Out There! (Part 1 of 2)
--- This is yet another excerpt from This Haunted Animal. Events depicted take place in 1974. ---
“I was thinking about that time dad took us camping at Point Pelee, do you remember? Do you remember what he said while we were looking up at the stars?”
Jerri remembered all right, but for her it hadn’t been the same comforting emotion that their father had conjured. “What about it?” she asked.
“I was just remembering how awesome it felt lying there in the sand and looking up at the stars.”
“That’s just what was so awful about that night! I couldn’t sleep for weeks after that. Even in the daytime I kept looking up with that horrible rollercoaster rush in my stomach that dad put there. What was he thinking? Mom had to calm me down by singing old songs to me. I was scared shitless by what he said!”
Trinnie shook her head. “I was scared too; hell, I was only nine years old, but that was why it was awesome.” She grinned to herself as Jerri projected a kind of shiver-shrug and returned a little more grumpily to her work.
Jerri and Trinnie’s father had become fairly sure the cancer wouldn’t let him see another summer with his girls, so he’d advanced a plan to take them on a particular camping trip much like one to Michigan his own uncle had taken him and his brother on long ago. He took the girls to the southernmost spot in Canada, Point Pelee jutting down like a tail into Lake Erie. He planned the trip for clear weather and a moonless weekend. They would be moving from Chatham to Hamilton soon and the girls were upset about leaving their friends forever. They’d begged for their best friends to be allowed to join the trip, but Ian held firm and insisted it was just the three of them. Their mother Sophie wasn’t even welcome as she felt the girls were too young and would only end up confused and frightened by what he planned to tell them. Sophie was partially right but was surprised by how much longer it took her older daughter to come to grips with Ian’s words than it took little Trinnie.
Their dad made sure they were just a little sleepy when he took them down to the open strand of sand which stretches well out into the giant lake, well past trees and lights and away from noises from the other campsites. The night was sparkling clear. With their eyes already accustomed to the dark he had Jerri and Trinnie join him while lying on their backs with the vanilla splash of the Milky Way lit up against the velvet blackness of everywhere, nowhere. The thousands of stars of the northern hemisphere, unimpeded by moonlight, streetlights or terrestrial interruptions like buildings or tall trees, spread out above them twinkling and roaring out their existence into the gulf of nothing.
Ian began to talk, staring at the stars with his hands clasped behind his head. The night was just cool enough that their long-sleeved sweats; worn to repel the distraction of biting sand fleas, felt pleasantly comfortable. “Look up, you two. I’m going to tell you some things that I want you to try to remember and think about from time-to-time. Your Great Uncle Mike got me thinkin’ about this stuff long ago and it’s stuck with me. He wanted me to be able to see the world sorta sideways…, instead of always just looking at it straight on. Ever noticed how, when you look at someone straight on you get an idea of what they look like, but if you walk around them; you talk to them and especially listen to them, you really get to know them?
‘Before I met your mother I didn’t know anyone who was black. I sure didn’t hate black people; I just didn’t really know any. We were on the same team at that farm in Leamington I showed you and we worked together a lot. When the summer ended and we went our separate ways I just couldn’t stop thinkin’ about your mom. It drove me crazy! You two can’t imagine the relief I felt that day I drove in to Chatham to get some stuff for your grandma and Sophie stepped out of the store I was about to go into. I couldn’t shut up and begged her for a date.
‘I don’t need to tell you kids about how awful some white people can be to people who look different from them, you’ve already had more experience of that than I could ever fully understand. I wish I could protect you from it. Maybe someday it won’t be ‘okay’ for white people to feel they’re better for a bunch of really stupid…, ignorant reasons, but you girls are gonna have to pay a price for the beautiful colour of your skin. Me and my pale pink butt can’t stop that.”
This was more about their blackness; their distinction within a Europeanized society, than he’d ever said before and they obeyed his request that they keep looking at the white stars on the vast black background, but they were riveted to his voice and focused fixedly on his words. “Anyhow, I finally got your mom to ignore all the sh… all the badness from white boys she’d run into and give me a chance. So you’re here and you’re beautiful, strong, smart, powerful girls, and I love you both more than I ever imagined I could love anything…” A catch in his throat and a pause caused Jerri to sit up and look over at her dad through the darkness where his paleness melted into the pale sand beneath him.
“No, Jerr, just lie back and look at the stars, everything’s fine. In fact, you guys are gonna shake up this world someday, mark my words!” An audible grin flashed through his voice. “So..., long before I met your mom, long, long before you were even a distant possibility, my Uncle Mike, your grandma’s brother, took me and my brother- your Uncle Mike- camping up in Michigan. He got us to do what I’m getting you two to do now, looking up at the stars, and he got us to think about some stuff which I’ve always thought helped me to see your mom for real, not how I was ‘supposed’ to see her.
‘You know the stars out there are just other suns like ours, only much, much further away, right? Some are bigger, some are smaller. If you look close you can see that some are actually red, not white. That really bright one over there on the left near the horizon is actually our sister planet Venus, but she’ll be settin’ over the horizon soon. What do you think space is?”
A pause at the unexpected question. “It’s just that, empty space full of nothing, isn’t it, Dad?” Jerri was starting to feel a bit unsettled by the unusual tone and subject.
“Exactly right, Wilbur!” Jerri’s dad sometimes liked to pretend he was a talking horse named Mr. Ed from a TV show of his own childhood. Mr. Ed’s human friend was named ‘Wilbur’. This habit had stuck as a pet-name for his oldest daughter. “It’s empty for real, far more empty than the space between your hands.” Trinnie held up her little hands above her, measuring the air and floating particles immediately above her face. She said nothing as she measured her dad’s words as well. “Each star kinda fills the space around it with a little light and heat, we’re looking at the light the star made years; sometimes thousands and millions of years ago, ‘cause space is just so big and empty it takes many years for the light to travel through the emptiness to reach us where we are here on the Earth. If that twinkling star there on the right- that one, yeah- if it’s sixty five million light years away; -a light year is a measurement of distance, like miles, not time-, then the light we’re looking at right now left its star when dinosaurs were walking around right where we are right now!” Both girls began to feel their skin crawl at the notion of living dinosaurs, and their own stupendous irrelevance in all the enormity of the universe.
Please see "Out There" Part 2 for the remainder of this story.
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