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Volume 7, Issue 3: Pictura


Wes Callihan

I used to fear gravity, or rather its failure, and it may amuse you to think of me hiding from the sky beneath ceilings, trees, even my bedsheets until I became attached to the ground.

My sixth-grade teacher, explaining the Coriolis effect, was describing the earth's rotation, the deflection of moving objects on its surface, the clockwise direction of draining water and hurricanes in our hemisphere. He was hoping that we would grasp some basic physics, but I made the jump to metaphysics too soon. As the teacher explained that the motions we were discussing were all caused by our rotation in space, I began to feel strange.
Suddenly I saw everything the wrong way; it was the feeling I'd had as a small boy when I crept downstairs late one night and stood frighteningly disoriented in a familiar room. I couldn't find the bathroom or the way back to my bed though I knew everything that I saw, and I could only cry on my mystified father's lap. Now, sitting in my classroom, the mystery was not the movement of dishwater and ocean currents, but of the planet, with me on it. I felt myself flying along at a tremendous rate and began to feel nauseated, overcome by the sensation of the world rushing forever, and though I wanted with genuine panic to be still, there was nowhere I could look to stop the feeling of motion. Outside, the waving trees and the clouds sailing across the sky only made the sensation worse. Inside, my desk, the floor, the walls were hurtling with me endlessly through space. Vertigo wrenched my insides and in the middle of sixth period at Harrison Elementary School, I got sick from planetary motion.
That night I couldn't sleep, feeling the stars whirling above my head and the tossing of the branches outside my window as they fluttered in what I now knew to be the wind of the earth's rotation. I gripped the edges of my bed to hold myself down but felt myself getting lighter nonetheless and lifting from the mattress. I screamed in terror until my father burst through the door, and couldn't understand why I lay there sweating and crying. He gave me a drink of water which amazingly didn't float out of its glass, and after he left the room I fell asleep on the floor under my bed.
As I grew older, the feeling often returned. I'd think of the earth, this unutterably insignificant ball, spinning eternally in the incomprehensibly vast cosmos, with no end to the motion and no point of reference with which to orient myself. All directions from the earth were down, and the infinite bottomlessness of space wrenched my brain. At other moments, I thought about time, and felt its motion, the irresistible passage of the seconds, like reflector posts rushing out of the darkness ahead and past my speeding car, flinging themselves irretrievably behind me into the infinite loss of a dwindling past. I would become physically sick when I thought this way too long.
The first time I saw Harry at the university, he was wandering around his office in a ratty brown sweater with Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" going at top volume, shoving canned potato chips into his mouth with one hand, and with the other waving a rolled-up map in time to the music or menacing, in tempo, some lethargic blue-bottle in the sunny window frame. As I gaped in his open doorway, I wondered what made him, in that mad moment of thundering Bach, the quietest man I'd ever seen. What anchored him to the earth so solidly, when my ability to stay on the ground was a sustained fluke, my goal in life to eventually be shot up into the clouds by centrifugal force to float off into the void? The more we got to know each other, the more I realized that I would never have deliberately chosen him as a friend; but friendships don't happen that way, and we enjoyed each other's company, and always I sensed a weight in him that I never had. Being around Harry was like standing on the lee side of a building in a windstorm; it was a kind of shelter, and perhaps that's why my dreams began.
At first, they were what I might have expected; I would be floating up, unable to stop, until I could no longer see the upturned faces of the people below me, tiny white dots fading under my feet as I rose into the blackness above, pale spots growing dimmer, smaller, more indistinct, and finally invisible.
But then the dreams changed. I would be floating again, trying desperately to pull myself down but then suddenly thump down harmlessly, spread-eagled on my lawn, laughing with delight at the force sucking me down against the grass. Rarely, but startlingly, I would have a momentary glimpse in my dream of the ground at the bottom of the universe, as though the earth had drifted too low in the void of space and come within viewing distance of the immense slab that existed underneath the galaxies. Sometimes it appeared slanting at a weird tilt up the sky as though I were on the bottom of the world as it slowly settled and approached that inconceivably vast cosmic floor before rising away from it again, like a helium balloon losing gas and then rising on an updraft before settling to the ground.
Harry never knew about my nightmares or how he stilled the vertigo I perpetually struggled with. He strummed old Johnny Cash songs on his ugly guitar, ate junk food with gusto, and wrote incredibly lyrical poetry when he was supposed to be typing up his notes as secretary of the departmental committee. He lived his apparently insignificant life and stayed glued to the ground. Gravity was committed to him, whereas it felt so tenuous to me; my eventual fate would reveal the inductive fallacy at the heart of science.
Then Harry lost his job. I worried more for my sanity than for his future: he would get another job, but what if I came unstuck and soared away, screaming, into the void? I helped him pack and we talked, as always, of mundane things, he trying to locate his important papers and me trying to take on ballast before he left.
