestering me.”
So Hubert said, “Can I borrow your flashlight?” and went out into the neighborhood where the other children were playing hide-and-seek and kick-the-can, and didn’t want to be bothered either. Alone, Hubert shined his light into the heavens, and thought his thoughts, and dreamed his dreams, and by the time he was a young man, he’d developed such a expertise at projecting incandescent beams that he worked his way through college as a spotlight operator for celebrity events and the openings of such things as big shows or buildings.
By this time, Hubert’s childhood was behind him, hastened along by the untimely death of his parents in a heli-hiking accident somewhere high in the Canadian Rockies, and because bad weather and terrain delayed the recovery of the bodies for some weeks, Hubert spent several weeks mourning their passing in little acts of memory, all the scenes he could remember from when he was a boy—the camping trips with his father and his flashlight, the stern jut of his mother’s jaw marching him into the principal’s office to demand an apology for the unkind remarks of some other child, their twinned beaming faces at his high school graduation. When the day of the actual internment finally came, Hubert was quite done with his grieving and receptive to the kindly ministrations of sensitive coeds, who, in the absence of anything truly consoling to say, could do nothing more than to take Hubert into their beds.
Then, when Hubert was a senior in college, Hubert discovered a star. It was not a big or important star—in the whole hierarchy of stars, right down there on the bottom—but it was a star, nonetheless, that came to be known as Hubert’s star, which he wrote up for a small, but well-regarded journal, and which garnered sufficient recognition that Hubert soon found himself being invited to scientific conferences and awarded time on important telescopes in remote corners of the world.
Don’t mess with me, I am Hubert the Head, Hubert thought.
Hubert had this thought at a prestigious research center in the rugged outback of a distant continent where, for months, he’d been searching for other new discoveries by night, and not sleeping well during the day. The appointment was a plum, but badly timed, coming as it had shortly after his parents’ demise. Torn between the solicitous attentions of his coeds and the rigors of his impending fame, Hubert had a hard time making up his mind, but really, fame was fame, and surely there’d be time for other girls later.
Then nothing turned out as he had expected.
(First), the meteoric rise of his nascent career stalled abruptly, as:
(Second), despite his deeply held conviction that some dazzling new find—a planetary system or evidence of life—lay just around the corner, the night sky persisted, month after month, in resisting his most concerted attentions, and:
(Third), Hubert’s mind started to drift.
Two things sustained him in this time of frustration—(1) his unwavering belief in his own destiny, and (2) the girl he’d discovered lurking on the edges of the compound, watching the giant telescope that watched the sky. Unlike the other indigenous peoples, who traded openly with the compound staff and drank carbonated beverages by the case—Coke and Dr. Pepper and 7-Up—Hubert’s girl (for this is how he came to think of her, just as he’d once thought of his star as his star) crouched secretively and for long periods of time behind the compound periphery bushes, and unless she was approached—when, in a heartbeat, she would turn and disappear, as if, Hubert thought, into thin air—she betrayed no discernible movement and made no perceptible sound.
Hubert had the oddest feeling about this girl, who had a broad, flat chest, a sly demeanor, and the widest feet he had ever seen. Really, it was intense. And perhaps because he had always somehow pictured himself settling down with a diminutive blond in the helping professions, Hubert could not help but suspect that it was the girl’s furtive shadow and dark gaze that was keeping him awake. Either that, or her tattoos, which began at the crown of her hairline and worked their way down the round sides of her face, intertwining at the back of her neck, like fingers.
So Hubert thought about those fingers for a while, and then he thought about them closer up, maybe touching something, maybe him. Then Hubert decided he needed a lure, and so it wasn’t long before he was spending his free time on the internet, searching for things to amuse the girl: a translucent pink clock radio, ballet slippers, sunscreen, a red enamel teapot with blue wings. Hubert left his offerings on the edge of the compound, and the girl, whom he watched through one of the small research telescopes, would—sometimes—scoop them up with such surprise and delight that Hubert himself would come close to a swoon with his own, vicarious pleasure.
