I come from winter.
I'm from chest-height drifts in late October, walking door to door dressed as an astronaut, mooching candy from my neighbors, hurtling slush berms in black rubber galoshes, feeling the cold burning ring around my ankle from boots full of ice.
Where I was born, you could read outside at midnight by the light of falling snow. Winter muted the birds and cicadas, turned the world pillow silent so you had to shout smoke words to be heard.
Those winters there were in the fields by the water works, snow birds and white horses with deep black eyes who spoke nonsense in whispers. Brilliant bees shone in the skies, buzzing and drifting like silk from cottonwoods that lost its way from summer, dodged by jet planes and piloted by thoughts of he who makes winter storms.
The horses told stories on the frozen lawn. Tales of great battles and endless love. Of my brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and a girl with golden hair and bright blue eyes who in one look could tell you of this life and lives past. She dressed in silk and wore flowers made of blue ice, and when she was next to me I could feel the earth turning day by day, as if I was connected to the motion of the planets.
I saw these things every year and spoke of them openly to my family who acted as if they regarded them as part of the natural world.
There was a gray and black tabby cat who crawled to my bedroom window each morning and sat on the ledge, poking into my dreams to wake me up. Once I woke, he begged for me to lift the window and let him in. He told me the lights and the horses were from somewhere else, and that I should be careful of them because they don't always do what they mean. Even though they mean well, they are misunderstood for all the trouble they cause. It was best not to speak of them.
After his bowl of milk, I'd let him outside and wouldn't see him again till the next morning.
"That's not your cat," my mother would say.
"I know." He was nobody's cat. He belonged to the world and nothing else.
She didn't know why he would tell me to stay away from the horses. Perhaps they weren't really there.
"What do you mean?" I asked her, bookbag in one hand, lunch box in the other.
One day she said, "Maybe it's your imagination."
And then winter disappeared.
And then the cat stopped coming back.
In summer of 1994 I was visiting my family in New Jersey and took the opportunity of being on the east coast to visit Virginia. We sat on the patio behind her house in the woods beside the Delaware River. On the wooden table between us was a box colored bumblebee yellow and black.
On the box, the words-- 500 PAGES BOND PAPER.
It was filled with my book.
Virginia said, "The state wanted me off this land. It's supposed to be a state park. They passed a vote in the city and condemned the land. Cut off my power and water. We took a stand and wouldn't leave. Lived here for a year with no utilities until they realized we weren't going. Eventually, they paid me good money for the property and I lease it back from them for a dollar a year."
"It's a beautiful place," I said, hoping to change the discussion to her opinion of the book. I was starting to worry the small talk was an indication of that opinion.
"We're kind of hidden here. People drove past here for years. And then someone turned down my driveway by accident, and saw how pretty it was. Next thing you know, they want the place for a park."
"I didn't think they could do that," I said.
"Well, they can."
We listened to the hiss of the river over the rocks and the wind sighing in the trees. Jim, her protege', came and sat for a while and talked about an amazing book he'd found by a previously unknown author. Something about living underground in Libya for years. An exposee' on Kadafi. He was going to sell it.
Eventually he left Virginia and me alone. I sucked in some air to say, "Ok, you don't like it," but she stopped me.
She said, "It's a good book, you know."
"Jim's Libya book?"
"The one on the table," she said. And then staring into the distance, "I know it is. Betsy Mitchell at Warner knows it too. But it's not marketable."
"Tell me how to fix it," I said about two and a half years of work.
"It's not that simple," she said. My heart sunk. I must have lowered the temperature of the air between us. "I wouldn't have you as a client if I didn't think you were an excellent writer."
I shrugged. "Couldn't we..."
"Books about aliens aren't selling well, these days. The market is glutted."
She hadn't gotten it. That was it. She didn't really read it. She didn't understand.
"It's not about aliens," I said. "It's about--well, it's about the reason alien books are everywhere now. You know? I got the idea when I was mountain biking. I used to ride up this hill every other day. For a couple of years. And then one day a friend of mine said, 'You see all the tarantulas up there this time of year? It's tarantula season. They're all out mating in late August.' I had to say I didn't. Years and years I rode up that hill, I never saw one single tarantula.
"But from that moment, every time I went up the hill I'd see these huge tarantulas walking across the road. It's like, once you know they're there, you see them. If you don't think about them, they're invisible. That's the whole alien thing. You only see them if you expect to see them. Otherwise..."
She was looking right at me as if by staring somehow she could interrupt the gears in my mind.
Then she said, "We could try a couple of smaller houses. But really, the ones I thought would bite, didn't."
I tried sighing. I tried shifting in my seat. I tried staring at the grass and listening to the river. Everything had come this far and I couldn't push it the last inch to finish.
I knew exactly what she was going to say.
