The last time he had seen real stars, so many ages ago, he had nearly died. For the first four years of his life he had known both day and night, loved the children’s storybook in which the sun waved good-bye as it sank below the horizon over successive pages and the moon celebrated its own arrival with a wink and an upraised hand (a gloved hand, the moon’s hands were always gloved, like a gentleman about town). And so it went until the summer of his fourth year, on an unremarkable evening, when he dangled his legs off the front stoop of his family’s apartment building that served as a porch, and watched the sun fall. And as soon as the first pinpricks of stars emerged in the still-aquamarine sky, he felt his chest constrict, as if someone was pressing hard there, then still harder. He was the sky and the stars were stress points inside him, threatening to coalesce into something dense and virulent. The next thing he remembered was awakening in a clinic, respirator clamped over his mouth, doctors with luxurious beards and bad teeth fussing over him.
His condition lacked unanimous diagnosis. When morning came he was weak, his limbs like noodles, and when evening returned the same symptoms reasserted themselves with doubled force, and this time his body broke into a rash, whole whirlpools of angry red and pink marring his skin. It was suggested that he be kept in daylight for as long as possible while treatments were conducted, but the notion was only taken seriously when a young internist given to fanciful thinking suggested placing him on the next cross-continental cargo plane, the one that remained in perpetual sunshine during its 24-hour voyage from one end of the world to the other.
So he was wheeled aboard, two of the best doctors accompanying him, and for the next 24 hours he found himself staring out of the battered window of the jet, intravenous tubes jammed in his arm, medics registering blood pressure and temperature every few minutes, his veins shot to bursting with fresh injections. Outside the clouds billowed and died and were reborn, and the sun’s glow declined to deep orange but never to the bruised tint of twilight, and a sense of calm ruled over him as the rash fell away from his body. Upon landing he was wheeled gingerly into the terminal while the plane was refueled, and even though the sun was inching ever closer to the vanishing point, he felt neither dread nor impatience – only happiness at the sight of the tarmac, still drenched from an afternoon tropical shower, and the whisper of a breeze that promised a restful night. This happy interlude lasted only a moment, and then the plane was ready and he was back on board, held fast to the seat as the jet climbed high, determined to escape night forever.
His youth was limited to a simple, regimented routine out of necessity: the same cargo jet route, over and over, the same vistas of lava-like clouds and unceasing light. For a time doctors traveled with him, circling around him like connoisseurs at an exhibit, chattering in all manner of dialects. Seats at the back of the jet were removed to fashion a living room of sorts – here he could stretch out on the itchy carpet, and gaze up at the corrugated ceiling, the rumble of the engines singing in his ears. At times all the shades were pulled down inside the plane as an experiment, and his condition never changed. Artificial attempts to recreate sunlight culminated in failure, despite all the measurements and breakdowns known to science, for there still remained a curious alchemy of composition and refraction, cosmic and terrestrial elements, that refused analysis. His body could sense genuine daylight, even when all physical stimuli proclaimed otherwise. Even rainy days, clouds all but obscuring the sun, had no effect on him. But crossing the border of twilight would bring back the pains, the rash, the near-death.
Months (or was it years?) later, it was determined that there was no reason or cure to be found, the final doctor threw up his hands in defeat, and he was finally, blessedly alone on these perpetual flights. Sometimes his family would travel with him, a day or two spent together as if he was on probation. His brothers and sisters were not like him; they wearied of the plane’s neutral-toned innards, feared for crashes and acts of God, much preferred to talk about the latest fashions or neighborhood gossip. His parents were a bit old for frequent travel and spent much of their time aboard sprawled on the living room carpet, lolling with the jet’s minute twists and turns, caught in dreamless sleep.
Soon his family also vanished – there was too much to attend to. Sisters and brothers had daughters and sons, fortunes waxed and waned, and life outside the regulated routines of the cargo plane gained precedence. Through it all he remained on board, his life distilled to the swatches of color outside the window, the reheated meals neatly compartmentalized into their squares and rectangles on his tray, the ever-present drone of the turbines.