But she was hard to please and unpredictable, and for several weeks running spurned, in this order: green socks, a diamond heart necklace (Hubert would save this one for future use), silk stockings, crayons, and a jack-in-the-box. Finally, she relented and appeared, once again, to be pleased by such plain and uninspired gifts as a potato peeler or bag of jewel-colored pop rocks. At such times, Hubert’s pulse would quicken, leaving him light-headed and slightly euphoric, and what he wanted—this he wanted more than anything on earth—was to be close enough that he might hear her exclamation or even touch her, her hand or her face. But he couldn’t get it right: she would take the paper clips, but leave the ice bucket; she liked nail polish, but not lipstick.
And as other new stars continued to elude him, Hubert’s time on the telescope was drawing toward its end. What he really needed was an inspiration, like a lightning bolt or even just a light bulb, but despite his most concerted efforts, the night sky remained opaque and unyielding, and Hubert’s hopes for fame—for something big—a galaxy or imploding black hole—had begun to fade.
Ok, Hubert thought—for really, he was only still a boy, to whom all things remained not just possible, but likely—even just a new comet would do.
Two: Hubert’s Experience
One day something happened that Hubert, in his whole life, would never attempt to explain or understand and was rarely known even to speak of, even among his closest friends and his most trusted associates. As far as official records were concerned, the event itself could not really, properly speaking, be said to have occurred. And of course, it all began at what must have been the height of Hubert’s frustrations (and his most sleep deprived), and though later he would understand that these were exactly the conditions that would produce, throughout his life, his sharpest and most sublime thoughts, at the time he did feel as if he might be going mad. Hubert, after all, had his cosmic destiny, and he was pretty sure this wasn’t it. His head was square, his folks were gone, and he’d left a bevy of coeds behind—at the very least, he was owed a moon somewhere—multiple moons, Hubert thought—round and white and glistening—serene, he thought, like sleep.
Hubert thought that, but what he didn’t think was that it was all—all—part of a grander destiny than he could ever hold together in his square head, even after the conclusion of the event. For naturally, it never would have occurred to him to imagine that the girl had her own separate destiny and that a time was coming when, between the two of them, only one will would prevail—and that it was not going to be his.
On the night the event commenced, the single moon above traced yet another perfect parabolic curve across a clear star-splattered sky, as if, Hubert thought, to mock him. And it was past midnight to boot, and Hubert had been straining mightily at the telescope since his shift began just after dusk, focusing and refocusing on—nothing. Hubert knew this—how could he not?—but still he persisted until his eyes burned and his toes felt scratchy with restlessness. Also, it was hot, and his head hurt.
This had been going on for hours.
Then, very slowly, a bead of sweat began to roll—slowly, slowly—down the flat plane of his forehead, tracing an irritating path toward the corner of his left eye, until finally, Hubert was forced to turn away, however briefly, from the pernicious parsimoniousness of the recalcitrant telescope to wipe at his brow and maybe reflect, just a little, on the hopelessness of it all—and that, that very moment, was when it happened, and something far below caught his eye.
Well, that part can be verified, as that part is the final notation Hubert ever made there. This is what he wrote: he wrote, something! 1:19 AM. Then (as it may be surmised) he went out to meet his destiny.
What Hubert had noticed—there on the edge of the compound, in the inky darkness, squatting beside a low spiky bush—was—her! Yes, yes, Hubert thought, it was, indeed, she! And yes, she was squatting there, motionless, as in the day, but more deliberate now, more incisive, as if she were waiting for something—what? Hubert thought, and he felt a little dizzy, which was not uncommon lately. His toes itched something fierce, so he scraped them together. But when he looked again, still, the girl had not moved, was crouched in the same spot, at the same angle, not at all, he would reflect some time later, unlike himself at the telescope, poised and alert, and yes, Hubert, waiting, and yes, he thought again, she was looking at him.
Then, his pulse quickening, Hubert thought: she is waiting for me!
