18 October 2011

The Rock of Saint Michael

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Regular readers will know that I am a big science fiction fan, and that from time to time I like to pretend I’m a science fiction writer as well. For me, this usually leads to subscribing to a handful of writing blogs and getting a couple pages into  writing a short story before remembering that writing well is really hard.

One of my fellow graduate students here at Cornell, Kassandra Martin-Wells, is also writer, but unlike me she actually finishes her stories, and they’re very good. She studies cratering on the moon and wrote the following story after hearing a presentation about the moon’s south pole at a Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting . If you like what you read, you should subscribe to her blog, A Heap of Broken Images , where she writes under the pen-name Amelie Andrézel.

The Rock of Saint Michael

I do not know why there is light, and separately the darkness.

The first cold act of cruel creation was to cleave them from each other’s bosoms, shackling one to the day and the other to the night. I had always believed the origin of the separation to be a practical one: into the light, God could lead his people; into the darkness were cast the wanderers—the lonely, the proud, and the willfull—those for whom Heaven would spare no regard.

But I am lost and I am found.

I’ve come to a place where the twilight is a riddle; where the sun is risen but also set; where the first of all edicts is dashed on the rocks; where man laughs at God with a gnashing of his teeth.

Why is it there is light, and separately the darkness?

The others from the homestead had gone north, to Newton. Everything was north of the homestead; that’s what happened when you lived at the bottom of the world. Whichever way you faced, that way was north. Perhaps that’s why, in the short years of my life, so many had said I was lacking direction.

But that is an opinion. There is no time for opinions, now; I will set them aside.

The others were gone and the homestead was lonely; I’d made up my mind to take out the jeep and survey the perimeter. I have always liked the perimeter. In my quiet and predictable life—a life of duty and a life of labor, such as it’s been—the perimeter was a wild place, the last outpost of uncertainty.

We knew long nights on the homestead, of course. There were backup generators to the backup generators, and a heat reserve installed deep in the ground below the base. But the longest of the long nights only brushed one hundred hours. Beyond the perimeter lay a world of permanent shadow. So tall there, were the mountains of the Moon, so low the zenith of the sun on the horizon, that night was as long as recorded history—longer; much longer.

Any notion I had of the cold, there it was colder. Any impulse I boasted to patience, there slumbered a patience far greater.

Show me a God who fashioned the Heavens and the Earth, who made the sun to shine and the comets to smolder, and I will show you a land to which He denied these things: one banished to shadow, unexplored and unknown, both to man and to beast.

I drove to the perimeter to mind the equipment and gaze out into the void.

Growing up in the highlands, one is accustomed to the subtle beauty of the naked regolith, that dead soil of my homeland, a pulverized mixture of rock and of dust. Here, the dirt is gardened by no man but by the sky itself, slowly overturning with incoming debris. Here, too, is patience. Undisturbed by the footsteps of man, many human generations may pass before a lofted boulder skips across this calmest of ponds, bouncing and skidding like a giant’s skimming stone.

Yes, it is a rare thing indeed, but the highlands in motion are a sight to behold. As a child, I had been out with Mr. Compton and Mr. Chang when a drill motor had blown. We were high up on the ridge, in a bunker well above the blast. When the great, groaning lurch came—the lurch that heaved the ground and tossed us from our chairs—they told me to stay inside; I did not listen.

I ran out onto the ridge, breathless and pursued, just in time to watch the lower factory go.

The explosion, it seemed, had upset the talus near the base of the valley. Here, too, was a place of endless darkness. It was into that cold, black pit—sheltered from the sun by the broad embrace of an enormous crater—that I watched the mountainside disappear. It started a few hundred feet below the ridge, with a silent clattering of a handful of boulders slipping free of the bonds of friction.

When Mr. Newton postulated his Law of Inertia, he could not, in his grandest of fantasies, have imagined the thing that I saw. I think, perhaps, he would have been pleased.

On the Moon, you see, there is no air to drag on a landslide, no hydration in the grains to inflate its viscosity. A landslide on the Moon will run for miles on the shallowest of slopes. On a steep crater rim, it crashes and leaps with the sudden violence of a ruptured dam, sweeping away monoliths like twigs on a swollen river.

It picked up the factory, the three men and two women who worked in it, and carried it off into the darkness. There was dust in every corner of the homestead for months. We ordered new suits five times that year. I could not have told you why, but I was thinking of the landslide that day on the jeep, out on the perimeter.