That night I lay staring out at the wheeling stars, trying to pretend, with the rest of mankind, that I was at rest, and not on a roaring ride through the cosmos. The stars were holes in a blanket. No, I thought, and changed my metaphor: they were diamonds in a lake. I changed it again: they were musical notes on a dark sheet, waiting to be played. I grew sleepy, but the metaphor held and took over, and the notes pulsated and swelled as I dreamt, and I began rising from my bed. Faint, all but inaudible, music wafted from the black page as I drifted through the ceiling and the branches of the trees and broke free of the humming power lines, the last bonds that might have kept me near the earth. The music grew clearer and stronger; I drifted higher and wiped the clouds from my face, trying to get a glimpse of the earth below, vision the last restraining bond, but the earth was gone and only clouds now swirled below my dangling feet.
Now the music was clear enough to distract my attention from my panic at the receding earth, and I looked up intently at the stars. They were not stars, but white pale spots growing larger, and features on the spots began to take on a familiar distinctness that alarmed me. I remembered the spots in earlier dreams, and they had been faces as they grew less distinct; now the spots I saw were becoming more distinct and what then would they become? What, in fact, would the stars turn out to be when they were perfectly clear? The music increased in clarity and volume and I was forced to attend, and its beauty overcame me as I rose ever higher. I thought, "If I'm rising 'up,' why are all places in the universe 'down' from the earth?"
A glow above me caught my attention and I gaped. An immense crowd of faces whirled above me laughing and singing, millions upon millions of faces. The music that surrounded me was intense, visceral and cerebral at once, penetrating in its splendor.
Harry floated next to me in his ratty brown sweater, grinning, a can of potato chips in one hand.
"Are you Africanus?" I asked.
"Are you Scipio?" he replied, stuffing potato chips into his mouth. He pointed down to the earth, a speck in the distance, then up at the millions upon millions of faces; he gestured vaguely in time to the music. "Why do the stars move?" he asked. "Why do they move forever in the universe? Why does the moon fly endlessly around the earth and the earth rotate?"
I opened my mouth, but he was not finished. "Why do the winds blow and currents drift, and why do the clouds fly about the heavens?"
"I don't know," I said. "Why indeed do things move? Why can't they rest? Where is permanence, an end to motion?"
Harry smiled, and everything began to fade away and I awoke in my bedroom, shivering. I looked out into the night and the stars whirled away, always moving, restless infinitybut something had changed; I was looking not out, but up at them.
The next day I helped Harry with his books, thinking of my dream. As we worked, I peered into the box he had just filled and saw a small, worn, leatherbound volume with curious letters on its spine. It was Dante's Comedy . Oddly enough, the "Paradiso, " was the most well-thumbed section. I gave Harry a dollar for it.
At home that night I put Bach on the stereo and the Toccata and Fugue roared through the room at Harry's favorite volume level, one I had grown accustomed to. I picked up my Dante and began reading the opening cantos of the "Paradiso." The Fugue surged and swelled and Bach carried me up through the circle of the Moon and beyond into the wandering stars, canto after canto fueled by fugue and toccata, toccata and fugue. I rode the crest of the A Minor fugue and the G Major lifted me and the D Major flung me bodily. Resting on each planet I kept Bach whirling ceaselessly on the turntable, planetary motion flinging music off into the cosmos. Late at night, I passed Saturn and was flung out into the Empyrean and then the Third Brandenburg Concerto poured from the speakers.
From the very opening notes, the sheer beauty of the harmonics, the symmetry of the movements, the loveliness of the varying patterns, and the contrasting unvarying tempo of the rejoicing strings all struck me with unmediated force and at that moment I saw with Dante, as we rose to the great center, highest yet innermost, the ineffable vision of the rose at the heart of the cosmos, the singing of the saints in all their glory around it, the ceaseless joyful seeking of the blessed in their dance below me as they turned, always turning to face upward and know the bliss of the end of perfection, and their knowledge was new at every revolution and thus no revolution could be the last, and each motion was better than the last, and I knew with Dante the love that draws all below It, draws it up into Love Himself by the turning of the perfection of the spheres and by the beauty of the myriad voices that long for union with Beauty Himself, where song and movement and perfection find their satisfaction at last.
The Concerto ceased and Bach ceased and the revolving ceased and Dante fell silent and I put the book down; I looked out the window into the night and the stars. The same stars I had always seen were there, but Harry and Dante and Bach and a dream like Scipio's had changed the metaphor for me one last time. That night there were no dreams and no music and no night terrors. I slept soundly all night long, firmly and wonderfully glued to my mattress and the moving universe was singing in that region just beyond the range of my senses, where Dante chanted quietly and the Third Brandenburg surged in glory, and the morning stars sang together for joy as the dawn approached.

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