At this exact moment—the moment Hubert saw her watching him and had his thought and quickening of pulse—their eyes, despite the darkness of the night and scientific compound, somehow met, locking together for that one fatal moment, and then she turned away, and when she turned back—this is something he would have sworn to (if he had talked about it) all the remaining years of his life—she was holding something out to him in the palm of her hand, she was offering it to him, of that he was certain, a gift (to reciprocate, perhaps, for his own small gifts to her), but what she was extending was something quite unearthly, and it was glowing, almost luminescent, almost, but not quite, green, and it looked, from where Hubert sat at his telescope, far beneath him, as round and as smooth as an egg, and like nothing so much as a new, small star.
After Hubert disappeared, the compound buzzed, if only briefly. Almost to a one, each of the other astronomers who had been aware of the suspicious economy of exchange that had been going on between Hubert and the girl felt he had it coming. Different kinds of people, they insisted, should keep to their own kind, and what could Hubert have been thinking, they said.
Among the current fellows, there was represented a predictable range of scientific inquiry, from quasars, to planets, to the darkest of dark matter, the blackest of holes (although one of the junior fellows—a large-boned woman graduate student, not much more senior than Hubert himself, with a corrected cleft palate and a bush of white hairs sprouting out of her chin—was secretly searching for signs of intelligent life in distant galaxies). Among them, as well, an ordinary range of human pettiness prevailed, from disagreements over soap, to the length of people’s showers, to who drank the last orange juice. Hubert’s disappearance was just another item on the long list of small and large things that could possibly go wrong (and did), so after the initial hue and cry, everyone got discreetly back to work, with some of the most competitive among them completely delighted to be splitting his portions of fresh fruit and pudding, along with his telescope time.
In the weeks and possibly months that followed (he had lost all sense of time) Hubert was astonished at his inner strength and capacity for adaptation, not that he didn’t suffer. The first thing he rued was his sun screen, which he thought would be the death of him when the girl just kept moving, even after sunrise, out into the blazing lunar landscape, all rocks and ravines and high, airy plateaus. Hubert warily eyed the first blush of dawn, limpid on the line of the horizon, for he knew what was coming, but though he still had time at that moment to turn back, he did not. It was as if he were tied to a tether to the thing the girl held, closed up now in her fist, but with little excretions of greenish light escaping between her fingers, and Hubert was powerless to stop.
Naturally, he burned, his skin searing a radiant pink all over and so unbearably tender that it puffed up like a limp balloon and he grew feverish to the point of delirium, until the girl at last relented and holed up in a shallow cave where, for several days, she rubbed a noxious-smelling salve on his body and incanted a low chant that, to Hubert, sounded far away and ominous. When he came to his senses on the morning of the fourth day, the girl was squatting at his feet, staring intently at the rotting red onions of his knees. They did not speak, for of course, they did not share a common language, but as he watched she began to peel long patches of dead skin from his body—his shoulder, his cheek, the soft part of his chest just over his heart, and then (this is one part he preferred, his whole life, not to remember) she made him eat it, and after that he was impervious to UV radiation and never burned again.
Then his feet were a problem, for Hubert had gone blithely out to meet his destiny wearing nothing but a pair of ragged shorts, his favorite threadbare t-shirt, and the ancient flannel slippers he wore during his telescope time. They were a deep berry red, like an old claret wine, and Hubert had had them for years, but looking at them now he longed for his hiking boots, or at least his new hundred dollar Nikes (an internet treat just for him) with glow-in-the-dark electric blue stripes and air anti-gravity soles, for indeed his favorite slippers would last less than the first night of walking, after which the girl would give him the same plastic flip-flops he had left out for her only a week or two before, and then, to his dismay, nothing. They were moving quickly, many miles a day, over mostly rocky terrain. If Hubert had not been somewhat naturally thick-skinned, this also might have been the death of him, but the girl was headed in only one direction, and so Hubert hobbled on, applying the all-purpose, noxious-smelling salve to his own feet twice a day, until they were thick and padded, like paws.