On the perimeter, there was a certain dependability to the rhythm of the landscape.

There was the obvious rhythm, of course, of the ridges and the valleys and the plains in between; of the smaller craters and the boulders and the pits and the stony debris. In the spatial sense, this was a world of fractal order, extending from the largest of the basins all the way, I am told, to the microscopic pits on the sharp and delicate glass that stuck to my suit.

But there was a rhythm to time as well: not unlike in other places, I suppose, except that the signs of it here were everywhere. One found them difficult to ignore.

There was a stately ebb and flow to the transition between day and night. Twilight was persistent; it wasn’t a time so much as a geometry. Shadows waxed and waned over passive ground, advancing and retreating with the dignity of black, somber glaciers. Growing up on the homestead, you knew the places in flux and those that were fixed. These things never changed.

Yes, on the perimeter, there was a certain dependability to the rhythm of the landscape.

So one can imagine my surprise, that afternoon, to see a sliver of light gleaming on the black horizon, parting the shadow zone.

I have read, in the library at the homestead, of an island off the coast of France where an angel of God decreed there was to be built a monastery. A beautiful church was constructed there, from the jaws of the sea itself; it was called Saint Michael’s, after the angel.

Saint Michael’s saw great changes in the tides.

On occasion, the water dropped so low that the island was accessible by foot, over a muddy bridge of briny land. Like Jesus at Galilee, holy pilgrims would walk across the morass and back, only to watch as the miracle was swallowed by the sea.

But I am a child of the Moon; I have never been to Earth.

I have never been to Earth, but I was there among them, slogging the pilgrimage over the sea. Here was no bridge of land but a bridge of light, revealing ground where before there was no ground, providing a path across which a man might tread. And there, at its pinnacle, like the steeple of a great cathedral, loomed the peak of a mountain, conjured from the dark.

Can you imagine a mountain, where once there was none? All my life, I have driven the perimeter; never had I seen this beacon in the distance, with its rugged ridge and gleaming back. I could smell the stink of salty marsh, congealing in my nostrils.

I turned the jeep from my usual course and made my way into the light.

I will do my best to describe what I felt as I ventured into that wild country, but my best is a pale and hollow approximation. A word, by nature, is not a thing in itself but a substitute for a thing. In the story that follows, I find them particularly lacking.

Human language is a transplant here.

“Mountain” and “plain” are saturated words, daubed in midnight and amber. They were born in fat valleys, mist-wreathed and fertile, pregnant with night and the weight of the sky. What right do I have to twist them to my purposes? Can they be forced, by the will of my tongue, over thin, sterile landscapes in opal and grey?

“New” is a word used for shoes; “old” for a man with lines on his brow. When I plant these letters in the dry homestead soil, will they grow to ideas? Or will they wither, incomprehensible?

Of course, a man sees things in his life that have not been seen. But these things are as new to the world as they are to his eyes, like newborn babies, pure and infinitely corruptible, wailing in their mothers’ arms.

Here was no birth, but discovery.

When I looked out on those dunes and boulders, I saw not for myself, or for my kind, but for all of creation. Only I had broken this ground; only I knew the outlines of the shadows of the rocks on these cold hills.

I was ambassador between hidden and shown; I was the bridge between known and unknown.

It elicited in me a tremendous sense of responsibility. I was acting for day, walking into the citadel of the enemy and spreading the good faith. On behalf of the light, I would honor the darkness. I would cup the dirt in my hands; I would heft it and hold it; I would see how the sunlight reflected from the rocks; I’d study how their surfaces made scratches on my gloves. And I would not let them go, except they blessed me.

But I needed to get closer. Abandoning the jeep there on the mountainside, I continued the climb on foot, soft step after step sinking my boots into the cold regolith.

I stopped by the boulders that clung to the steep slope, knowing that for every house-sized monolith, there were ten thousand clasts the size of my hand. Would that I could touch each one of them, but I knew I could not. I pressed on, ever upward, toward the pinnacle of the mount.

It was a giddy climb, as though the air I breathed grew more rarified the higher I progressed. It was a childish sentiment, but the racing of my heart with each passing step seemed to confirm it. The blood pumped begrudgingly to my fingers and my feet slipped backward with each unsteady step. But I paid my labors no mind.

