Saturday, 30 April 2016

Semi-automatic (short story)

The desert wind fluttered his jacket, flapping the collars against his face. The sound of cloth flapping - jacket, trousers; he smiled; this was pleasurable. His hands were deep in his trouser pockets, he faced the bright sun wearing sunglasses. He could feel the wind tugging at the roots of his hair, blown straight back. The desert was welcoming him. "If it were not for the wind, it would be unbearably hot. If it were not for the sun, it would be unbearably cold", he thought, knowing the desert well in both states. His hat was safely stowed, he'd catch much sun today on his freckled skin.

He took a few steps forward, kicking at the light-green glassy fragments on the ground before him with the toes of his suede desert boots. In the distance, the mountain range spread out across the horizon, a day-and-half's walk away. Those peaks looked so close. It was still morning, the Piper that was to fly in and to pick him up with all his equipment was not due till one-thirty. What's to do? The experiment's all done, everything's packed... nothing to do but wait. Certainly not enough time to walk all the way into town and get back at the appointed hour for the rendezvous with the plane. But there was too much time for him to just waste time.

Jim looked at his watch. Damn. Two hours, fifty-five minutes. Time to just stand around, and contemplate. He'd spent the morning finishing his report and carefully stowing the geiger counter and the other kit back into the wooden crates - no, he had no duties that he could busy himself with. And he'd neglected to take a book with him; he'd read this week's Life magazine from cover to cover twice over. The last call over the radio, half an hour earlier, confirmed that his plane was on schedule, and there was nothing he needed to worry about.

Two hours and fifty-five minutes. Jim had slept well that night, he was rested and did not need a nap. There'd be plenty to keep busy with once he'd get back to base, but there was not a thing he could do now. The wind picked up, moving small pebbles and whipping the sand around his ankles. Best not sit down. Radioactivity. The boxes were secure; no danger to them. Jim had taken a semi-automatic carbine in case any mountain lions or coyotes came too close; he'd seen or heard none. His gun lay on one of the crates, wrapped in oilcloth to protect it from sand.

The sun was getting ever higher in the April sky; perfectly azure with a few wisps of white cirrus off to the west. This was among the most beautiful expressions of nature he'd ever experienced, rivalling Alaskan auroras, or crisp winter mornings of his Minnesota home, or the blindingly bright sea-sparkle of the Atlantic ocean, when holidaying in North Carolina as a child.

He pulled out his notebook, preparing to jot down his thoughts - how he felt at that moment. No cares, just the sense of wonderment at being a living, conscious, part of Eternity. He half-closed his eyes and tilted his head up at the sun - he could feel the wind tugging on his sunglasses - and a powerful feeling of being alive surged through him. Alive and at one with it all. Forgetting that sense of Jim the five-foot-five wise guy, he became just an observing consciousness a part of the desert, bereft of personality, breathing the wind, sensing the sun in the crystalline sky. He held his eyes open, unblinking for a minute or two. The mountains seemed to draw closer, sliding towards him as if on a myriad parallel railroad tracks, as the sky shrank and expanded at the same time.

Jim struggled to write his thoughts as they passed - swiftly, not caring about neatness, just making sure he was getting it all down. He'd not done this before, but the idea made sense. On impulse he looked down. His boots blended with the desert floor; stamp! a small cloud of dust rose up. He noted an ant scurrying for cover. Was that ant thinking anything? Or just reacting to the sudden disruption? Did it feel fear, as he once did when, as a child, he'd strayed into the neighbor's corn and the farmer fired his rifle from afar into the crop? Should he shout 'Don't shoot!' or stay silent? The ant couldn't make that decision... and yet that plea from bygone days resonated with him as though the ant were calling to him in his childhood voice. He scribbled that thought down as well.

Jim tried to put aside all thought of his situation. The plane would come. There's nothing in his power to hasten or delay that. It would touch down on the airstrip behind him, the pilot would help him load the gear, they'd get in and fly back to Tonopah. He'll have a shower, eat a steak, drink a cold beer - watch some TV in his motel room - nice, but trite. Jot that thought down? No. No future pleasures, no present worries - THIS is living, he told himself, THIS moment. The HERE and the NOW.

Something made him put away the notebook into his jacket pocket. Having done so, in a deliberate movement, he stretched out his arms to their fullest extent and tilted his palms to face the sun, framed in the gold rims of his glasses. The wind swept across the desert beating his face, and his arms; again he was aware of the flapping of cloth, of a sensation akin to riding a motorcycle, the sun and the wind together, the wind blowing that mountain range closer and closer - if he stood there for a million years, would the mountains have reached him by then? Jim concentrated on standing as still as he possibly could, intent on imaging what a geological age felt like. How did it feel to be a mountain? What does a day, a season, a year, feel like to a mountain?

All of a sudden he beamed in satisfaction at the thought that he'd not even stopped to check his watch. He was clueless as to how much time had passed. Blissful abandon had overtaken him; he felt tears welling up in his eyes and a feeling like being hugged from within. He responded with deep gratitude; to Creation, to the entire Universe.

He knew not how long he'd stood there in that state; the drone of an aircraft engine from the east returned him to the mundane.

Jim died of cancer in 1958, well short of his 40th birthday.

Before he died, he had time to assess those most meaningful moments in his unfulfilled life. It had been a beautiful life, though not long enough. He had much to be grateful for; he longed for more, for greater understanding; understanding through moments of unity with the Eternal.

"Gimme another shot, God!"

This time three years ago:
Jarosław Gowin quits as justice minister

This time four years ago:
So good to be back in Warsaw

This time five years ago:
At the President's

This time seven years ago:
Summer's here, and the time is right...

This time nine years ago:
Why I'm staying in Warsaw

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