Some days, it felt like living by the sea. On better days, thunderstorms built on the horizon and rain churned the lane, dulling the sharp-edged ruts left in the dust by children’s bicycles and the occasional passing auto.
The house had come in on the railroad, piece-by-piece laid flat or boxcar crated; its skeleton traveled from Chicago to the plains in the waning days of Free Silver. A farmer and his wife had picked it from a catalog, and the only memories left of their first winter were a faded quilt in the hall closet and some dusty canning jars in a broken crate near the furnace. He never knew them; the house was purchased at auction from a distant California nephew.
It creaked like a ship when the wind blew through the rafters. He would lay awake when it began to get cold of the nights to listen to the rattle of the windowpanes and the light rush of the wind through the surrounding wheat. On other sleepless nights, he would stay at the kitchen table and read his Bible or the women’s magazines that appeared uninvited in the mailbox during the second week of each month.
He kept his radio off most days. Nothing but strange news from Indian country, he would say to himself when brushing the dust from its cabinet in an infrequent but favored ritual.
Thirty-four years old, and his days passed like those of a child. He’d watch hummingbirds from the porch and hope idly for letters to arrive. He would have some notion of obligation once the money would begin to run low, doing odd jobs for surrounding farms for a few weeks at a time, but he mostly kept to his own as time and necessity afforded.
He’d pray on his walks, usually down the lane and along the fields bordered by low stone walls. Afternoons following the rain were best for this – retreating thunder and stray lightning punctuating his devotions. His prayers were a constant plea – Father, give me purpose and strength. Grant me warmth in the night, and company in the desert.
He sometimes prayed for forgiveness when he considered his distance. He’d turn to look at the house in the wheat far behind him and hope for a Damascene vision.
Days with the sun in his eyes. Dust stirred along with drying fallen leaves. Barn swallows overhead; the color of glass telegraph insulators.
Night would settle gradually; the lingering reds and purples and golds fading into a percolated coffee blackness. He’d sit sometimes in the parlor at dusk and watch the sky, the only other light the glow of the radio dial; the uninterrupted low hum of its tubes reaching into each corner of the room and up the stairs and halfway through his mind.
These were nights to watch the sky.
Each star and distant electric light combined into clustered, almost granular arrangements like dandelion seeds bunched together on a screen door. Distance between their points was hard to determine at a glance; he would have to hold his hand at arm’s length to get an idea of where the horizon broke.
Moonless at times, the house under its stars seemed adrift, the wind through the wheat like lapping waves upon its hull.
It was one of these nights when his meditations were halted as the hum of the radio tubes pitched upwards into a shriek and the dial’s light burned white on the parlor wall. At this, he rose suddenly from the table, upturning a small saucer and an untouched cup of Maxwell House from the prior morning. Noise filled the room, an unbroken shrill whistle that rattled the dusty china in its cabinet.
Through the window, it was as if all visible light had combined, reaching continuous to a point of convergence – like embers of a bronze lamp.
He stumbled to the porch and the scene in its entirety was lit by a vision. Overhead was something like a dome, a rushing elliptical shape with the glow of heated metal just cooling. It shed small sparks in its wake, each lazily arcing in a diving motion and extinguishing before reaching the ground.
At this, he recalled tracer and dying men in the night.
The dome crept across the sky and brought an odd coldness with it. There was something about its surface that pulsed with the clenching of a fist. It was perhaps two-hundred or so feet overhead when it fractured into a series of smaller elements and these dozen formed a trail like Canada geese or Chinese lanterns on the undefined horizon.
Everything was now quiet as the line traveled, each light a measured distance away from the others. He stood, unsure of what to do with his hands or eyes, and watched as the formation looped across the sky, casting a total darkness around them. Stars, electric lights, radio dials – all other sources of light were blanketed over by their luminous output.
Every hair on his body and every stalk of wheat and every blade of grass and leaf stood upright, charged with a paralyzing static energy. Everything for miles, it seemed, or at least so much as he could imagine. The lights in their strand motioned like a whip, and they joined again into a singular elliptical dome gliding silently across the blackness.
Distant the thing passed; a hailing ship, vision, or strange songbird. He found his hand before him, holding it at an arm’s length, miles away.
He turned. Inside the house, the radio hummed and glowed as before, and he went to close his open window. In the distance, clouds built; dreadnought-like and advancing, obscuring the stars. Flashing, its first bolts of lightning forked between clouds and to the earth below.
He thought about the dome; distance and Damascus, and how the robin’s breast wasn’t quite as red as he remembered. The thunderstorm darkened on the horizon, its first drops dulling the ruts of the lane – rain, or something like it.