I was consumed by my task. I walked reverently through the catalog of wonders, taking shallow breaths and wondering if I were, perhaps, in a dream. I had brought with me no notebook, but I diligently etched each sight and scene into the folds of my receptive mind. I’d not forget a groove or a pore; I’d not overlook one single stone.

I suppose I lost track of the time.

Somewhere near the summit, I turned to look over the valley. Behind me, I could see the trail of my footsteps, winding their way along my switch-backed course.

It was the jeep, to my surprise, that could not be seen.

The spot where I had left it had receded into night. The light bridge had gone; shadows, like waves, silently lapped their way up the mountainside. My ears filled with the rushing sound of a sea I had never seen.

I suppose I could have turned and run back down the way I had come.

Perhaps the jeep was not, then, too far into the shadows. By the pale reflected light, I may have groped my way back to the safety of its headlamps. But this course, to my mind, was like jumping from a meadow through the open mouth of an ominous cave. One may hope the floor is near, but bottomlessness, in truth, would be a greater kindness. Then—at least—one has a great, long time to fall. Armed against darkness with solely coincidence, only a madman dives headlong into the black.

I retreated, instead, in the only direction available to me: upward into the light.

As I labored against the slow retreat of the sun, I was painfully aware of the dire nature of my situation. The peak was near, but even if I reached it soon, what good would it do? Like an animal stranded in a flood, the high ground would only isolate me. The river would crest and I would be under it. Weighed on by circumstance, I pondered heavy thoughts.

Have you ever, when very tired, lay in a dark room with the curtains drawn and your eyes wide open?

It is an ominous feeling, this initiation to blindness. The world of three dimensions is compressed onto a plane. There is no depth in the dark, only a flat, black canvas. This is why, I suppose, as a species, we have come to speak so frankly about the close nature of darkness. The world collapses in on you in the dark, casting in a painful light the illusion of stereoscopic sight. It is a cruel reminder that the world we see is little more than a projection on a lens.

A pit of cold nausea tightened in my stomach as I accepted that this was the state in which I would transpire. I would be alone, in the dark, sweaty with the closeness of the skin across my own body. I would know, beyond any comfortable doubt, that my life had been a play, enacted on the stage of my cornea. Nothing had ever been that had not passed through me. Only in the arrogance of the light had I ever believed it to be otherwise.

To some, this is enlightenment. Please forgive me if I am not amused by the irony.

By this time, I was very near the peak, only a few tens of meters from the summit. But my going was slow after my long hike, and the dull black was advancing patiently behind me.

I wondered what the others would think when they returned to the homestead to discover I was gone. It had been a routine trip; I had left no correspondence. Perhaps they would decide I had finally run away, stolen the jeep and headed north—any direction north—to find my fortune in a city. I had threatened as much, after all.

I considered, then, where I would have gone.

Aristarchus was pleasant, rising above the mare on its ancient plateau. In Aristarchus, you could walk between buildings without wearing a suit. Under the glass, there were playgrounds and parks and a path just for bicycles. There was even a lake.

What a long way a man could walk along those avenues, no helmet on his head and the air clammy on his cheek. How good it would have been, to step out of the nothingness into the pleasant pressure of a warm sky.

It rained in the gardens of Aristarchus.

There beneath the watchful gaze of dove-grey skyscrapers, pricking the ground like pins in a cushion, the sky wept for pleasure at the glory of man. Out of the driest of deserts, he had drawn forth the water. I should have liked to stand in the rain, the wet rag of my shirt clinging damply to my shoulders, and wept alongside it.

But the shadows were very long, then. I was separated from the summit by one last, large boulder.

After a few months in Aristarchus, I told myself, having luxuriated in a room with a piano and a fine view of the park, I would put away enough money for a shuttle to Earth.

Yes, that was where I would go. Just to see it; just once.

I would land in Hong Kong or Honolulu, and I would sail for a year on a bright red boat. I would see, for myself, the sprawling Pacific and the blue Adriatic; I’d fish the Atlantic; ride rogue waves across the Great Southern Ocean. Even then, I’d refuse to believe one world could hold so much water.

I read somewhere, once, that the Earth is an imperfect sphere, flatter at the poles and lumpy in places.

