by James Guthrie
It appears in family photos first as a diffraction spike. There’s an old photo of your father, all embarrassing hair and white white teeth, smiling by the fins of a seafoam Deville. Above his right shoulder: two needles crossed, two glinting white pins. Fan ahead a few pages and the needles soften into a pinwheel, a whirligig half hidden by the early autumn trees, a violet flower hanging in the background of birthdays, vacations, graduations. It fades a little each season, until one summer the blue of the afternoon sky wins out, washing away the intrusive plume, banishing it to the night with the drinkers and the bad dreams. By the time you’re nineteen, it’s about as luminous as a half moon, smeared across the night sky. In those wilder years, you stay up until the morning magic hour, watching it “set,” as they say, watching it lose first, in the astronomical dawn, its tinge of fuchsia, followed by maroon in the nautical, scarlet in the civil.
Your mother calls it the Guest Star, when you first ask. You’re young. You’re looking up at the night sky, wondering about the moon and the stars. It was a star itself, she tells you, a normal star, at one time. It began dying a thousand years ago. When she was a little girl, it became the second brightest thing in the sky. It was just a blinding little speck that first week, but it grew as she grew, swelled as she stretched and filled out, and it will continue growing after she has become shrunken and tipped over, after even you, Child, have grown up and grown old, until your own children, if you care to bring them into this, will look up, and it will blot out sky.
“‘Sky’ isn’t quite the word I want, though,” she murmurs, squinting into her Hemingway Champagne, as though the right word is hidden somewhere in the seagreen. “Firmament is the word. For all that up there. All that I really don’t wish to look at.”
Your understanding of death, your entire understanding of the arc and ebb of life is born this moment, looking up at the remnant, your mother half-pinned on Absinthe and Baby Duck. Death, in your mind, becomes inseparable from the Bloom. Even as an adult, when you try to imagine the unimaginable non-being after all of this, your little mind shows you images of plain old darkness, of the dome of the sky with the stars stomped out, a non-image, really, that you can sustain only for a moment, before here and there about the starless firmament shifting gray clouds begin to appear, clouds that form patterns and gain colours, coalescing, eventually, into four gargantuan, incandescent petals.
When you open your eyes, the August leaves outside your window are orange and still.
While most parents build their children pinhole viewers and send them out to the yard, your father builds you a kaleidoscope, and insists you stay inside. He has a small stained glass workshop in the basement, back in the corner by the water softener and the broken stair climber. He spends most of his evenings hunched over his light table, scratching in score lines, soldering, cursing.
A kaleidoscope, he reassures you, is much better than a myopic old pinhole. A kaleidoscope makes a very small thing infinitely large. A pinhole makes a grand thing singular and small.
You nod politely, running your fingers over the vertices. In school you learned how everything we see and touch and taste, every mote and granule of our world was created in the heart of a star.
“That’s meant to be beautiful,” your father explains, “our having been sired by the asphyxia of giants…”
Of the beautiful things he’s seen in his life, he always says the rose windows at Notre Dame are the most beautiful. A close second would be your mother’s eyes early in the evening, before the spirits set in.
“That up there?” he says. “Nobody made that. Nobody built it. That mess just happened. Everything truly beautiful has intent.”
“Pass the flux, please.”
You pass him the acid, and you hold your tongue.
Pinned amidst the vidimus: a snapshot of the newlyweds in Paris, all embarrassing hair, a coral bud adorning their padded shoulders. This is the happiest your mother has ever been. She spends the better part of this week looking up wide-eyed at the windows and ceilings of those remarkable buildings, buildings where you can forget, for a blessed moment, that there is anything at all like a natural sky.
“True beauty is a gift,” your father says, swabbing acid on the opalescent glass. When the flux is applied right, the solder between the panes runs like water. “I think that’s the best I can explain it.”
Later, as you help your mother to bed, your father stops for a moment, to catch his breath. He says then again her eyes don’t have much intent behind them anymore, but they’re still just about the most beautiful things he’s ever seen. “I mean see how big they are? See the shape?”
“Okay, grab her feet.”
In your wild insomniac years, shortly after your parents pass and turn to ashes, you sit outside much of the night, kaleidoscope within arm’s reach, the thin heat of the bloomlight warming your face. When you think you can’t bear it, you aim the kaleidoscope up at the sky, feeling a shameful thrill as the soft, flocculent petals become geometric and deliberate. When that doesn’t help, you close your eyes and try to will the afterimage into something like a transept rose, its tracery made not of stone but of void, of the chasm of space peeking through the troughs of shock waves.