Entry #2 in the third DotQ writing challenge.
City Lights from a Plane
The stars keeping her company tonight are real, the whole hemisphere of them. It is unsettling for them to be at eye level, but they are comfortingly constant and unmoving. Throughout the entirety of her cross-country vigil, she keeps an eye on a line of them, five sharp points at the center of her window. Three of them, she thinks, are Orion’s belt, and the other two a continuation. Orion’s belt extension.
If only the scratched plastic sheet she is leaning her forehead on doesn’t have to exist. The stars don’t seem to lie on a curved plane; they have depth and if she isn’t confined in a metal box with wings, she would make her home amongst them, hang a hammock from them and watch the world turn and turn beneath her.
The world. Stars are one thing; city lights are another. The stars’ piercing points of illumination are mundane in comparison to the hints of habitations under them. As far as the eye can see are lights, dense and stretched across a never-ending expanse, a more orderly and geometric version of the celestial scatterings. Sharp, precise, they form golden veins through the unidentifiable blackness. A mountain range, body of water, desert, forest, or a blacked-out city? The shapes of the light formations tell her nothing about their geographical context.
As the night wears on, the view from the small plastic rectangle becomes more and more like that from a car on the freeway. Except for the clouds. When the clouds start to obscure the cities from view, the lights blur into smudged, eddying pools of illumination, like ghosts in a swamp bottom. And when the vapor thickens, the glow finds its way through regardless, morphing from peaceful puddles into ominously pulsing pits of apocalyptic hellfire.
The day, though not as mysterious than the night, is no less beautiful. Above the oppressive grey, the sky is infinite blue and white—an incredibly detailed tundra of clouds, complete with half-frozen rivers, chunks of ice slowly floating downstream, and glittering monoliths dotting the flat, flat landscape. It is endless, the kind of endless that challenges her to prove otherwise.
The unfettered sun watches over all of this, patiently, almost at a standstill. If only she could know all the places she passes over, know what it is like to exist there and to have had a life there, to know the idiosyncrasies, the things considered mundane. And if only she could know the sky just as well—if only she could learn the patterns of weather, learn the skyscape and make it hers, make the sun start and stop at will, choose when it is day and when it is night. If only she could learn everything.
She no longer takes the time to change her watch to match the timezone. It is morning when she is rested and alert, and when she is tired and no longer functional, it is cool night in her nest of velvety black, lined with her stars and city lights. When she yearns for solid ground under her feet, it is there, and she steps out to look and to absorb and to contemplate. To “write as the grass grows”, or to try. Everything has a meaning, everything down to the smallest detail, and understanding that meaning is crucial to understanding one’s place in life, or so she thinks.
She watches the aircrafts take off one after another, with almost no time between each liftoff. The lights on the wings, large at first, then smaller and smaller, become indistinguishable from the other lights in the night sky. The seven planes that left before her fan out in all directions, toward the stars, into the stars, becoming stars themselves.
She watches the grey batting of clouds above her. The damp sheet is no obstacle for her craft, despite its apparent thickness. She breaks through it into her haven of sky and soaks in the warmth of the light.
She watches the stretch of dunes, dust, and lion colored debris. It looks as endless as the clouds used to, but she knows now that nothing truly is. More mountains, plateaus, sand pass by, and a long and dusty highway, devoid of vehicles. She relishes the inhospitality before it gives way very sharply to a dense and determinedly busy city that continues beyond her line of sight. Rows and rows of hot buildings. Rows and rows of hot cement.
The throbbing of an engine is there, and then it is not. Somehow, silence transitions in without her being aware of the transition. It wasn’t sudden, she knows that it wasn’t, and that it had been fading in and out for some time, but it feels sudden in this moment. The thought echoes in her head, along with glimpses of faces, a snowy trail, rough voices in the cold and the jangling of collars. At the same time, she is wrapped in a blanket of nonperception, and when she blinks and tries to get a better look at what is around her, there is nothing. Absolutely nothing, and an alarmingly unalarming lack of things, feelings, meaning, existence. The blackness of supposed nothing comes before and after this oblivion. She gives up thought and action for a little while and waits for the nothingness to end.
She watches the darkness lap against the similarly dark rocks and listens to the repetitive, sharp slaps of breaking surface tension. Particles of mist fly about her face, but not enough to obscure the vertical streaks of light reflected in the waves, painting a picture of a mile-deep chasm lined with columns of gold, a chasm that itself stretches for miles away from her, toward the mountains on the other side of the bay. She can almost see the angels coming out of the pit, the torches along the single visible wall, maybe the wall of a ballroom? The nearby crunch of gravel against asphalt and the vibration of an engine registers through her thoughts. She stands up, ready to move on to her next destination.
With more darkness comes the multi-colored static and the inwardly-moving concentric circles. Colorful circles, always vivid though dark, spiraling inward and inward, impossible to follow. Purple and green, now red and green, with streaks of yellow making their way in. Sometimes the darkness is threatening in a way, the emptiness almost aggressively hallucinatory. At other times, it is a benign lack, interspersed with repeated thoughts and snatches of details. The marble counter-top of a hotel bathroom. Tan, brown, and veins of beige. The pastel-like printing on a cardboard box lying on a plastic rosewood-patterned soap dish. The peculiarly saturated red wings of a bird that maybe ought to have been a grayish-brown.
She watches all this, and wonders what time it is as she adjusts the position of her head against the frame of the window.
Chasing the sun. What a fantastical idea. But there’s no fighting her circadian rhythm. Her days are as long as she wants them to be, but after the initial binge of sunlight and then the reactionary binge of darkness, the cycles evened out to twenty-five hours or so anyway. Still, the illusion of control satisfies her, and she revels in the breakdown of technicalities.
She has always wanted to sleep under the stars in the desert; she decides that tonight is as good a night as any, or maybe even better given her current proximity to a promising expanse of sandy plateau. And when morning comes, she’d be off to the snow to find the northern lights, or to the east to delight in the brilliance of the sulfurous pools, or to the pampas to inspect the ombutrees…
She watches the clerk count her currency before taking the change and her supply of food. She pauses at the exit to wipe the moisture off her brow. It is wet and hot, much wetter and hotter than her last stop. The greenery from her window was a fair warning, but it was an invitation as well. Humidity and strip malls abound, highways that go on and on and loop around and split off into three or four different roads that split off into even more roads, all surrounded by the scent of pollen and flanked by inane billboards (inane, except for the ones with three-dimensional cows falling off them), all leading into or through one forest or another, and ending at warm, wide rivers, more strip malls, brick mansions hidden away in the trees, sunny neighburhoods with brilliantly white sidewalks lining the courtyard and kids screaming with chalk on their hands, the City, corporate skyscrapers, residential skyscrapers, or another state altogether.
The Southern night is warm and breezy, and as the sun sets around her, she finds herself in bliss right where she is. In the parking lot of a Szechuan restaurant, in short sleeves and a skirt, with the cool but not chilling wind against her skin and in her hair and the distant whistle of a train echoing in her mind, she finds the understanding she has been pursuing. The glimpse of infinite knowledge and perfect inner peace she once felt at home. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of the ideal and the unideal, and the impossibility of conciliation that is life for everything and everyone everywhere. Whatever it is, for this ephemeral blink of time, everything is as it is, unvalenced and real and there, to be dealt with or not to be dealt with.
She struggles for a moment to articulate to herself what it is that she has learned. But understanding of the understanding is not for this moment. Perhaps it is for another story to explore.