That was years ago. Since then, jets had progressed in speed and frequency, and trains had followed suit, from bullet to maglev to supersonic. Life became easier yet more complicated – now there were choices. Itineraries to plan. It would be possible to travel to a certain town and even while away a few hours there, as long as a connection was kept and he was spirited away by a certain hour. His passport had been stamped with a special seal, the only one of its kind, explaining his condition and the necessity of allowing him to enter any country without need of a visa. Another person in the same position might have used this to devious advantage, but he was simply glad to step on solid ground, note the differences between the gun-metal skies of the northern cities and the drowsy, amber mornings of the southern towns. This was his destiny, to be an eternal traveler, and he accepted without fuss or ceremony.
There is a particular northeast city that is contained, bowl-like, inside a circular mountain range. Nothing escapes here, not heat or smog or rain. The city’s one saving grace is that at 1:41 p.m. every day, precisely, thunderstorms rage down, washing away the filth and dust and the heavy air, leaving an almost genteel sense of calm in their wake. Whenever he visits he schedules his arrival time at 2:30 p.m., the train shuddering to a halt in the station just as the last misty drops of the afternoon thunderstorm are falling. He then has what little luggage he has redirected to his next train, scheduled for three hours later, and in the interim he walks around the city.
These are not aimless walks: his knapsack is filled with maps and notebooks. Each time he comes back to the city he decides on a new district to explore, and scribbles overrun his notebook – points of interest, a moment of enjoyment experienced at a particular street intersection. On one visit a district may be a letdown, a faceless slab of office buildings, industrial brickyards, and empty expressways, and yet a few years hence he might return and stumble upon the smothering odor of grilled meat hung up in the windows of a new restaurant, an old man showing off his few remaining teeth in a childlike grin as he invites you into a store crammed with bric-a-brac from previous eras and revolutions, the pleasant sight of a woman in a pleated skirt holding an umbrella up against the newly nonexistent rain.
Today he is near the river, enjoying the sight of the fresh fruit stands and herbal medicine shops along the promenade, the boardwalk under his feet waxy with moisture. Things have changed for the better – back then there were shacks, garbage heaps, armies of flies. School is out for the day and the children dart through real and imagined crowds, inventing whole worlds to battle for. A girl around seven years old runs smack into his knees and falls to the ground with a theatrical oof.
He tips his cap to her. Are you all right? he says.
She stares up at him, squinting. And then her mouth drops into a dumb O.
You’re the Sun Man, she says.
I haven’t heard that one, he lies. Actually, he is surprised that anyone remembers him, let alone recognizes him.
They say you melt when the moon comes out. Like a witch.
I thought witches like the moon, he retorts pleasantly.
She is on her feet and all abashed, her hair twirled about her fingers.
You have a lovely pigtail, he says.
This isn’t a pigtail. It’s a ponytail.
Yes, you’re right. Sorry. It is a symptom of travel – certain aspects of language become your expertise, while others fall outside your scope and wither away.
He asks her, What do you do? What do your parents do?
I go to school, she scowls at him. And what my parents do is none of your business.
True, he sighs, and not for the first time he reflects on how different people can be from place to place. In the mountains, cut off from urban necessities, there is little need to be circumspect about anything. Questions can be answered because that is the nature of the question, to be answered.
She is on her tip-toes, staring hard at him. He notices that she is a bit knock-kneed. What’s it like? To travel around the world every day?
Would you like to?
I’ve never left this town. My family’s too poor.
After a moment of consideration, he digs into his knapsack and retrieves a notebook he has been composing for a town in the far West, on the opposite end of the world.
Here, he says. I want you to write in it, and next time we see each other, you give this back to me.
Your life here.
Not to me.
My parents say not to give my address to strangers.
You don’t have to. I’ll see you again.
I don’t know. Maybe next time I’m here. Maybe the next time after that. Maybe years later. But I always come back.
She nods with her eyes. Down the promenade, her comrades are poking their hands into the air, thumbs and index fingers extended, tongues wagging from their mouths, some sort of insult in local parlance. Hey! she yells after them, grabs the notebook from his hand, and rushes off in their direction. Then, as if struck by a thought, she turns, faces him, gives an earnest little bow, and then wheels around, arms flapping, back to the chase.