This is what Hubert will remember from that first journey. It is, for the most part, a memory of skin, the largest organ of the body, which despite its elasticity and remarkable resilience, is laced with nerve endings and exquisitely receptive to pain. Also, Hubert will remember rock, he will remember walking, and he will remember that, in the whole course of what at times seemed an endless and possibly pointless journey, the girl held onto the rock that glowed. This was the lure, and Hubert followed it, until all that remained of his prior self was just his curiosity and unaccountable desire to touch both the girl and her stone.
Other details about what might have happened during those long days of walking have long gone missing from Hubert’s memory. If he was afraid, if he found the girl alluring, if he had any regrets, it is impossible to know. All that it is possible, really, to know is that Hubert went out one night to examine what the girl was holding in her hand—a faintly glowing orb of some natural greenish element—and that, three years later, he came back a strangely altered man.
Later, Hubert lay staring up at the sky on a mud-colored, flat sandy rock, oddly pleased with the blue blur above. When his glasses had fallen some months before deep into a narrow crevasse, he had, it was true, experienced a momentary tug of something, some half-remembered panic, or a bitterness out of the past. The feeling had been very strong—for how in the world could he ever live without them? Then, like a wave, it had passed. At that very moment, the girl had reached up to touch his eyes, so high above her own, and he had just been able to make out the traces of her, as if she were confident that now, at last, he would see.
By the time Hubert noticed his own lost glasses, cracked and askew on the girl’s small face, he’d have long since ceased to miss them, for the sky above him had since grown as soft and as close as a blanket, and many of the stars he had loved his whole life had just gone missing from it—poof—into a blank space, or absence, as absolute and sudden as the path behind him back to the telescope and his prior life. But other stars seemed nearer, almost as if he could grasp them in his hands, and others had turned fat and furry and embarrassingly intimate. Even the moon was rounder and more three-dimensional, not flat in the sky like a math equation.
Now, lying there, on the rock, with his square head wedged against it and high above a rocky plain, Hubert felt serene and as if he had been destined his whole life to end exactly here, where he had determined to stay as long (if that’s what it took) as the rock itself to figure out why.
The girl and her clan lived in a small camp below him, mostly rocky overhangs and caves, and although Hubert had never paid much attention to this continent, its politics, history, or its people, it now struck him that that these people made love, slept, and went about the business of their lives as remote from the business of what had once been his life as if the worlds were somehow only shadows of each other. This interested Hubert. And it was not that he’d lost interest in the heavens above, but that, like another light bulb in his head, he now surmised they might have somehow here descended—that this could be another planet, far away from home.
Mainly, Hubert tried to keep his thoughts to a minimum, and one of the things that he tried not to think was that his new condition was somehow permanent, that in truth, he had slipped between the two worlds, where he’d now be lodged forever, as incapable of returning to his as he would be of entering the girl’s.
At first, it had just been him and the girl, walking and walking. Then there had been the days of delirium, during which his dead parents hovered and scolded.
“Now you’ve done it,” his father said.
“Oh go away,” his mother said, “you’re not even ours.”
“But Mama,” Hubert said, “I’ll eat my peas—I promise!”
Afterwards, were more days of walking, with little rest, until at last they had stopped. Within moments, Hubert found himself surrounded by a handful of people—a few men and women and a smaller scattering of children—who, though small and furtive, like the girl, seemed otherwise clear-eyed and well fed, and they welcomed Hubert and the girl with a great deal of food and some drunkenness, and then, for several days, sleep.
When Hubert finally awoke and took stock of his surroundings, he lay in narrow, umber hollow surrounded by rocks the color of sand and smooth-skinned and curved, like giant eggs. There was water, but he did not know where it came from. The food was mostly dried, mostly meat, but there were also grubs and occasional slender greens. Scarred and gentle, the girl and her people almost never spoke, and though at first Hubert waited patiently for someone to tell him ok, what now? they went about their business of survival oblivious of him, taking stock of his presence only by such considerations as delivering food when it came time to eat or bringing him bundles of grass to sleep on. If Hubert had been thinking, like the old days, he might have suffered from anxiety or, perhaps, regret, but the last time even a rudimentary idea had formed in his head was so long ago it was more like a dream than a concept.
