Celestial Body

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 11 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

It was a small moon, scarcely bigger than a thumb. It rose from its nest in the branches of a birch like an bird’s egg that had decided to skip hatching and go straight to flight. It wore a stripe of sunlight thin as the edge of a feather, but as the nights passed it drew more and more of this disguise down over itself until the whole thing blazed like a burglar’s torch. What a ludicrous sight! Poets everywhere ground their teeth at this violation of their beloved darkness, until they noticed how much darker the shadows had grown — and how the moonlight turned everything it touched to silver. A lover’s still face could pass for a statue, & it seemed suddenly conceivable that love itself might outlast the simple satisfaction of desire & take on the trappings of eternity. The small moon was now discovered to be enormous, but very far away. We would have to invent space flight to reach it. We’d have to leave bootprints on its smooth cheek that would last for a million years.

Of Two Minds

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 12 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

It was Sappho, wasn’t it, in one of her fragments who coined the expression. But who hasn’t felt divided like that? My bleak mood amused another part of me, as if it were a barrel cactus or the word murder written with spoons. I mixed a cocktail of tequila, carrot juice & ash. In the old westerns, the protagonists used to say things like, “Now it’s time for a dose of your own medicine!” Like certain plants, they were toxic to themselves.

I found a road-side tree into which someone had driven over a hundred nails. I stared at it for a while until I realized it must have been a place to post notices: estate sales, lost dogs, candidates for sheriff. In the old westerns, the sheriffs pinned steel stars to their chests, & the same Indian actors kept dying over & over. I looked up: it was a bigtooth aspen. A wind was shuffling the full deck of its leaves, which were pleasingly blank.

Educational Films

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 13 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

In elementary school, sometimes we would drop everything & watch movies in the middle of a slow afternoon, old educational films from Coronet, Encylopedia Brittanica & Disney. My favorites were the ones with time-lapse photography. A great boat would take shape in minutes as scaffolding expanded like notebook doodles & workers leapt & swarmed as quick as thought. Or the classic: the wonder of a bud becoming a bloom, shedding its petals & swelling into a fruit.

Most educational of all were the rare occasions when the teacher would decide to feed the film back through the projector as she rewound it, so that everything went backwards at high speed. The law of gravity was replaced by the law of levity. We laughed & laughed as raindrops rose from puddles & cars sped through intersections in reverse gear without a single crash. You had to pay attention; everything happened so fast. I saw an oak shrink, furl its first green flags & curl up, the acorn closing around it like a healed wound. I saw a collapsed building rise from the dead, bullets return to their guns like homing pigeons & an ashen cloud condense & give birth to a bomb.

Two Kinds of Boxes

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 14 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

A black box originally meant a coffin. A light box was a bed for waking up in or a garden full of unmarked snow. The black box would be opened & its contents subjected to ritual examination — a kind of haruspicy to divine the past. We would stand around making small talk in the presence of the dead & see what made their eyelids twitch. The light box couldn’t be opened because on closer inspection, it turned out to include everything. To examine its contents, you started with yourself.


Thanks to John Miedema and Rachel Rawlins for the inspiration.

Comforter

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 15 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Panicked by the headlights, the cottontail turned back at the last second. My two-ton vehicle barely registered the thump under the right front tire. I am become death, destroyer of rabbits, I muttered. The rest of the way home I avoided looking at my hands gripping the wheel, so pale & fleshy. But when I left the car in its dark house of concrete & walked downhill to mine, the crisp night air tasted only of moon.

A few hours later, I was awoken by a slight vibrating of the mattress, followed by the touch of small clawed feet on the back of my head. I had become not death but a speed bump for mice running along the gap between headboard & quilt — a comforter stuffed with the breast feathers of geese.

Before Genesis

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 16 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Just like mitochondria & cell nuclei, genitalia were once free-living organisms. They resembled hydrozoans: the penis a polyp & the vulva & vagina a medusa. They were, in other words, the same organism at different stages. Though it needed an anchorage, joined to its brother polyps by hollow roots, the primitive penis strained for more, combing the currents with a hungry cluster of tentacles. Eventually, a bud would sprout from its side, break free & open like an umbrella in all that water. So while the penis lived from hand to mouth, the vagina, arrayed in glory, neither toiled nor spun, & the music of its transparent bell spread through the oceans & inspired the coral to new architectural heights. And the god of evolution, swaying in the garden, saw that it was good.

Anonymous

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 17 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

The first Anonymous was an albino who wrote a complete novel on his own skin in an effort to disappear into the text. Readers became so absorbed, they mistook his eyes for animated punctuation. In the novel, three sailors vied for the love of a nameless ship’s figurehead, who never unfolded her arms except for storms. It takes a lot of character to reject the comfort & convenience of a handle. You could die & nobody would know who they were burying, or you could live forever, fathering & mothering orphans.

The second Anonymous was less creative, as you’d expect. Sixty percent of his body was nothing but water.

The Viking Buddha

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 18 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Ornament from a bucket found in the Oseberg mound grave in the county of Vestfold, Norway.
brass ornament found with the Oseberg ship burial

Four hammers of Thor,
nested just so, form
a Buddhist swastika with feet.
Steering by the sun,
we run in circles.

A gaze trained to focus
on a pitching horizon
turns to an inward shore.
Breathe like a rower,
in time with the waves.

Legs fold into a knot:
braided serpents.
The fierce brow unknits.
Only the scowl still hints
at the strength of his vow.
The truest viking leaves
everything behind.


Image from Saamiblog, via the Wikipedia Commons. Cf. the Helgö Buddha.

The Legend of the Cosmic Hen

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 19 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Before there was a cosmic egg, there was a cosmic hen. Even in the absence of gravity, she couldn’t stay airborne.

*

She was alone. When her feet got frost-bitten & began to bleed, she had to cannibalize herself.

*

It was her need to bathe that gave rise to the galaxies. Bright dust spun out from hen-shaped holes.

*

Laying left her slightly crazed. To this day, hens stand over their newly laid eggs & declare their readiness to buck, buck — buck all! Only then do they settle, croon & brood.

*

Free range has its limits. For billions of years she waited in the middle of nowhere, listening for a car, for a cart — for anything on wheels to come along so she could race in front of it, wings outspread, making the first cross.

Sacrifiction

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 20 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Somewhere between gratitude & reciprocity, things started to go wrong.

Because we were given time, we invented drumming.

Because we were given trees, we invented floor-length dresses.

And because we were given crops, we invented sacrifice.

When God sent a messenger to the sacred table & said Stop burning my meat — give it to the needy instead, we invented elaborate rules for hospitality that involved frequent bathing & fine clothes.

But because the needy were still exceedingly numerous, we went over God’s head & invented games of chance.

This invention was the mother of Necessity, otherwise known as That’s Just The Way Things Are.

And we took our chances and groveled in the dirt.