Because of the lumpiness of the matter, gravity is lumpy too. Water is a film that rests on the earth, coaxed and prodded by lumpy gravity into a shape of equal potential. Equal potential, yes; equal height, no. That flat plane of blue only seems to be level. In truth, a man on calm seas in the Indian Ocean may be fifty feet higher than one tossed on the waves of the frigid Baltic.

We would ride up it and down, my red boat and I, not resting until we’d sampled each rise and every trough of the wide, earthly seas. Only then would we make land in Brittany. I would walk across the marsh to the church of Saint Michael, the salt and the pilgrims and the sea on my bare feet.

I had crested the summit.

I sat down in the small, flat region on the highest part of the ridge and recognized, for the first time, the exhaustion in my limbs. My feet were sore and my lips were parched, but I had brought no water. Not that it mattered; the darkness was fast at my heels. Soon I would be drowning in it.

To keep my mind from the dryness of my mouth, I made a careful survey of my surroundings.

The summit was a high portion of what appeared to be a much longer rise. It measured the distance of a few meters to either side, sloping gently at the edges but primarily flat. There were no unusual boulders or discolorations by which it might have been distinguished from any other anonymous patch of highland ground.

If I’d been a bird—if wings of metal or wings of bone had any bearing on the Moon—I would have used it as a runway. I would have sprinted, with whatever strength remained in my legs, toward the edge of the summit and flung myself off. My wings would have carried me over the black. I would have circled down over the homestead, a sprig of green olive clutched tightly in my beak.

The ancient Polynesians navigated by bird.

The sky above the Pacific is a mirror, reflecting the deep and fathomless blue of the ocean. The birds struck out at an angle to the horizon and the Polynesians bobbed below, dragged along like an anchor. Those fine sailors, with their strong, brown arms and sleek, black hair, would follow the migrating flocks from island to island across the desolate ocean. But they could not sail with the speed or endurance of the birds, and soon they would be left behind.

The next year, the sailors would return to the spot they had last seen the flock and wait for them to appear overhead. In this manner, generation by generation, they crossed the South Seas and discovered Hawaii. They bound the fury of the ocean in maps; they imprisoned it in a tapestry of islands and stars; they stretched it out on loom of patience and bone.

I’d fly home in pieces, year after year, progress traced by the stars.

In the archive at the homestead, there was a drawer of maps. Some were like panes of a stained-glass window, or the colorful flash of a bird of paradise strutting for a mate. They marked, in vivid boundaries, those transitions invisible to our eyes—minerals and cryptomaria, maturity and isostacy. They were the legacy of a generation of absentee explorers, remote mariners who carved up a country without setting foot on its shores. Their loyalties were stamped in official letters above the legends; their names lived on in the places they’d most deeply sunk their flags.

The label on the drawer read, “Maps.” But I had always known: it was a drawer of ghosts.

At the bottom of this drawer, beneath so many peacock feathers, had been stuffed a few sheets of grey, mottled down. These were the contour maps, dowdy afterthoughts in cream and in black. To the trained eye, their scribbled collections of concentric lines traced out mountains and valleys and rilles.

I never much cared for contour maps, but I had become one.

The peaks of the ridges across the dark valley shone like an archipelago of moonstone, tiny islands in a dark and rising sea. An unseen hand poured a thick, black liquid out of a bottomless pitcher. It crept up the margins, ticking off elevations, animating with bold intimacy that which had been said so callously on paper by the thin, black lines.

It came to me then that there had been youth in my bones at the base of this hill, but now I was very old. I was looking out on my last sunset; my pupils widened to catch their last photons.

I think I may have been forgiven, had I then done the sensible thing and resigned to despair. But I was mad with the beauty of the thing. I was greedy for life.

At the bottom of the world, whichever direction you face, that direction is North.

Since first I could read a map, this was the way that I’d thought of the poles. But I saw I had been mistaken. North was no direction but a name, a code, a riddle that lay down over the plains and lurked in the hills.

I could not face the sun. It was so low on the horizon that the light of it stung my eyes. I turned away and saw the truth. This was a binary world, immune to the cardinal directions. There were two directions here: toward the sun and away from it. Direction one and direction zero. A man could stare at the sun and go blind, or he could turn toward the night and watch it eat him away from the inside.

My shadow stretched away from my feet, tall as a telephone pole, cutting the light and merging with the greater darkness. Another bridge. I would walk this one as well; it would lead me into silence.

