Heavenly Bodies

It was my fervent belief as a child that the moon was alive. A reoccurring nightmare of mine involved Luna rolling down from her perch in the sky to chase me, flashing different colors in her rage. The dreams always ended with me cowering in a ditch, belly to earth, covering my face with my hands for what ineffectual protection that afforded.

My mother would lecture me, as if logic had any place in fear, that the dream was counter to any knowledge of physic s and science. It was an optical illusion that the moon hung in the sky, she said, it’s really almost as big as the earth, and besides, it floats in space, it’s not in a nest of any kind. However romantic the image of the moon rolling out of the night sky, I was simply wrong.

My hindbrain refused to cooperate and showered me with terror nightly.

Just around adolescence I fell subject to an illness that ate up my days. The doctors thought it some kind of pernicious anemia and gave me pills and infusions and poultices until I was quite sore inside and out. My body, always stubborn, refused to cooperate with their handling. They would stand in the doorway and converse in hushed tones with my mother. One would recommend cutting out this, more of that. The next would absolutely forbid that, and condone only these. Sometimes I wanted to ask them if they couldn’t agree, what hope could I possibly have?

I suppose I knew, of course. So did my parents. With a desperation borne of futility, they devoted themselves to my care, fussing over even the sheets of my bed. It was quite tiresome.

Then came Mr. Harold Mauser, MD, finest traveling doctor of the tri-state area. I saw his wagon roll up the little path to our house and thought it was a tinker, or some kind of patent man. My mother burst into my room in tearful joy. The miracle we had waited for was here.

I had already become accustomed to inevitability, so this news did not stir me. Nor did the man himself; slightly stooped, hair shellacked to his head with some evil-smelling compound, nervous tic that made the corner of his mouth pucker back into a grimace. He shook my hand (the first man to do so) and proclaimed me fit as anything, indulging in a little eye-winking banter with my parents about how I was simply playing hooky from school.

The man had already doffed his cap, now he used it to conduction my gaze to the miracle he had brought with him, a sad little machine on caster wheels that squeaked like glass mice. Inside it, he said, he had the wonder of the 20th century, the wisdom of the Curies. A few simple treatments of this, he said, and I would be better than new.

The placard on the side read Brother Joseph’s Portable Sun. I remember I asked how one could fit a sun in a container, seeing it wasn’t really sitting in the sky but out in space. The man gave a Gatling-shot of laughter and complimented my intellect to my parents.

I was made to sit up in bed while he raised the lead shielding in the core of the machine. I may not see this little sun’s light, he said, but I could be assured that it did glow in the dark like nature’s other health miracle, phosphorous. It didn’t smell like phosphorous, thankfully, but did give off a strange heat. I sat limp while he ran a bell-shaped device over my chest, keeping up his salesman’s patter the whole time. I would be up and running in no time, roses would bloom in my cheeks and I would gain weight long thought lost. I endured it, as I have always endured. My parents were the only painful part of the procedure, standing with clasped hands, looking so hopeful it hurt. In fifteen minutes it was over. Mauser rolled his sleeves down and asked if he could intrude upon us for supper.

Three days he stayed with us, promising my miraculous recovery. Three days after he had arrived he hitched up his mule and rode away, taking my parent’s hope with him.

In a week I was so sick I vomited blood. I recovered after a time, but I lacked even the strength I’d had before. My parents believed they had been rooked and contacted the police. I never heard if anything came of it.

Years passed. My face did not seem to age in the glass, but my parents’ did, as if I drew on them for sustenance to keep my body going. If I could have figured out how to die, I would have. One day, in the middle of my sponge bath, my mother felt a strange lump near my spine. This time I was taken to see a real doctor, propped up in the wagon with pillows to keep me upright.

I was scanned by the little eye they called x-ray. More rays to make me healthy. The doctor took a picture of my bones and became very drawn and grim. I had a shadow on my spine, a little pocket of dark that would spread to my body. He asked my parents if I had ever played with one of the old radium water dispensers or anything like that.

That night the moon came back and sang to me with a voice like fine glass. I had gone so long without the dream it felt almost like an old friend. In the end, it hadn’t been the moon to defeat me, but her counterpart. Luna showered me with angry trills that turned into sharp rays that drilled into my back, but I had to laugh. The laughter and the pain remained when I woke. My mother thought I was having a nervous breakdown and applied a cold compress that only served to sharpen the pain. I did not sleep again that night.

When televisions became commonplace, one was brought to me on caster wheels so that I wouldn’t feel left out. My parents now worried for my mental as well as physical health. They decided I was to watch only the news, no fanciful program that would fill my head with ideas.

I agreed. The news was grim enough as it was.

There were reports of some kind of missile crisis, some kind of payload that had gotten lost en-route to its destination. My head ached with their words. I had been out of the world so long I only understood half of what was said. The newscaster’s tone rang out to me, a high, clear tone of panic that pierced through any reassurance. They were afraid, though of what I didn’t know.

My parents took refuge in prayer. I could no longer read because it blurred my vision, so the television was my constant companion. The missiles were found, but empty. Someone had gutted their insides, taken the tiny suns within. I wondered what ailment they had that they thought it would cure. I could have told them, if anyone had asked.

One day the television descended into static. My mother came in, red-faced from crying, with a pill and a small glass of water on a tray. She told me it was a special vitamin and left the room sobbing. It smelled of bitter almonds.

I watched the static fuzz and drifted away. The dream I had was the sequel to the one I’d always had: I was in my ditch but it was suddenly day. The moon had fled before the anger of her paramour. The sun had come and come too soon, the daylight seemed unnatural, washed-out like milk paint. The sun was made up of ripples of fire and had a voice like dust roaring over the land. I felt the shadow on my back spread to encompass me whole and laughed. You cannot get me, Mr. Sun! I am sun-proofed.

I woke to a grey twilight. The house was silent. The television was still static, so I turned it off.

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