This will be the final newsletter of the year, and as such, I’m giving myself the allowance to be a little crassly self-promoting: the short story featured today is my own. (Promise this is the only time I will do this!)
What can be said about this year? There’s a 32,000-word post-mortem in the New Yorker that surely covers a lot of it. But I wonder more about what comes in the wake of disasters, both large and small-scale, how we make sense of them. This is the theme underlying a story collection I’m close to finishing, which I started long before 2020 but feels more pertinent than ever. Whether it’s a major cataclysm or a personal loss, I think a lot about the aftermath of crises, how they can force metamorphosis and even, in the face of doom, moments of human connection and moral action.
Today’s poem, story, and—spoiler alert—bonus haiku all look at what follows loss and disaster and find, within them, a sense of awe.
Alice Neel, Harlem Nocturne, 1952
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
—Czeslaw Milosz (translated by Milosz and Lillian Vallee)
Who is this person?
A Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz was born to Polish parents in Lithuania in 1911. His family returned to their hometown after WWI, where Milosz published his first book of poetry at the age of 21. During WWII, he was involved with the underground resistance movement in Warsaw and continued writing poetry throughout his country’s occupation by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. After the war, while serving as cultural attaché for the new People’s Republic of Poland, he defected to the west, ultimately settling in Paris. In 1960 he took a teaching position at University of California, Berkeley, and became an American citizen in 1970. He wrote numerous books of poetry, non-fiction, essay collections, and novels and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Milosz’ body of work, wrote Jonathan Galassi, “is directed toward a confrontation with experience—and not with personal experience alone, but with history in all its paradoxical horror and wonder.”
Driving home from our grandparents’ house, we noticed in the night sky a second moon. There was the first moon, the moon of my entire life, with its ivory shine and pockmarked face, and then to the southeast there hung another, brighter and rounder, like a revised version.
“What the fuck is that?” said my father, who was driving.
“Hey,” my mother said.
“Seriously.” He craned his neck, as though getting a different angle might clarify things.
Beside me in the back, my little brother leaned forward for a better look. He was fearful under far more ordinary circumstances. He wouldn’t cross my grandparents’ property line, for instance, because their neighbor, Franny, had a lazy eye that drifted, as she spoke to you, wherever it wanted. The other eye remained under her control, but the drifting one, my brother once told me in a whisper, could see into the world next door. That world bordered ours, the way Franny’s land bordered that of my grandparents, my brother said, but the difference was if you crossed over to it, you couldn’t come back.
But before the second moon my brother was unrattled. “Is it a UFO?” he asked, only curious.
My father repeated his own inquiry, slightly softened. “What the hell is it?”
As we turned the corner by the Dairy Barn, both moons were briefly concealed behind a clump of sycamores.
“Maybe some sort of spotlight?” my mother suggested. “Or searchlight? Or something.”
“But it’s so solid,” my father said, again swiveling his head, hunting for a longer glance. The car followed the curving road that would take us home, a road that swung rhythmically back and forth, so it was as though the houses on one side of the street were drawing us in, then repelling us to the other side, then asking for us back again. We had moved a year ago, an eon in child time, but I still felt sorry to have left behind the apartment building where we’d lived before, where the units that surrounded ours and the breathing presences within them made me feel enclosed, held.
A cold current of alarm was rising within me. Nothing in my handful of years had prepared me for the appearance in the night sky of a new celestial object. Whether it signified a comet hurtling toward the Earth, or a leviathan alien vessel hovering in our atmosphere, or a sudden whim of God, all options suggested we were helpless to stop it.
“Dad?” I said, and the single syllable sold me out; it lay quavering within the cabin of the car like a frightened rodent.
It was my mother who answered. “Not to worry,” she said crisply. She was weary of reassuring me. It was her side of the bed I crawled into when I couldn’t sleep. It was harder now, in the new house, where my room was so big; in my bed in the dark I felt like Jonah inside the belly of the whale.
The car swam into the driveway, its headlights pushing aside the night gathered there. We all climbed out and stood amid the heartbeat rhythms of the crickets, summer heat pooling around us. Both moons were visible again, the first scarred as ever, the second globe-like and glowing, suspended over the landfill.
“Maybe it’s a government surveillance thing,” my dad ventured.
My brother, who had plopped himself down on the yellowing grass of our front lawn, suggested that perhaps the moon had found a wife.
Disdain, like a gust of wind, blew away my anxiety. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“And now,” my brother continued, “they’re going to have lots of moon-babies.”
“Fuck it,” my father said, his second deployment in only a few minutes of the forbidden word, which indicated to me we were indeed in crisis. “I’m going to figure this out,” he said, and got back into the car.
Once inside the house, out of range of the shining eyes of the two moons, my mother and brother evinced so little concern for the planetary phenomenon taking place, and my father exposed beneath it, that it seemed best to conceal my fear. I wandered from room to room, window to window. The moons trailed me like a misdeed.