But no, it was not that what was happening to Hubert felt like a dream, or even that it was a dream, for Hubert was certainly there. Already his skin had turned brown and tough, and the ruined tatters of his shorts and shirt were all that remained of his prior self. If only there were a mirror here, or a pool of limpid water, something to show him his reflection, to give him back his image, Hubert thought, even a piece of bent tin would do, or the flat link of wristwatch he’d ordered for the girl from the internet. Well, no again, for by the time he had this thought Hubert would have recognized nothing of himself but the blunt, square shape of his head, and even that, increasingly obscured by hair and beard, was not so oblique as it once had been. No, it wasn’t that Hubert was having a dream, but that, instead, the dreaming was going on all around him.
The girl was a dreamer all right. She could close her eyes and summon up visions at will, just as she had summoned up Hubert himself, and the longer he lived among her and her people, the more he understood that they were all like that, waking dreamers, who lived among only stones, and the mysterious water, and who were silent, but not, Hubert knew, dumb. If Hubert had been an ordinary hiker, moving quickly through this inauspicious landscape toward a destination spot—a waterfall or famous climbing rock—he’d never even have noticed them, living there among only rocks. Each member of the girl’s clan lived in a private cave, which Hubert knew because he saw them disappear into the earth, but he could never find their entrances, their little nooks or crannies, nor could he anticipate when they might reemerge to refresh themselves with bits of food and water, or some small communion.
Hubert could never have imagined that human beings could spend so much time isolated in dark places, but then neither could he ever have imagined that the business they were hard at work on in their caves was the fundamental business of dreaming the world into being. It was hard work, and there were not very many of them left to do it. Hubert didn’t know this, but the girl who had fetched him did, as she alone remained awake to keep an eye on him, waiting for the light bulb to pop on in his square head, the only thought that mattered anymore, so that she—and now, thinking this, the girl let her face go dim with private pleasure—could get back to her own cave and her dreams.
Except that Hubert, despite an entire childhood riddled with ideas that rattled around in the corners of his head like—he thought, for no apparent reason, acorns—was suddenly and utterly bereft of them. Language itself seemed to have gone out on him, as week after week, Hubert squatted in his overhang, watching the nearby rocks for any sign that might yield an answer, though he’d long since lost track of the question. Well, at least the girl was patient, and as long as the thread of dreaming continued unbroken around her, she also was hopeful, for she was confident that Hubert was the right man, and that he would come through in the end. It took Hubert a long time—years, maybe—to realize that he was going about his experience all the wrong way. Whatever the girl and her clan were doing in their caves, they weren’t going to just hand it over to him, not as they performed or received it. Thus, though Hubert knew he resembled these people more now than he did the other astronomers back at the compound, he also knew that he wasn’t really like them, and that though his cave was cool and, in its own way, homey, if he was ever going to understand why or how he had come to be exactly here, he was going to need a more aggressive strategy, something more clearly defined than just sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. What he needed was a system, something scientific, the way back to thinking in words.
Still, Hubert was a scientist, and he also knew that he was lacking data.
So one night, he awoke with the word in his mouth: data.
“Data,” he said, the unexpected word feeling clumsy and unfamiliar on his tongue, like fur. “Data.”
And though he fell, contented, almost immediately back to sleep, the word hung around in his cave, sounding—had there been anyone to listen—more and more like: dada.
Hubert arose the next morning determined to get to the bottom of his experience.
Hubert’s throat was sore from talking in his sleep.
“Girl,” he bellowed. Then, more softly, more like a lover, he called out, “Oh, girl.”
Hubert looked, for all intents and purposes, like a wild man.
That very day Hubert went out and began to explore on his own, and the girl, excited, followed behind, but as before, Hubert bumbled even this, becoming agitated by and interested in all the wrong things. He spent some time on insects, which were larger and more multi-colored than any he had ever seen, and for awhile he longed for his killing jar and the cotton-backed display cases that had lined his small childhood room.