Let it be my predecessor, I thought.

My shadow would be the conduit out which my life would flow. It would swell and grow until I was bloated with it. I would be water-logged. Who, then, could say where the mountain stopped and I began? We would be one shadow.

Never again would I face direction one; the sun and I were not acquainted. We spoke only in reflections. I had one way to walk, and that was direction zero.

I sat down on the flat ground and I waited for it: the triumph of my shadow.

It’s a peculiar thing, waiting for death. When does one begin? On the summit of a cold mountain at the bottom of the Moon? On a quiet morning one decides to go for a ride to see the perimeter? The day one declines a scholarship to study engineering in Aristarchus? When one stops mailing in box lids to win a weekend trip to Earth? It is difficult to say. Things get a little blurred. Sooner or later, we all wait for death. When does one begin?

I waited a very long time. Perhaps an hour; perhaps a day. But the shadow did not come.

The shadow did not come.

It began as a whisper, soft and low and smooth in the quiet places of my brain: the shadow did not come. It began as a whisper, but it grew into a roar.

The shadow did not come.

I had heard of these places, somewhere in the dusty recesses of my
memory. Small islands of perpetual light, jutting like white teeth
from the dark maw of night. Men made maps of places like these, long
ago, in hopes they might land here and descend into shadow. They
longed for the water that lurked in the dark.

But we’d forgotten such fairy tales. We’d tucked them away in drawers
with the peacocks and the sparrows. They were layers of paper; they
were haunted by ghosts.

And yet the shadow did not come.

I could have danced; I could have sang. The waters were not rising; the flood had crested. Mine was last patch of day at the bottom of a dark and drowning world.

Of course I would die. It was an ocean of night and I was an island. I had no food, no air, no radio, no torch. Of course I would die—but not in the dark.

I sat there a while—my back to one, my face to zero—and I realized they would find me someday. They would follow the strange tracks into the shadows, with their torches and headlamps, and wonder what madness it was drove me off on foot.

They would find me someday. It was strange to think of it.

It would confuse them, of course: the heavy, patient midnight; the tracks toward heaven; the lonely jeep. How confused they would be to emerge, like fish with legs, out of the darkness and into the light.

They would tremble.

They would wring their hands like Mary the Virgin and her sister, Mary Magdalene. They would weep and wonder how I rolled back the stone. They would quake and rejoice and stand naked in fear. Had darkness, they would ask, been conquered by light?

They would not touch my bones, bleached and singing in a pile of rags, for the people of the homestead are a superstitious people. They would speak over me in hushed whispers, sign nervous crosses and turn back around, into the dark. They would be pleased with what they had seen. They would be pleased to leave me to memory.

Yes, they would be pleased. But they will not leave me.

A body is weak; it crumbles to dust. Words are unfaithful; they fall out of vogue. A man needs something with flesh and with bone, made in his image to wander the Garden. An idea has legs; it gets up and walks away without you.

My bones, my dry bones!

(In the desert of light, in the ocean of darkness.)

They will draw life from the breath of an idea. They will rise again and walk away without me in the minds men, trudging through darkness. They will return to the homestead.

But dry bones are fickle. They rattle and rustle and grow restless in the ground. The homestead will not hold them.

Those men—frightened men, who would walk in the night—they will speak of this place. They will speak of my fortune and the tracks in dark. They will speak of the jeep and the shadows and my bones in the light.

They will tell others, who will tell others, who in turn will tell others of the story they have heard. The idea will travel far and wide. My bones will walk beside it all the way to Aristarchus. They will walk on a shuttle; they will land in Hong Kong.

They will walk on the water, over the waves.

They will walk through the day and they will walk through the night, to a wet little town on the north coast of France. They will cross the marsh, with the salt in the air and the cries of gulls overhead. They will stumble to the base of the rock of Saint Michael; they will lie down in the mud. There, my dry bones will rest, half-buried in the sea. They will thirst no more.

I do not know why there is light, and separately the darkness.

The tide goes in and the tide goes out. A man faces into the sun or away from it. But I’ve come to a place where the twilight is a riddle; where the sun is risen but also set; where the first of all edicts is dashed on the rocks; where man laughs at God with a gnashing of his teeth.

I am lost and I am found.

I am day; I am night. I am dead; I live.

I am the pilgrim.

My body is buried on the rock of Saint Michael.