by Douglas W. Milliken
It was an intuitive animal-prayer when he was younger, how he’d stand outside for hours in the summertime and gaze up through the night’s silence at the stars. No telescope or even binoculars. Just naked eyes. He’d stand in the patchy grass as far from his dad’s trailer as he dared and stare up until his neck hurt and even then, keep staring. So many bright tiny errors in a perfect black screen, but he knew: the blackness was the error, the distance between each light. Yet still, the lights could all be seen. It filled him with hope that there might be something better out there.
Hope means a lot.
But now he’s older and lives in a city where the nights have been replaced by an orange haze soft against the black. Sometimes a moon. More often: high airplanes, passing. Where could they all be going? Late when his wife lies safely asleep, he sits in the pale glow of his computer’s screen, clicking through the space program’s archive of deep-space photography. All the universe cataloged by wide-array telescopes. The collision of galaxies. Columns of dust stretching through centuries. Stars birthing or fading away. Light visible only to mechanical eyes. He stares at the Crab Nebula and the Tadpole Galaxy and the Pillars of Creation, and feels the deep icicle of loneliness pierce clear through him, all the way through and then deeper still. Almost to the end. Then a little more. The loneliness never passes out the other side.
It’s not just the magnitude that breaks him. It’s something closer. Like missing someone to whom you still have something important to tell. Someone you love who doesn’t know. You want so bad to tell them. But they aren’t ever coming back. They’ll never know. So much beauty, so vast and far away. They don’t even know what they are.
Note: “PIllars” originally appeared in issue 13 of Slice in September, 2013.
Inspired by a quiet hotel night on the eve of my grandmother’s funeral, the original draft of “Pillars” was written a few weeks later on my first full day of a month-long residency at the I-Park Foundation in Connecticut. The editing process, in an odd reversal (especially in terms of flash fiction), actually expanded rather than reduced the text. The repetition of deepening loneliness at the end was originally the pithier and far-less interesting “feels more alone than he oftentimes can stand.” In this instance, the draft acted as a prosaic outline, structuring the bullet-points that desperately needed unpacking, exploration, and sharpening through countless rewrites.
Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals and the collections White Horses and Brand New Moon. Other work also appears in Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, Radio Silence, and The Believer. “Pillars” was written as part of a fellowship with the I-Park Foundation. www.douglaswmilliken.com
FF.Net Editor Commentary (Randall Brown)
If a writer tells you that he’s writing a story that begins with a kid looking at stars, you might suggest a different opening image, one less familiar. Unless of course that writer is Douglas W. Milliken. For a writer using something more familiar, I’ve always thought the stakes were high to find something less commonly found in the image. In that contrast between the stars and the space, between childhood and adulthood, between earth and elsewhere, Milliken finds that profundity, that emotional wallop, that something unexpected in the familiar. So maybe it’s not always necessary to find the odd, rarely seen image/scenario–as long as something remarkable and surprising is found within it.