I remember this story. I was riveted and stunned by it then. Same now. Great write.
I’m just going to leave this here….
Open Sky by Joshua Converse
I had washed out of the Aviator program and would soon be discharged from the Navy when the burn started in my shoulder blades. Maureen was understanding.
“It’s their loss,” she would say as she laid dinner out, “You would have been a wonderful pilot.”
Mostly I poked at the green beans and shrugged, but every once in a while she would change tactics.
“Have you got something else in mind?” she would ask in sympathy-voice. That was my cue to grunt noncommittally and lumber outside to stare at the darkening sky. In the first few weeks she’d come outside to sit with me in the silence, and she’d sip at the Scotch. I gulped. It wasn’t long before the outside silence moved inside, she stopped pouring me Scotch, and I sat alone.
My shoulders hurt from top to bottom. I was reading too much Greek mythology, maybe. I’d stare at Atlas with the world on my shoulders and reach for the Glenfiddich she thought she’d hidden. Long into the night I found the story of Icarus and my shoulder blades burned. I tried to ignore it. I took aspirin. Took a shower. Scratched. Rubbed. Passed out.
I woke up naked in the hallway with an empty bottle in one hand and a pair of long mottled feathers in the other. Maureen was frying breakfast in the kitchen.
“You have to stop this, Jake.”
“I mean it. You took a hit, I know, but it’s time to pick yourself up and move on.”
That’s about the time I started lingering around Runway 7. I’d park the car and lie on the hood and watch those big birds roar over me. The vibrations cooled the throb in my shoulders.
One night Maureen said, “Have you been keeping birds?”
“There are feathers everywhere, all over the shower, the couch, the bed.”
I shrugged, then winced.
“What’s wrong with your back?”
I grunted, and went outside to stare at the sky.
The classifieds began to show up beside my bacon and eggs. I couldn’t explain why they made me sick. At night, in bed I held her as she cried and told me she didn’t understand. She was so thin in my arms, I remember so well the way she sobbed against me, her heart like a trapped bird.
“I love you,” I heard myself whisper, ignoring the pitched agony of my back.
Night passed. Staring into the fading velvet perfection of the open sky. The sun was burning pink fires into the dying haze. Crying into infinity the ululating currents and diving jet streams plummeted and ascended and wound in the perfect freedom without obstacle.
It broke inside me.
My shoulders cracked and contorted. Doubled over I shrieked; groaned and thrashed. Great wings and bright tore through the ragged flesh of my shoulder blades and beat bloody feathers against the glass door to the backyard. Shivering and pink my wet, feathered wings encircled me in my pain. I can’t be sure how long she stood there and watched me, inching closer. Watching slow, labored breaths as I bled on the white carpet. When I looked up she was weeping. Her eyes were red, cheeks flushed and wet, but there was something beautiful and unfamiliar in the way she held her shoulders beyond the gentle girl I’d almost let love me. She pulled the sliding glass door open and I felt the first rush and tickle of free air on my naked wings. I felt a delicious stretch ripple through me, knocking over the crockery and lampshades as I shivered with delight. The remains of my shirt fell to the floor, a ragged leaving among the feathers. Maureen watched me as I crept through the threshold and beat against the roiling, building wind with hungry wings; I was airborne.
Turning, whirling, boiling in the everything. Spinning, dancing, diving, turning, free. Exultant, bouncing, boisterous, I crested high and tucked in the open space where I could swim in the perfection of touching nothing but the wind. The wings, my wings, were dovelike, wide and high-arching on my back with white, warm feathers.
Over deserts I soared, climbed, and perched on mountain summits. I tipped my toes in the waves of the open sea. I tasted the wind where my lungs had to strain for air, and came to know the pleasure of solitude, circling moving monuments in ice.
Sometimes I think of Maureen, still weeping in the half-light.
I read because I like books. That may seem like circular logic at first blush, but it isn’t You see, it’s not articles, monographs, and critical essays that bring me back, day after day, night after night, to the written word like some kind of addict- actually, vampirism comes to mind as an analogy. I read books to quicken me. I read books because they feel like new lives. It’s nice there are critics and scholars with opinions, I suppose… but the truth is I’m not really one of them and never will be. I’m a reader and a writer- what I want is not to frame the works of others, to supply some critical lens, nor to bias a readership toward my interpretation of another’s work. What I want is to tell stories and to read stories- because stories are what make sense to me.
Does this make me unfit for today’s academe? I think it may.