The romance of traveling by train is deeply felt by him, but it also haunts him. Planes are easy – the land below is reduced to a quiltwork of earth tones, everything a similar thickness except for a particularly tall mountain range, and even then the texture of it is but a nub from a distance, like a puzzle piece that has been bent out of shape when jammed into incorrect position. It is easy for him to relax into sensible routines while on a plane – the little articles and essays he writes for his living, the stray communiqués he exchanges with his benefactors (for some who are rich and idle enough to get swept up in religious ardor believe him to be some sort of prophet or cosmic being, and he is not about to disabuse them of the notion, especially as their donations pay for his travels).
But trains – trains are a different matter. Each trip he takes by train is by turns joyous and sorrowful, as he sees the jagged cityscapes unfurl, an entire valley squirting past his view within instants, the face of a random person on a platform preserved as a blurred snapshot in memory. So many places to see, and he will never see all of them, never gain more than a glimpse. Those who travel only once a twice or year have come to terms with this fact; they accept that only a fraction of what fills their field of view will be consigned to the known. And here he is, with more time and more inclination and more freedom to see all that there is, laid bare before him in untrammeled daylight, and it all amounts to a pittance. A caterpillar dreams of soaring as a butterfly, and yet a butterfly dreams too, of lands beyond its circumscribed area of existence, and neither gets what each wants.
Still, there are moments where witnessing the world outside can bring him close to tears. Once he was aboard a train just leaving a station, still moving slowly enough for him to see the details of the town he was leaving behind, and he witnessed a mother and son walking in the opposite direction down the platform, her hand mussing his hair as they exchanged loud laughs, their merged shadow lengthened by the late afternoon, granted the scale of a mountain peak. There was no one else on the platform to interfere with this sight, and the shadow reached towards his window, shimmering and fading with every step the mother and son took into the distance, so close he felt he could touch it, and he was absolutely sure that no matter how many times he would come to this station in the future, he would never encounter such a sight again.
Somehow he does not age. This is more grist for his benefactors, proof of his divinity. Others half-joke, Of course he doesn’t age, he’s always moving backward in time! But this is not true either; he moves into each new day from the last like anyone else, though to him this is more of a theoretical concept than a physical actuality. Sleep can be difficult at times, especially on those piercing bright days where even a closed blind offers little protection. It is more the heat than the light – it is a curious compunction humans have, to desire near-tropical temperatures in their tiny little compartments while they shoot this way and that at thousands of miles per hour. Better than the other way, he supposes, for that would suggest refrigeration, cryogenic stasis.
His skin does not fare well under the onslaught of daylight and the desiccated air of jet and train compartments: leathery and cracked in key places, he resembles one who scales mountains or skis for a living. But miraculously (that word again, he is tired of it) the rest of his body is unaffected by this life of movement. Just a stray gray hair or two, a certain downward set to his chin, as if being beckoned by gravity. His appetite remains healthy, his weight remains at a very respectable proportion to his height (except at that particular island nation where everyone aspires to ramrod-thin proportions, and he is in the “yellow zone” for fat ratio), his teeth are discolored with long-time wear but are otherwise intact. However he deigns to travel on any given day, he always allots himself seven hours of sleep. Sleep periods are sometimes broken up into shards, slices of naps that can occur for a few minutes at a time. It is another talent he has, he may doze off for a few minutes and during that time he will have perfectly normal dreams. Once a passenger traveling alongside him whispered to him after he awoke, You were talking in your sleep. Something about lime juice on your shoes, and ghosts before you… Like an anthropologist charting some hidden antecedent, he turned those words over in his mind, striving to connect them to his experiences the day before, or the day before that. Or perhaps they were a portent of future events. Maybe the fanatics were right about him after all. No, that way madness lies. Still, years after the event he would spill some lime soda on his feet, and for a moment, a cloudy fragment of the dream would lodge itself in his thoughts without ever gaining hold. What – no, can’t remember, and that path would be closed forever.
