by Al Sarrantonio

Copyright 2010 by Al Sarrantonio


~ * ~

Man of shadows and cratered light:

Alabaster plains,

Seas of tranquil dust—

You know a secret.

What word would you tell

Had you a single cold breath above?

What word would it be?

Would it be Love?

~ * ~

I’ve never been happy with the last line of that poem. I wrote it after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in the summer of 1969, when the scientists and newspapermen started saying the Moon had been conquered and was a dead place, not interesting anymore. I walked out late one night during that same summer, and looked up and saw the Man in the Moon, and I asked him if he really was dead and buried. He gazed down at me, silver-white, inscrutable, and I went in and wrote a poem that I called “The Secret.”

I thought it was a pretty good poem, but I had some trouble with the last lines—partly because, despite the effect that moonlight is supposed to have on lovers, I did not feel love emanating from it that night. I felt something else, something disquieting almost.

I wrestled with the last lines of my poem that night, the way poets are supposed to, but finally I gave up and left them like they were and went out and looked at the Man in the Moon again. He was high overhead, staring balefully down at me. Only now he didn’t look like a man at all, but like some other animal, one I had seen and could almost recognize—

I went out and looked at the Man in the Moon on many other nights after that, and always I had the same feeling of uneasiness, that he knew something we on Earth, with all our smug technology and Moon landers, didn’t.

And then it became December of 1989, twenty years after that first Apollo landing, and the Man in the Moon told his secret.

And now I wonder, as I write this in a place I never dreamed of being, on the way to a place that soon will no longer exist, if poetry has a place in a world in which most of the scientists and newspapermen are dead, in which I watched my dear wife die, in which my own son was transformed into something inhuman and monstrous, in which…

Let me tell you.


The Far Field

 “Look, Dad, another one!”

Not any December night will do. It must be, and always was, the night of December thirteenth when the comet trail swept through the blue Earth, when the tiny flashing specks of gold known as the Geminid meteor shower gave the pre-Christmas sky an early present.

It was bone cold, but neither Richie nor I cared. There were parkas on our backs; the night was as crisp as a McIntosh apple. If we got too cold the house was only thirty feet away, but neither myself nor my twelve-year-old son had made a move to go in. I knew Emily was watching television in there under a pile of quilts, and she knew we were out here freezing; but since we were both happy, who cared?

“There went another one,” I said as a dim flash caught the corner of my eye.

Fifty meteors an hour, the books said, and that was about what we’d seen. Not all of them came out of the constellation Gemini (the Twins—something Emily sometimes called Richie and me), but no matter where you saw a meteor trail in the sky, you could trace it back to the constellation that gave the shower its name. Only the Perseids in the summer were better.

“Whoa! Two!” Richie shouted, and I caught one of them right in front of my eyes. It was the biggest we’d seen yet—and the trail it made was white and wide, curving downward. I traced it back and found that it didn’t originate in the Gemini cluster of stars.

“That wasn’t a Geminid,” I said.

“A sporadic?”

“Had to be—”

I stopped talking as another fireball, the head a brightly lit bulb, the tail a long arcing stream of fire, arched overhead and down to the horizon behind us.

“Wow,” Richie said, and this time we both traced the path back and found that it didn’t come from Gemini either.

“That’s weird,” Richie said.

I nodded. “Guess we’re just lucky tonight.”

“Guess I’m just freezing,” Richie said. I noticed he was hugging himself.

A Geminid meteor fizzed overhead, dull and fleeting compared to the two fireballs we’d seen.

“Want to go in?” I said it so that it sounded like it didn’t matter if he left me or not, because he knew that I would stay out half the night.

“Little while,” he said, looking longingly at the front door to the farmhouse a mere ten yards away, outlined in the darkness. Vaguely silhouetted against the front picture window was the Christmas tree we’d put up that afternoon, surrounded by the boxes of ornaments we would hang on it tomorrow.

I was staring at the bowl of night over us, at the black fabric of sky shot with a billion pinpoints of soft starlight. The Milky Way snaked gauzily from east to west, the rim of our own galaxy spread like a gently whirling strip across the sky. The Moon, which before too long would ruin with its light the relatively fragile illumination of the Geminids, was just rising on the eastern horizon, fat and orange-yellow. I wanted to aim the white tube of our telescope at it when it came up; the news had briefly mentioned some strange activity in the Oceanus Procellarum region in the northwest quadrant, currently in shadow, which had the astronomers baffled. But the Moon was too low yet, and the sight of the whole, richly starred sky spread above me made me forget about the telescope as I scanned the sky from horizon to horizon.

“Dad—” Richie began, and I will remember the way his voice sounded at that moment because it was the last time his voice ever had that sound in it—“I want to do something but I don’t want to hurt your feelings”—that tone that told me he wanted to go in. But instead of finishing the sentence he turned his eyes upward and pointed with a gloved hand, forgetting how cold he was.

“Jesus Christ.”

I was going to tell him not to talk like that but then I saw what he meant, and I repeated his exclamation.

The sky was filled with meteors streaming overhead at a frightening rate, huge bolides like the two we had seen before. They seemed to rise up from the eastern horizon like fiery missiles. I thought I heard a faint whoosh as they passed overhead. In their background I saw a weak Geminid, and I tried to trace some of these monster fireballs, but they all came from the horizon and not from some recognizable star group. I thought for a fleeting second that they might indeed be some sort of aircraft, perhaps even (all those science fiction movies I’d seen in the 1950s produced this thought) some secret government project gone haywire.

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