October Sky

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Shannon Sorenson

At night. Sometimes I get dizzy looking up at the sky. When I look past the black tree branches and past the moon. When I look up to the tiny grains of light littering the atmosphere. Holding their hot secrets inside the freezing darkness. 

Honestly, the stars are usually kind of boring, barely rating a glance out the kitchen window before bed. I’ve seen them. So many times before. 

But sometimes. I’m outside in the cold autumn air. And for a very small moment I catch a glimpse at the true distance. The space between the grass under my feet and the burning stars. Burning forever. Burning before the world we stand on was even here.

I don’t know this for sure. But I bet if we truly understood the enormity, and if we could feel the relentless emptiness, we’d go insane. For now, I just get dizzy.

Like I said, it’s autumn. And here comes the wind. The leaves crackle and rush down the road. Into the gutter. And I no longer see all that darkness, looming up there between me and the stars. I just see the shadows around me.

I see a yellowing halogen light hovering high over the lawns along the street where I grew up. The grownups are all inside watching their televisions and washing their dishes. We roll in the grass, my sister, my friends, and me.

The grass is cold and I will always love the way it feels.

I see a boat landing up north and my dad. It’s late. The lake is shiny and black and haunted by the crescent moon. We strap the boat onto its trailer and climb into the truck. Dad fires up the engine and away we go. We don’t say much. I look over into the trees and shiver.

I see a Halloween night in Wisconsin. And here comes the wind. Our costumes flap around us and the trees lurch above. Our neighbors open their screen doors, smile, and hand us candy. Their houses smell warm and bright and strange. Their dogs bark.

Thank you, we say.

I hear the leaves crackle and rush into the gutter and it’s scary. Just a little scary. I breath deep, look up, and pick out the flickering constellations, the ones I can remember. The ones my parents showed me on late-night car rides to pass the time.

I have my own kids now. Last week my son played soccer out in the cold grass as the sky grew darker. As the streetlights popped on. As the stars burned tiny holes in the sky. His cheeks grew red and chilly. We drove home with the windows cracked, listening to the radio and the wind rushing all around us. And it was perfect.

Walking on empty sidewalks well after midnight. Sitting on the porch. Nestled in the dark. Talking to each other and staring at the old houses along Fulton Street. These are things my wife always loved. Starlight and street lamps. Sneaking through the cemetery. Holding hands.

I’ve walked through the woods at night. I’ve seen the stars sprawling out thick from one edge of the sky to the other. I’ve heard my heart go thrumming when the wind went blowing across the forest floor. Because some nights it felt a little odd. Like it was time to go.

And I’ve grown dizzy looking up into the vaulting black yonder. Wondering at the true distance. At the sheer, unthinkable time it’s taken these grains of light to pierce the universe and find us staring back.

The least I can do is look up. Listen to the wind. Remember how small we are. And how big we feel.