When he was young the Far North was a mystery, a destination only for those who had abandoned and been abandoned by life. No sentimental tales of existential independence and self-sufficiency, only illness, death. Conditions were such that the landing strips of aborted airports warped and cracked within days, railway tracks and trestles were buried under frequent avalanche, and shelter was limited to choice log cabins and whatever cover one could carve out underneath the skeletal trees.
Now the Far North holds towns, and colleges, and museums, and pubs that serve fish caught fresh under the frozen lakes along with day-old pizzas. But most importantly, it holds the promise of a midnight sun that lingers for months.
He arrives in mid-summer, on a day when mosquitos run rampant, and unhappily he soon discovers that every day in summer is like this. His existence becomes a long-running war against the insect as he utilizes whatever he can lay hand on – magazines, sponges, improvised swatters constructed of coat hangers and carefully sliced squares of cardboard – to do battle. Soon the walls of his sublet apartment are a bloody mosaic of dead mosquitos, their fragile little wings sticking in all directions, the bits of red from their bodies resembling the juices of a berry. For entertainment he sometimes ventures to the local bar, but the comedians who make their home there have a nasty bent against outsiders, and he is easily marked as a foreigner. The first joke concerns the all-purpose uses of duct tape, and he is the only one who does not laugh; the rest is inevitable.
Twice he ventures into the woods near his town, deep enough that he has fleeting doubts that he can find the way back, a prospect that exhilarates him. But all for naught; his sense of direction has been sharpened from years venturing to all manner of locales. The otherwise intimidating crash of alleys and cul-de-sacs is only a game to him, and likewise the sight of a particular low-hanging madrone tree or the unmistakable sticky scent of honeysuckle is enough to reorient him. And so each time he emerges from the woods, back onto the dirt trails scuffed up by bootprints and stubbed-out cigarettes, back to the tiresome apartment and the mosquitos. He has no great love for the outdoors, in any case. He craves the simple sight of other humans, even if there is no time to say anything to them, even if the only interchange between them is a shared glance, a half-formed smile. He has spent far too long in the wilderness of empty train cars, the numbing silence aboard an airplane with all occupants asleep and snoring in their seats, their necks jutting back at uncomfortable angles.
Near the end of his unsatisfying sojourn he pays a visit to the annual summer fair, held in the expansive fields a few miles outside town. Simple carnival rides have been set up, including a chair attached to bungee cords that plummets nearly a hundred feet before snapping back up, the occupant doing cartwheels, squealing with fear. He debates taking the ride for a moment, but only a moment, because he has grown too accustomed to smooth, ever-flowing transport, hurtling on at such an even pace that one would scarcely believe one was moving save for the most subtle of ripples across the surface of his water glass. Compared to that, the bungee chair’s jarring of time and space seems like a descent into endless black.
As he continues to wander through the fair, the air crisp with incoming autumn, the skies darkening as if welcoming the death of another season, he feels affection for the Far North for the first time. People here are stocky and well-fed, perhaps taking their cue from the bears who must load up on hundreds of thousands of berries per day, storing up for the long winter. This is something else he cannot imagine; his life is built on a strict regimen of diet and movement, no alterations or sine-wave curves allowed.
In a converted barn, the winning entries in a vegetable-growing contest are lined up side-by-side on fold-out tables, and as the fair is already one week old, the unmistakable scent of decay spreads like a virus. A grand prize-winning cabbage is listed as 115 pounds, or as the cursive handwriting on the winning tag breathlessly states, The heaviest in almost 50 years! The cabbage resembles alien vegetation, vaguely threatening even in its current state, with its leaves beginning to brown.
And then, just like that, one of the judges (he assumes one of the judges, he wears a tired professorial air and a smudged-out name tag droops from his lapel) who is passing by sees him and juts a finger in his direction. He was used to scenes like this in his youth, but to see it now is a bit unusual.
The judge gasps, It’s – you! You’re here! It’s a sign!
He does not answer, does not smile, does not hem or haw or make small talk. He has discovered through past trial-and-error that the simplest, best way to conduct himself is to make a relaxed stone wall of his face. Easiest to let others have their opinions of you, and not confirm or destroy their expectations. Glide by, smooth as electromagnetic rails.