Lately the Werewolf has been on my mind. I’ve read (and re-read) a few books on the subject and I’m trying to decide what makes them so interesting. I think it has to do with the idea of a blessing or a curse- are werewolves cursed to hurt people, maybe people they love, or are they given power to cull civilization of sickness? For example, Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift, frames lycanthropy as almost a form of super-heroism. Her hero, Reuben, is drawn to evil-doers and if he doesn’t always make it in the nick of time to save the victims of evil, the bad guys always get their comeuppance, at least. Others do it differently. To Stephen King in The Werewolf Cycle, the werewolf is a monster who influences and ultimately takes control of a man in a process not unlike a monthly demonic possession. In Robert McCammon’s WWII Thriller The Wolf’s Hour, his British spy/Russian werewolf Michael Gallatin is in control of the change and uses it to do impossible feats of derring-do. McCammon also uses Michael’s backstory as a young werewolf learning the trade in Russia’s wilderness as a way to ask existential questions about what werewolfism is- a miracle or a curse? “The Wolfman,” with Lon Chaney Jr., and “An American Werewolf in London” are two of my favorite werewolf films, and both make explicit that to be a werewolf is a curse and the only escape is death- a merciful death would be at the hands of a loved one. (If you haven’t seen them…go. Go now while there are still video stores to rent from.)
Obviously there are psychological aspects to the symbol of the shapechanger- the move from man to beast representing perhaps sexual drives or the move into sexual maturity or the violent impulses within mankind to destroy itself. And, yes, there’s the history of the shamanic practices of shapeshifting, from stories about Merlin changing young Arthur to teach him about the world to Celtic/ Druidic and American Indian spirit quests in which the quester is transformed during his journey (if only in his own mind). The Viking berserkers who would “wear the bear shirt” and “transform” into monstrous killers during raids spawned legends about the werewolf and werebear for centuries after the Vikings were gone.
I mention all this because I’m writing a novella about werewolves and I have decisions to make. Do I make it a curse? A set of super powers? A morality play? What is the nature of the Wolf, the Man, and the Moon? How much do I explain? How many of these supernatural laws are actually laws and not just guidelines? Maybe there is more than one kind of werewolf- from people who use shamanic magic to “wear” the wolf skin and those who are tied to the cycles of the moon uncontrollably? There are a lot of options and so much has been done before. It is, after all, a very old story.
As far as my wife and I have worked out, there are ultimately two kinds of people. There are Batman fans and there are Superman fans. She’s a Batman fan. Let me clarify here that I like Batman- a Superman fan can like Batman. I like a lot of comic book heroes, from DC to Marvel to Image and Dark Horse. For me, though, the top of the list will always be for Big Blue. Here’s why: Superman is a modern iteration of the most ancient of warrior legends but, importantly he is the most civilized version. He is, essentially, Achilles or Cú Chulainn- but he does not kill if he can possibly avoid it. He does not sit in his tent and sulk and curse. He does not reave the cattle of his enemies. He is a man of conscience and principle and he is responsible for his actions.
Anti-heroism has gotten very popular. Often enough, our heroes could be bad guys in their own right. For example The Hulk is essentially a time bomb of unchecked rage. The comics tend not to show it, but in the years and years he’s been knocking down buildings and getting away with it surely someone has been hurt, but It goes largely unremarked. The Hulk is very often unrestrained. Now, I grant that early in the Superman comics Superman threw crooks off buildings with no apparent concern for the mess at the bottom, but as the character has developed something nobler has emerged. He could break the world. He could enslave the human race. He could get tired of the constant demands on him, but he doesn’t. Few superheroes have that kind of power and use it in a principled way. Batman, obviously, has his own code and he doesn’t kill- he tries to work within the law when possible, but he’s not an exemplar. Batman is a cautionary tale. A Gothic story. Consider: Batman was created because evil sows the seeds of its own destruction. When his parents were killed, Bruce Wayne was put on the path to becoming the terror of Gotham’s criminals. When Jonathan and Martha Kent found Kal-El and adopted him they taught him the values that he exemplifies for the world. Batman works by terror and he does so because of guilt, rage, and pain as a result of a traumatic event. Superman works by exemplifying the goodness of human people- the lessons he learned are not of Krypton. They’re from Kansas. Superman inspires hope. Batman inspires dread.