I found my brother in the den, watching an episode of Zorro. On television, the masked vigilante confronted the corrupt alcalde, tyrant of the pueblo, with whom he grappled week after week in an eternal return. The theme song, I remembered, sitting beside my brother on the couch, began with the line “out of the night / when the full moon is bright…”
This was no accident. “Dad may be in serious danger,” I informed him.
He managed to unstick his gaze from the screen. “This town is very family-friendly,” he said, echoing a frequent pronouncement of our parents.
“Who knows if the town is even still there?” I said. “The second moon could have changed everything.”
My brother raised a thumb to his mouth and chewed softly on it. “Like what?”
I was the director of our games; improvisation was permitted, within the boundaries provided. “Like all the people’s heads have been replaced with dog heads.”
“And they’re barking and growling at dad when he drives by,” my brother said.
“And they’re howling at the second moon,” I continued. Zorro swiped his sword through the air, forgotten. “The moon tells them what to do.”
It had been some time since we collaborated in this way. Back when we lived in the city and shared a bedroom, this sort of propulsive imagining, crafting scenarios until they accumulated enough detail to became solid and real, was far more common. Now the separation of our rooms had forced a psychic wedge between us. It was not only the distinct spaces themselves; it was the assumption, on our parents’ part, that we had long been craving such a split. I had been warned by my mother, on the eve of our move out of the city, that before long my body would begin changing and I would be grateful for the privacy. This struck me as ominous. I was swarmed with visions of sproutings from my flesh, growths so grotesque they would appall even my feral little brother, who on our visits to the seashore would use his shovel to vivisect the clear jellyfish that washed up onto the sand.
Something had gone wrong in the city. That was why we left. It had happened three years before, when I was my brother’s age, my perception dim and inexact then as his was now. He was still a baby, I remembered that, strapped to my mother’s chest when she came to pick me up from school and escort me home. It was far too early to go home, the sidewalks churning with people, the streets clogged with cars, for once none of them honking, and she pulled me faster than was comfortable down the silenced portals to our building. In the apartment she locked the windows, sealed off the air conditioner with sheets of plastic wrap. The air might be dangerous, she said, but then gathered me into her chest, smothering the cry before I could unloose it. When my father came in hours later he was caked in a greyish powder. It was like moondust, the stuff that covered him. And like an astronaut, he had seen something indescribable, and would never be the same.
My brother was narrating our father’s journey through the town of dog-people. He had befriended one, who was riding with him now, sticking its head out the passenger window and greedily sniffing the air.
I interrupted him. “What if dad doesn’t come back?”
My brother stopped his storytelling and placed one hand over mine. “I’ll take care of you,” he said.
He was almost four years younger, but he knew the rules; he knew who was to protect whom.
But our father returned: not plastered with grime but cool and triumphant.
“It’s a balloon,” he announced. “Absolutely massive. One of those giant balloons they put up as advertisements.”
He had pointed his car at the second moon and pursued it, the bright sphere expanding in the sky, he explained, until faint wriggles materialized across its face and then resolved into words: Grand Opening. It was a new Home Goods store, two towns north of us.
My father suggested we go outside and look at it again. We stepped back into the balmy cricket-filled night.
“There’s no mistaking it now, is there?” my father said. And I did think I could see, this time, that the second moon was bobbing gently above the towns, nothing but plastic and helium, not of the heavens at all.
“Isn’t that funny,” said our mother.
From my room on the other side of the wall, I could hear her singing to my brother his bedtime songs.
My father, the astronaut, appeared in the doorway. “Lights out,” he said.
I waved my arm to show I couldn’t reach the lamp on the nightstand myself, and he came over to turn it off.
“Do you think mom could sing to me tonight, too?” I asked.
In the dark I couldn’t see his expression. “You’re a little old for that.”
He left, closing the door behind him, through which only a thin rectangle of light leaked in at the edges. I remembered my mother sealing off the windows in our old apartment; I remembered how even through the smallest hours, when it seemed impossible there would ever be anything but night again, I could hear the presence of other people, in ceilings creaking and toilets flushing and cars groaning up and down the avenue.
My father’s coolness, I decided, could be explained if there really had been, however briefly, a second moon, and in pursuing it he had visited the world next door. A person did not return from such a visit the same, if they did return at all.
My eyes began adjusting to the dark of my bedroom, roving over the furniture, the books, the framed photos on the wall, the glow-in-the-dark stickers I’d placed around the vanity atop my dresser, so that the mirror was rimmed with stars and, yes, several moons.
One moon was enough. I had heard that when you became a woman, the moon pulled something out of you, month after month. I had seen evidence of this on the crumpled toilet paper my mother sometimes left behind in the bathroom garbage can. On the other side of the wall, my brother’s room was silent; he was asleep. But I couldn’t sleep. I lay in my bed, in the glow of the real stars and the false ones, alive with one certainty. Something was coming for me.
Who is this person?
Barn's burnt down
— now I can see
The year’s end is a natural time for reviewing what has come before. Go back to something you wrote earlier this year—maybe in response to one of these prompts—and revise it, making it shine.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org