Others have gathered, and with the judge they gaze at him with open-mouthed wonder. It’s because of you that this cabbage is so large, isn’t it? the judge says. Extra sun this year. You’ve blessed this cabbage!
Again, he does not respond, although this time he cannot hold himself back from giving the mildest of shrugs.
Please bless the cabbage! the judge says in a hoarse near-whisper. Please!
This time he lets out a deep breath that can be interpreted as resignation or relaxation. He reaches out and touches the cabbage leaves, which are strangely soft, like animal fur. The crowd lets loose an appreciative aaaah and he continues to stroke the leaves, remembering back to when he was a child and could still live in the night, lying on the wet grass of the park, seeing a flower-like shape in the darkness and grabbing hold of it only to discover that his fingers were locked around a thistle, and in the instant before the pain hit he could feel the needles biting into his flesh, and the sensation had a peculiar friendliness to it.
Every so often he receives a request from one of his benefactors, or a friend of a benefactor. The pleasure of a visit … a dying patient … the opening of a new school … consult with us on our nation’s natural energy program … All requests are basically the same: come to us, be with us, educate us, bathe us in your glow.
It is a difficult high-wire act, being able to placate his supporters without fulfilling any of their wishes. Usually a thoughtful response cobbled together from respectable sources – scientific journals, self-help books, political foundation reports, health magazines – suffices. Throw together a few interesting words, mention the value of the sun, bingo, instant wisdom. It is a game really, the equivalent of the sudoku or crossword games he sees so many travelers busy themselves with. He retains none of it, for his mind is never settled enough for osmosis to occur. Always his thoughts drift to the next destination, the next street to visit, the latest happening to jot down. Calculations of public policy and faraway human misery do not register.
Has it come to this? Does he only trust what he sees before him with his own eyes? Sometimes an impassioned letter will be forwarded to him, another wayward soul looking for guidance and purpose, an enclosed photo of the writer sitting on a seat with hands folded, a square of sunlight branding the wall behind the writer. He finds something hushed and concentrated, prayer-like, about these poses. Other photos are more daring, with the writer completely naked and defiant, arms akimbo, staring straight at the camera, as if finally getting the chance to do what every child’s mother told them not to do: stare at the sun.
Once he received a photo from a woman in a faraway, isolated land who wore a ceremonial dress for the occasion, no doubt the traditional clothing one wears for sun festivals, frills and layers all representing the striations of light, from deep violet to the palest orange, a wide-brimmed straw hat obscuring nearly half her face so only a small smile was completely visible, the head bowed a tiny bit in respect, hands clasped before her. He stared at that one a long time, absorbed by the dignity of it, and packed it away deep in his knapsack, where it still rests, stuck to the bottom of a random map like glue, ready to surprise him and edify him again someday.
Hard times have befallen the town in the northeast, although one would never know it based on appearance alone. A glance at the local newspaper tells of rising stock prices, gentrification, the latest passenger automobile that seats eight. Along the promenade he had visited years before, prosperity assaults his senses at every moment. A nationally famous beer has made its home here in the form of a towering restaurant building: three floors of alcohol and fried food. A rock band commandeering the central square belches out covers of songs popular thirty years before. Streamers and banners swathe the old-style building facades in primary colors, and many of them have broken off and collapsed on the street in heaps.
But take an unexpected turn off the main street, down one of the myriad alleys he has prowled in the past, and the truth is known. Animals dead of unknown flu are swept into corners and heaped up where flies can decorate them like frosting on a cake. Small children with missing teeth and knobby limbs pull at his clothes as they ask for change, over and over and over again. Sometimes a policeman will wander into this phantom zone, espy a homeless drunk or drug addict lounging wordlessly on a stool, and knock the stool out from under the poor sod. He might add a few kicks to the fallen man’s midsection for good measure, because there is nothing else to do on such a blisteringly hot day.
True, there are sights like these in every city, but through his travels he has developed a keen sense of a city’s balance, and can divine the moment prosperity loses its footing and stares over the edge into the abyss. He cannot explain this facility; he only knows it when he feels it, like an animal sensing the coming of an earthquake. And he feels it now as he walks the promenade and a group of small children swarm his way, deeply involved in their after-school games, their teeth bared and their hands curled in fists, malice infecting them.