Later, Hubert noticed plants, hidden in the cool undersides of stones, which certainly must have been what he was eating, though in their natural environment they looked so delicate and insubstantial. How, he wondered, could they keep a whole, gross body alive?
Behind him, only partially hidden by a ragged outcropping, the girl was thinking: rocks, Hubert, rocks. Think rocks.
But Hubert, so precocious and filled with such alacrity as a child, was going to have to do this, the girl saw now, in his own way.
One day Hubert found a lizard sunning on a rock, its blue tongue flitting in and out of its widely angled mouth. Brown and hard, Hubert looked a little like a lizard himself, and for some time—oh, a week or more—he squatted low beside it, wrapped up in a kind of inter-species communion, until finally the lizard climbed up on his knee to meet his gaze, eye to eye. Behind him, tears traced dirty trails down the girl’s cheeks. Although she did not know what this might mean, she did know that one of her uncles was passing in his cave, and that the thread of dreams was weakening all around them.
Rocks, Hubert, rocks, she would think.
And then one day it happened. As gently as humanly possible, Hubert put down the gray lizard he was holding, and stood up and shook his stiffness out, and looked about him, aware for the first time since arriving that the sea of rocks around him stretched for as far as he could see, and above that, only sky, and then Hubert began to explore in earnest, walking out beyond the place where the girl and her clan lived just a little bit each day, each day in a different direction, never far enough to get lost or not have time to get back before night, but always, each day, to a different place, closer and closer—the girl began to feel hopeful again—to where she had been leading him since they first they started out, and each day she thrilled anew, each day she left her own dreaming behind, convinced that the moment on which all things depended was now very soon to be at hand.
So this is how it happens that finally and at long last Hubert discovers the origin of stars in a small stone basin in the outback of a distant continent among a sea of rocks, vast as sky itself, and with the small girl watching behind him. Naturally, Hubert gets even this wrong, initially concluding that he has at long last stumbled onto his own discovery—a bed of ancient meteorites that, in a stunning reversal of everything known about the universe itself, somehow have not gone out. And they are beautiful, pooled together in their basin, limpid constellations of otherworldly light which, even in the bright glare of day, give off a clear, pure incandescence, like something you could touch, or hold in your hand, or drink. Hubert is suddenly thirsty, but as he approaches the bed of stones, he is momentarily blinded and falls to his knees, covering his eyes, and then he is very tired, and sleeps.
Hubert will return to this site, followed by the girl, many times before he sees, again, that he is wrong, sees that the still glowing meteorites have not fallen there, but instead, and this is something Hubert can never quite get into words but something he nonetheless knows with an astonishing certitude that leaves him breathless, originate there. This knowledge is the part of his experience that will leave him altered, and it will come to him on the day he sees a small star being launched by a young man from the girl’s clan who heaves it up into the heavens and then turns back to where his cave is and his dreams. Hubert does not need to link this extravagant discovery to the origin of everything. For Hubert, it is enough, finally, to go out into the small stone basin, to stand there in the light, to reach down and pick up an egg-shaped glowing orb, strangely luminescent closer up—almost green—and hold it in his hands, knowing that several hundred billion years from now it will be shining down on some small boy on earth from high above and unimaginably far away.
Behind him, the girl is not smiling, but she isn’t weeping either, and the anticipation she has felt for some time now has been replaced by a feeling of such righteousness that she feels if not transported, then at least vindicated.
But no, and it’s a good thing, the girl keeps both feet planted firmly on the ground, because when Hubert stands and looks about him, holding one glowing orb in his hands, he turns at last and sees her, recognizing at once the look on her face, which is nothing so much as triumphant, nothing so much as an ultimatum, and her meaning is as clear as if they did share a common language: now will you take your telescope and other scientists and big machines, and go away, and leave the stars and the rest of the dreaming to us, to whom they most properly belong and on which you most assuredly depend.
And the look on her face breaks Hubert’s heart because, after all that she has done for him, he knows he cannot do even this one small thing for her.
