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Flash Reprint: Douglas W. Milliken’s “Pillars”

Pil­lars

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But now he’s older and lives in a city where the nights have been replaced by an orange haze soft against the black.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.


 

Author’s Note

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 headshot (TSaA launch).jpgDou­glas 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.

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