It's not a bad book, Joe.
"It's not a bad book, Joe."
Give it some time. After we sell your first novel, they'll all want this one.
"...want this one."
Do you know why I took you on as a client?
"Do you know why I took you on as your agent?"
"Figure it out. Then we'll sell your first novel."
Walter sucked down the last of his pale ale and slammed the glass on the picnic table. He leaned back and looked at the stars in that way people do when they want you to look, too. It was a warm night in Christchurch, our first glimpse of a night sky for almost two months.
I saw Orion. Bright red Betelguese was at the bottom of the cluster instead of where I was used to seeing it on the top left. There were lots of other constellations I knew must be telescopum and triangulum, but I never developed an internal map for the southern hemisphere, so I only saw stars scattered like grains of salt across a tabletop. Somewhere above my head were the Magellenic clouds and the southern cross.
"I used to be afraid of the stars," Walter said. I suggested I'd go back to the bar at the Dux DeLuxe and fetch us two more cold ones. He didn't acknowledge my suggestion. The fuzzy glow of alcohol enveloped my head. Nothing seemed so important it had to be done just then.
"Were you afraid of the dark as a kid?" I asked.
"Just the stars."
"Why?" I looked away from heaven. This was something that would have to be conveyed in the information of a face.
He was bleary-eyed, partly from the drink, partly from the strain of the eight hour Herc flight north, partly from whatever was going through his head.
"Because they move."
I tried to put some brainpower into the discussion. "Relatively speaking, everything moves, Walt. The planets move. The moon moves. But during your lifetime, you're unlikely to see one of those stars change place by very much. Even Alpha Centauri..."
"Not that," he said, and a drop of his foamy saliva hit my cheek. I wiped it off. "I know that, I'm a physicist, in case you forgot."
He said, "Sometimes, you can look at the sky, and a star will just fall straight out of the sky. Right in front of you. Straight down. Whoosh. And then you'll go look on the star charts and it was never there."
"Maybe they weren't stars in the first place," I said, trying out logic where it didn't belong. "Maybe they were airplanes or something..." and his look stopped me cold. He was a physicist. He knew the stars. He was telling me something that was hard, if not impossible for him to explain to himself.
A tear rolled from the corner of his eye, appearing on his face like rain from nowhere.
"It happens," he said. "My grandfather told me when I was young, that right before someone dies, you can see a star fall from the sky to the earth. That's the angel coming to pick up his soul."
"Walt. Are you ok?"
"I thought it was a fairy tale, until I saw it happen. I saw a star fall right out of Leo. Right to the ground. I'd seen that star on every star chart on the planet. It glowed in the trees, then came straight toward me. The night it fell, it's like it fell straight out of history."
And then he tried to keep himself from crying.
"There is no 'down' in space, Walt."
He managed to say, "Just fucking shut up."
back in the waterworks, behind the chainlink fence and the perpetual yawn of the aerator's spray, where the ice glows white and snowflakes cling to albino horses with the deep black eyes, in a field of lost memories drifting amid crowds of children never born, under a beam of blue bright starlight old as rock and just as strong, when we were too young to know we weren't there, when you weren't you and I wasn't me, when we were supposed to be sleeping but the stones were sharp on our bare feet, we can almost see through the glare of cold, almost touch through air thin as space
it can't be
you must have forgotten
I can't be this hard to find
"Have you ever seen a UFO?"
"Geeze. No. That guy over there--yes YOU. Did you ever see a UFO?"
There are times a situation unfolds leading down a path past which you cannot imagine. Walking down Columbo Street in Christchurch, this was one. Suddenly, I forgot how to get home, or where home was. Would we go back to the B&B? Would I make it to the ice?
Rain fell as a coarse drifting fog that clung to the threads in my fleece and made it look as if made of frost.
Is he wondering if I'm a lunatic? Does he want the truth? Should I trust him?
Think of something safe. Cross the street. Pass the pedestrians bearing shopping bags and briefcases. Like George Malley in the movie Phenomenon. Everyone--every single thing is going somewhere. All of us. And it feels like I'm heading straight into a dream. Like I can't wake up. I see the maps of the continent, and it's just a place covered in ice. Another spot on the world.
But it's in my head. A world in my mind I used to visit in daydreams. When I step off the plane I don't know what I'll find. As if I've died before and now I'm visiting that very moment again. Passing from this world to eternity.
"When I saw them, I was very young. I didn't know what I was seeing. It wasn't like you see on television documentaries--glowing cigar shaped objects flashing beams of blue light, red and yellow lights--nothing like that. I felt like I was dreaming. They were like stars. Stars that fell from the sky."
A world of brilliant white light. Terrifying white.