Superman, despite being from another planet, is the best in all of humanity. He reflects that. Batman reflects the utmost human potential in many areas- most of them physical and intellectual, but he is emotionally crippled: obsessive, sullen, and angry. He has healed countless wounds, but never has managed to heal inside from the loss of his parents. Superman, on the other hand, has been through countless crises, battles, death itself, and many other adventures in his many years, but has never let the tragedies and failures of his past change who he is fundamentally. He allows himself to love his wife, knowing how fragile she is and how easily she could be taken from him. Batman never lets himself get that close to anybody if he can possibly avoid it. Both are fantastic characters and I enjoy reading about both, but Superman is, for me, the greatest. Not because of his powers, which is the go-to point for naysayers, but because of his heart. Superman is all heart. He’s like a more intelligent Rocky, if Rocky were from Kansas and not Italian…
On the other hand, until recently I would argue that Batman has always had better writing, better villains, better storylines. Batman’s Gotham is Gothic, decaying, whereas Metropolis is the City of the Future- a future that we as a readership have, perhaps, begun to doubt over the decades. What we witness as a society seems more entropic, hence the slide into post-apocalyptic and zombie-apocalypse-themed movies, games, and all the rest of it. We are less credulous about the future, and so about the imaginative spark that is Metropolis. We have the same doubts about Superman, particularly his moral clarity. When our leaders, secular and spiritual alike, let us down with scandals and duplicity, we are trained to expect no one is as good as Superman. We are wrong. When terrible things happen, people climb the stairs in burning buildings without the benefit of super powers to rescue strangers. They throw themselves onto train tracks to save children. People awaken, during those times, to the ideals that Superman upholds- not the beating criminals to a pulp part, but rather taking care of each other, even when it’s dangerous. Even when the bad guys have Kryptonite- Superman doesn’t hesitate. Nor do the first responders, soldiers, police and volunteers on countless scenes of violence or devastation. People are that good, or at least they can be if they hold true to certain values, exemplify courage and decency as best they can, and inspire others to do the same. Just like Superman does.
Best Comedy ever made. Hands down.
The other day I finished listening to Dracula on Audible. I have probably read the book close to twenty times in my life and each time I notice something else. What makes it such a fantastic and entertaining book? It has all the hallmarks of a Gothic novel: crumbling castles, moldering treasure, ancient superstitions, ghost stories, and so on, but more than this, and even more than the epistolary structure that allows the reader to fill in the blanks, is the way the story is woven to be at once absolutely logical and, of course, utterly fantastic. Consider, if you were a centuries-old vampire general (statesman, tactician) and warrior who planned to invade England- the Count plans things out, improvises, adapts, adjusts his plans and ultimately retreats when he is beaten to wait until conditions become more favorable. That is all very orderly and rational, from a certain point of view. On the other hand, he is a supernatural being who is bound by mysterious and liminal laws. For example, he must be carried across running water and can be delayed but not stopped by a crucifix or garlic. Madness, passionate emotion, panic, and human weakness are constantly threatening in the background of the novel- threatening to overtake the logic, rationalism, reason. The high technology of the day is put against ancient superstition from the phonograph to the garlic flower, from the race to intercept Dracula at the end using Europe’s railway system (the 19th century was probably the first time travelling overland was faster than travel by sea) to the use of Winchester’s repeating rifle against the gypsies In the employ of the Count.
Another interesting theme that has emerged for me as I’ve grown older is the sexuality in the exchange of blood throughout the novel. From Harker’s first encounter of Dracula’s three brides and secretly wishing they would “kiss him,” to the prone, unclothed position Mina finds Lucy in on the cliff-side graveyard at Whitby the first time the Count fed on her. The thrall of vampirism in all cases creates an entrancing beauty and seductiveness in the women of the novel- and just as Dracula is always seeking brides, his brides are often seeking, feeding on, or luring away children. In some ways what makes this frightening is the symmetry (and perversion) of the “natural order”- as opposed to the wholesome relationship that Jonathan and Mina enjoy as husband and wife, where she is his “helper,” his love, and the mother of his child in the end, Dracula tries to recruit Mina to be his “helper” and to consume the blood of children, to seduce human men, and if the brides of Castle Dracula are any indication, eventually to become cruel, ribald, and malicious.
The novel frames a collision of the modern and the ancient, Victorian English propriety and what lurked beneath it, superstition and science, Good and Evil. In some ways it falls in line with the conventions of its genre, but I think it may be the most extraordinary novel I have ever read and probably my favorite. If you have the means to listen to the performances of Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, et al, I recommend it. It was great fun (at 15 hours30 minutes) and as soon as I finished, I wanted to listen again.
We never sit here under the weight of all this air, the 5 x 10^18 kg of atmosphere that sits above everyone on Earth, and say “Gosh, that sure is heavy!”
You don’t realize just how powerful that 1 bar (~100 kPa) of pressure is until a train car is filled with steam, allowed to cool, and then implodes ohmygod did that just happen?
For more implosion goodness, check out this awesome video from Veritasium.