Take me back to old Lascaux
Black-outs and brown-outs rolled across California when I was still technically a teenager. At the time, I was snatching up classes at the local community college, dropping most of them just as fast, and working in the audio-visual lab. Our campus was normally exempt from sudden power outages, but one day the electric company’s proverbial hand slipped, and we ran into its fist. So, early one morning (before the atrocious heat ebbed in), every building went dark. I was still starting up the lab when it happened. The lights, equipment, and rows of computers flickered off and on—off again. They surfaced for one last electric gasp, and then stayed off. Delicate machinery crackled and spat static in the silence. I recognized it as the “death rattle”: the sound a dying person makes after the coughing reflex is gone and the final breaths filter through accumulated mucus. I had learned about death rattles in a class my mother, with her unique brand of enthusiastic disgust, referred to as “science devil”. She always inverted her adjectives.
Only the emergency lights remained, here and there in the lobby, but they were weak blue, like feeble torches hanging on the walls. In the absence of windows, the darkness was profound and disorienting. I ventured further into the depths of the A/V lab, even beyond the realm of the emergency lights.
I had always been fond of French nights. In the south, where I often stayed with relatives during summer, the one-chapel villages were still and quiet, removed from high-capacity veins of traffic and commerce. I usually slept in a garret with shutters clamped over the windows. I heard no distant wash of cars, no murmuring human voices. There were no street lamps near the house, no pin-pricks of light from digital displays on stereos or alarm clocks. The darkness was total, and I slept like the bodies in the textbook of my science devil class. Black walls hugged my face, pushed in my ears—weightless but somehow velvety. Even wombs are noisy and Martian pink. But here, my retinae sent confused and amusing fireworks to my brain, and these played on my eyelids as if to keep my visual faculties occupied. I could hear a ringing, and also my heart, but it didn’t sound like mine; it sounded like that of my mother, who lay in another room, concentrating on the peppered starlight in her open window and breathing audibly to disperse the silence. She was grateful for every whine of a mosquito in her ears.
My mother no longer felt comfortable in that kind of stifling darkness and silence. She’d lived seventeen years near a freeway that sounded like a distant river full of whirling tires, scraping exhaust pipes, and knocking mufflers. Seventeen years surrounded by insomniac teenagers revving engines and comparing speaker systems in their driveways by moonlight, and waking up to industrial lawn-mowers trimming the golf-course green, and ignoring the hum and orange glow of streetlamps that pressed on the blinds. She had been estranged from perfect, immaculate nights. Now, when we went back to the old bleu blanc rouge, she panicked in bed, seemingly unable to breathe.
In the darkened A/V lab, I wandered alone between aisles of film reels, deep in the stock room. My co-workers chatted in a circle somewhere with their flashlights illuminating their faces like a campfire, but they talked energy crisis instead of telling horror stories. I drifted from their voices, feeling my way along the shelves. I sat down amidst old projectors. I was invisible to myself. One of my five senses could not argue for my existence any more, and the others weren't convinced. In this state, I thought about how humans have always been afraid of open spaces. They left the trees for caves, and they left the caves for buildings. But then the lights went off and the buildings turned out to be more caves. To reach the metropolises and the suburbs, we did not escape the mouth of old Lascaux, with its chalk outlines of hands and its bulls and horses on the rock walls—we just shuffled further inside.
Claudette stood in the courtyard while everyone else was inside sleeping. Her sister’s grange walled her in on four sides: the house proper forming an L, with the guestrooms in the shorter wing; a large rectangular storage building holding a dozen ancient bicycles, modern tools on the shelves and wooden farming tools hanging ominously on nails; and a three-story-high barn, vacuous and filled with cobwebs from its dusty stone floor to its unreachable loft. In truth, the grange was really not her sister’s property anymore, but Claudette didn’t like to think about that. The structures around her were black inside and out. They could only be seen by their faint outlines, furry with shingles and carpets of thick vine. Between their roofs spanned a startling vista of stars.
In San Francisco, where Claudette lived eleven months out of the year, the stars were too sparse to be of interest. If she looked up at all, the Big Dipper would get all the attention, because there wasn’t much else to notice up there, apart from the Little Dipper—and she never knew which one she was looking at, Big or Little, because she never could seem to spot both on the same night, with or without her son’s guidance. Sometimes, something really pretty and unusual sparkled in the night, and she paused near her van with three plastic grocery bags swinging in each hand to gaze up it, but it always turned out to be an airplane, or a satellite, or—and this was the case more often than not—the planet Venus. She’d say out loud, “Now, that star’s come out early. It’s not quite night yet.” And her son, hearing her from his open window above the garage would call out, “That’s Venus,” barely a moment later. Either he was also stargazing, or simply remembering the last time she’d used those same words on the driveway in the evening. Neither case would surprise her.
But the night sky of Ormoi, in southern France, was so crowded with stars of all intensities and distances that it looked like black construction paper spray-painted with silver glitter. A band across the sky was denser than the surrounding sky, as though the glitter artist had sprayed several overlapping lines. She knew intellectually that this was the Milky Way. Her son had repeatedly described it as a cross-section of the galaxy. She nodded each time without understanding. But at least in Ormoi, in her sister’s grange, she could clearly see this band of packed stars.
Claudette’s arms were folded, her hands clutching her forearms. The breeze was too cool for her tee-shirt. Half of the courtyard was a grass lawn, half was a patio covered with small white rocks that nobody walked on barefooted. Even though she’d forgotten to put on sandals, she stood on the rocks. They were unforgivingly hard. They pried apart her toes, and when she shifted her weight, they pressed and bit at her soles like knuckles with the flesh shorn off. But she preferred the rocks to the grass. They demanded attention, like the vista above, and the grass was slippery with dew. The rocks had traction. She was glad to be outside, closer to the chirping of insects, underneath the glittering canvas, on the uncomfortable rocks.
Once again, she thought about death in movies. Because in movies, when a sick person dies, the healthy one hovering above her deathbed always does a curious thing: she passes a hand over the dead one’s face and closes the empty, staring eyes. Claudette had always thought this was a strange convention, assuming that it could not be based on reality. Until she did it herself last year—closed her sister’s dead eyes with a sweep of her palm and fingers on the slack eyelids. They closed, on command.
Claudette shifted her feet on the rocks, telling herself that she was trying to find a less painful place to stand, but in fact, she was driving the rounded corners of the rocks into her heels and arches. She began a staring contest with the Milky Way, letting the stream of cold, distant light pour across her vision until tears ran. She was not really crying, at first. Killing the impulse to blink for one minute, two, was drying her eyes, causing them to water. And then new tears ran down the wet channels on her cheeks, overtaking the old tears. This time, she was really crying. Current Mood: nostalgic