Walt smirks. We find a place for lunch. Get out of the rain . I pull off my fleece. Shake it off. Put it on the wooden seat beside me. Tell the waitress I want the blackest Guinness they have when she asks.
"Didn't I meet you in Denver, at the glaciology forum U of Colorado held last year?" he asks.
"Never been to it. Not a glaciologist."
"I gotta figure out where I know you from."
I think to say something, then don't. This is as far as it will go.
"That's interesting. Socrates doesn't like people," Frank says holding open the door. The cat ignores him, sitting at my feet as if trying to decide whether to rub himself between my legs or leap and claw.
Or maybe he's talking, and I forgot how.
"He really doesn't like anyone," Frank says, and lets the screen door shut.
It's my gateway voyage at the Monroe Institute. In an uncharacteristic move, he's called me out of class to have breakfast at his place.
He owns a book company. I will not ask him to publish my book. I will not mention it.
"This is really odd," he says, standing over the cat who's sitting in front of me, staring at me.
"I had a cat just like that, once," I tell him, even though I never had the cat. He just visited.
"So, how did you meet your agent?" he asked.
"Well, I was on line and..."
He interrupted. "No, I mean how did you meet her."
I knew what he wanted. Way out here in the mountains it wasn't going to matter what anyone thought so I said, "I thought about it. I just imagined what it would be like, how I would feel knowing someone liked my stories enough to represent me. And then she sent me this e-mail."
"And now you're going to Antarctica, the same way."
"I think so."
"You think, or you know?"
The cat stared and waved his tail sinuously. I smiled at him.
Frank said, "You should learn to speak cat."
"Frank, I'm not entirely sure what's happening," I said. "I mean, how did I wind up here? One minute I'm thinking to come to TMI, the next minute I'm here. I write a couple of e-mails, the next thing I know I'm being told to walk down the road for breakfast with you and Nancy. One minute I'm concentrating on getting an appointment to a slot on an expedition, the next minute I'm going through the medical. It's kind of a blur."
"It's your life, man."
"But is it real life?"
He laughed. "That's pretty funny."
I looked at the cat. I looked at him. Frank said, "Did you hear what you just said?"
The cat was trying hard to get me to understand something, or pass him a mouse.
Frank picked up a coffee mug painted yellow and black and green. There was a picture of Bob Marley on the side. He said, "He's wondering how you're going to honor your life after all these miracles. What are you going to do, living with all these miracles?"
I shrugged at the cat. "I don't know, fella. I just don't."
Frank said, "Well, you could do what most people do, which is to get on their knees and thank God."
"Maybe I'll get on my knees and cry," I said.
Frank said, "It would be a good start," and then sipped from his Bob Marley mug.
"I don't think you see UFOs," I say to Walt, when we're both good and drunk. Under the safety blanket of drunken deniability, I tell him what I've wanted to say for the past three hours pub crawling through Christchurch, waiting for my ride on the military plane south, as far as south can be. "You don't just see them and then go on with whatever it is you call this--this stuff around us. This life. This reality.
"It's like it's in your DNA. Or maybe your soul. It's not something you see and walk away. It just is you. I don't know if I'm making any sense. It's not like we're little gray-headded aliens or something. This is something else. It is you. It just is what you are."
I'm watching his eyes tear up again. This is not what a scientist wants to talk about.
But nobody's looking. And we're both drunk.
He says, "look--don't take this wrong. But stop fucking with me. We've met. Denver. LA. One of those conferences. You went to University of Oregon or something. How come I feel like I know you?"
"I don't know," I say. "Why don't you tell me?"
Just say it and we can both go on with the rest of our lives, scared out of our minds.
I told her, "When I was a kid, I saw a star fall straight out of the sky," and I held her hand across the galley table. We were in the corner. She was crying. She told me you don't talk about things like this without crying.
"I did, too," she said. "I felt like I was in a dream and they took me to where there was a beautiful waterfall. Like the water from the blue ice that melts off the glaciers. White all around. And there were birds and horses, so white that all you could see was the black of their eyes shining through. I know that sounds silly. But the black shone like light, because it was so clear in all that snow."
I told her if I'd known cats could talk, I'd have listened to more of them.
"There is a quintessential moment, when your boot touches the ice for the first time. Something that was always a dream becomes real and you can't tell the difference anymore between your wishes and your reality."
"How did my dream get in your head?"
She said she didn't know. Tears ran from the corners of her eyes and she dabbed at them with a napkin from the holder on the table.
"Why is it that every man I meet is a writer?" she asked. I shrugged.
She said, "How come it feels like I know you?"
I tried to make it seem I didn't know, I wouldn't know. "Who am I supposed to be?"
She cried so hard she couldn't speak.
I am from winter. I spent my life getting back to it.
And as soon as I knew it could,
It came back to me.
c 2003 by Joe Mastroianni