Trailing them, yelling after them, is a teenage girl. Tall and gaunt, she never breaks into a run, and yet she still manages to keep pace with them. She speaks in a local dialect that he cannot decipher, but he does not wish to, because it sounds strangely enough like birdsong.
The girl pauses in mid-curse as he catches her eye. She looks him up and down, taking note of his familiar knapsack, his cap, his shape and form.
Sun Man, she says plainly, and her face cracks into a wide smile. The thundering herd of children continues down the boardwalk, intent on terrorizing another cross-section of the street market.
He smiles in hello and extends his hand. She takes it. How are you? he says.
Could be better, she says. Unconsciously, she rubs at her arms, and he sees deep bruise marks there, a thin chalk-line scar down her forearm that terminates near her wrist. What should he say to her? Banal words of encouragement? At least you have your health. In one of the island countries he visited, the prevailing attitude is Buck up, things will get better. No matter the magnitude of the problem, no matter how despairing the situation, friend and stranger alike will say these words to him. Buck up, things will get better. No one actually believes these words, and it is a scientifically documented fact that the population of the island is shrinking with each passing year, as older generations die and younger generations escape to other countries where it is easier to feel miserable and make money, and yet those who stay behind continue to say Buck up, things will get better, like words from some ancient scripture whose meaning has been forgotten.
Sorry, he says to the girl. Maybe you’ll feel better next time we see each other.
It’s been seven years, the girl says. Maybe next time I won’t remember you.
How did you remember me this time?
I still have your journal. I write in it every week.
What do you write?
Anything I think about. When I started it was complete sentences, very long thoughts about every day. But now I’m running out of room, so I have to be more careful with words. A few phrases. Only the most important things. Just enough for me to remember if I read it.
He nods earnestly. That’s often how it goes.
But I’m running out of room. Only a few pages left. You have another book?
Not with me. It is true, he has left the bulk of his notebooks with his luggage back at the train station. But you can buy a new one.
But it won’t be right until you write in it.
Next time I’m here, you can give it to me.
Something resembling mischief flashes in her eyes. I may have forgotten about you by then.
I’ll have to take that chance, then.
I was reading about your travels in the west.
You could understand what I wrote?
Not immediately. I had to learn the language. I’m still learning. Five new words a day, that’s my goal.
Do you find it interesting?
Of course I do. I still haven’t been anywhere.
He notices that her simple sleeveless shirt and skirt have dulled a bit with age and inadequate washing. Freckles dot her face, especially under her eyes, as if hinting that eventually wrinkles will reside there. Her pigtail – no, ponytail – has disappeared in favor of stringy bangs that run rampant down the sides of her face.
Soon you’ll be old enough to travel, he says.
Old enough, but not rich enough. Her mouth yaws to the left as she spits at the sidewalk, a crude gesture no doubt learned from a friend or family member, but he is saddened rather than irritated.
He looks at his watch. I have to go soon, he says. It’s not good if I miss my connection.
Would you die?
That’s never been determined one way or the other. But I nearly have, a few times.
Conversation has dried up, at least for now. If he was feeling more gallant, he would invite her for a cup of tea, or at least buy her a small present, but such gestures seem wholly inadequate, hypocritical. Instead he extends his hand again.
I really do want to read our notebook when you’re finished with it, he says. Next time I’m here.
I don’t know. I don’t plan ahead very often.
Not even this time?
I’d rather not. I would risk disappointing you.
Disappointment is fine, she laughs. One moment of disappointment after a long time of happy waiting? That’s fair.
All right, he says, rubbing his chin ruefully. Seven years from today?
Just about right, she agrees, and she seizes his hand in an earthy grip. Until next time, Sun Man.
She walks off in the general direction of the children, her hips swaying ever so slightly. Watching her depart, he shakes his head, as if he has finished a storybook, the final cracking of the spine jolting him back to reality. The rock band in the square is bringing its latest song to a calamitous conclusion, and the sound of a final cymbal crash hangs in the air like distant thunder.
[Originally featured in Caveat Lector in 2009.]