Thursday, January 28, 2010

Strange new world

During the night strange lights flickered in the field.

That they were there at all was something of a shock. For days, for weeks, a gray fog had settled over us with a steadfastness that was almost supernatural, as if we were cursed to never again see the light of day but remain cloaked in a cold dismal mist without beginning or end. As if that weren’t misery enough, misery was compounded with record snows and Arctic temperatures, and wind-driven snow sculpted into drifts as tall as houses, entombing roads and isolating neighbor from neighbor. Beyond our walls wildlife struggled to find food sources, stripping bark from trees and eating back the thick waxy spears of yucca until only ragged stubs remained, even pine boughs when they could be reached. Life suddenly became desperate and deadly.

But if the days were dark and dim the nights were darker still. The unrelenting fog created a sempiternal twilight that only deepened as afternoons progressed into an unsettling gloom. Street lights sailed ghostlike in shifting tendrils of wet vapor and ice crystals, vainly trying to beat back the darkness, seeming to shrink and constrict within themselves until they were no more than feeble candles buffeted by unseen winds. Night when it fell was absolute.

So to see lights where no lights had ever existed was attention-grabbing, to say the least. I stared at them incomprehensibly for a few moments, my brain trying to sort the various facets, some of which were tiny, almost prismatic, and others long and narrow like splinters, and all glimmering as if alive or in motion. Had it been summer I would have thought the field afire. And I knew then it was water sluicing down the furrows in the cornfield. Water and not ice. Not snow.

Their colors were dazzling, reflections of the Christmas lights on the doctor’s house. The current bled them together into a warm golden glow dancing like flames, an effect both dazzling and startling, and carried into my dreams until they too bled away like so many melted crayons leaving only a vast unbroken darkness.

But not an empty darkness. Something was out there beyond the narrow circle of luminance cast by a solitary light, or might be out there, there was no way to tell until the thing or things announced themselves. Until they did all I could do is wait and watch, and I did so sheltered by a deep shadow with the steel building at my back. The night was warm and unseasonably sultry, and silent except for an occasional scream of toads from the nearby playas swelled with rainwater. My nerves were shot. First the phone call jangling and then a voice saying a passerby had spotted what he thought were people sneaking up on my location. Heading toward the dynamite bunker out back.

Be careful, the voice said. Good luck.

I’m not really here, I told myself. This is a dream. This is Grants and I’m guarding the Kerr-McKee mines and strikers are going to blow the place to smithereens and me with it. They’re going to rush the compound and I’m going to mow them down with the riot gun and then I’m going to die. I’ll never see witchfire on Kansas cornfields. This is the end.

The shotgun was heavy, the grip slick with sweat. My eyes bored into the night where the bunker squatted like a fat dirt-crusted amphibian but nothing could be seen. I felt exposed and blind by the yard light so I shuffled down the building keeping to the shadows until I reached a clearing between the main office and an outbuilding and crossed the distance at a run, keeping low. The barrel of the shotgun swept the night and I followed around the building to the border of the complex where the land fell away into undulating folds rising toward the forested slopes of Mount Taylor. And there I hunkered down, ears straining for footsteps or the rattle of boltcutters on padlocks, one finger on the safety, every sense alert and raw. Waiting.

The alarm jarred me awake. Reaching over, I shut it off and crawled from bed and clomped down the stairs and started the coffee. My fingers held the memory of the checkered stock making me doubt everything. Where was I? Kansas. New Mexico. Both. The cornfield was still lit from within but the lights had spread. A loose screen banged back and forth: the south wind and the great melting had begun.

So rapidly and comprehensively that it was faintly sorcerous. And if in the days to come people would stand in awe to see green shoots of grass spreading across the fields and the creeks surging and the rivers erupting from their banks, and the dark rich loamy soil exposed to bright warm sunlight and birds signing lustily, it was nothing out of the ordinary for the sun-starved denizens of northern Kansas. It was a natural evolution into the next phase but intensely poignant by a winter that swept down long before the solstice and lingered brutally and hard, and now this sudden withdrawal to the chorus of rushing waters. I was reminded of the chinooks rolling off the Rockies, gale force winds sweeping away roof shingles and trashcans and dead trees and winter itself, snow-eaters they were called, and here a prairie version. Before our eyes the snow disappeared revealing a naked earth, and people walked outside and stared at the blue sky and felt the sun on their faces and smiled for the first time in weeks and watched and watched for what they all knew was coming. And if it had a ways to go before its arrival that was all right, it was to be expected, but it was also as inevitable as dreams that leave you stranded in the past, peering into the darkness as if it alone could foretell the uncertain and indeterminate future.


Becky Thompson said...

I was mesmerized reading this story. Thank you so much. What excellent WRITING!

Tom Parker said...

Thanks, Becky.