Three: Hubert’s Dotage
It is true, as it is written in the accounts, that when Hubert walks out of the wild, no one believes in him at first. The largely indigenous staff sees him mainly as an apparition, and some of them leave the compound forever, while the visiting astronomers, who have only heard the story of his disappearance (and have not, some of them, believed even in that), cannot calibrate any of the available data to make it make sense. But it doesn’t really matter, because Hubert isn’t talking, not much anyway, and the few words he does say—Nikes, asparagus, rock, green—are slurred and unintelligible, as if his tongue had grown fat and clumsy with disuse.
In later years it will be difficult for students of astronomy to reconcile this image of a ragged wild man with the dapper, square-headed professor famous for his scintillating lectures on light, for Hubert had had an idea. It was not a very sound or scientific idea, but it was an idea nonetheless that sustained him in his decline. If, Hubert reasoned, the nature of light was that the speed of it was the fastest that human beings could imagine, beyond which, everything was altered past recognition—time, space, the continuum thereof—what would happen—this was his idea—if it were somehow stopped, or even—and this thought left him breathless, for now Hubert imagined the world going backward, everything headed toward those precise moments when the most egregious mistakes had been made, back beyond even his own betrayal to, oh, something like the splitting of the atom itself—reversed?
“It will happen,” he insisted to his students. “First, we’ll slow it down, and then one day, we’ll stop it. And then…” Hubert said, his eyes going a bit distant, the way they sometimes did, but then he never said anything more.
And while Hubert was not part of the scientific team that did eventually succeed in bringing light to a standstill, he was rumored to have taken a rare glass of champagne when it did, as he long had predicted, happen, and those who were with him shyly reported that he grew a bit teary-eyed.
Some of his students, especially the girls, were aware of his tendency toward sentiment, even grief, just below his cheery aplomb, and sometimes they brought him gifts to assuage it—cookies, star charts, and even, as his dotage approached, one hand-knitted berry-red afghan and a pair of flannel slippers that delighted him.
It wasn’t until well into his dotage that the stars started going out. Hubert knew them all by then, by name and intergalactic location, and it was with a great feeling of sadness that he started crossing them off his charts. But of course, Hubert had been waiting his whole life for this sequence of events to begin, ever since he’d returned with a small expedition to the scene of his prior event and, finding no trace of the meteorites, the girl or her clan, understood the magnitude of his own betrayal. From that point on, he had never for an instant been free, in his mind, of the look that the girl had given him, full of such import and foreboding, but who was he, he had frequently thought, but one sole puny man, and what could she have possibly expected him to do to circumvent the whole of Western science?
On the occasion of this one expedition, the other scientists watched uneasily as Hubert paced around and around a small stone basin, then lay down in the curve of its bottom, buffed to a luminous sheen by centuries of wind, and slept there for three straight days. When he awoke, he never again spoke publicly about stars, devoting himself, instead, to his study of light. Taciturn to the end about his motives, it is possible that Hubert’s idea was evolving inside him, for Hubert was, in some respects a pragmatist, and now it might have seemed that if reversing light and all that came before lay too far in the future for his lifetime (Hubert would never stop believing in this possibility), what was there to stop him, in the present moment, from using what was already known about the stopping of light to contain it, and then somehow to make and launch new stars—Hubert’s stars, they would come to be called?
But the girl, who sometimes came to him in dreams, only laughed.
“You had your chance,” she said, as if they shared a common language, and she was holding out both hands, and one of them was empty, and in the other she was holding a small, green glowing orb.
The laughter was not unkind, but it was, nonetheless, the saddest sound Hubert had ever heard, and in his dotage it afflicted him with tinnitus, not so much a ringing but the sound of the girl laughing at him, if laughter was truly what it was. Sometimes, in his dotage he thought about his parents, heli-hiking in the Canadian Rockies.
“What a way to go,” he said. “I should,” he said, “have been a geologist instead.”
But of course, one by one, the stars were disappearing, and as Hubert—a single, sole and puny man—watched them go, he knew that in this, as in the rest of his life, he had gone about everything wrong, and though he wanted more than anything to go back and do it over, it was too late and Hubert knew it.
Already the stars were going out.