The moon, lately, was a celebrity, full and a few miles closer than usual, enough to bring three of my neighbors outside near midnight. One of them suggested a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” but I was alone with my reference to the approach of planet Melancholia, how, for one perfect night, the fictional planet was sized exactly like the moon, the sky brilliant with the fascination of malevolence not yet verified lethal.

A perigee moon, science calls it, the tides heaving higher because of that small advance toward earth, but instead of the lunar cycle, those three neighbors soon talked about the spate of televised storage wars, how exciting such unknowns can become. One repeated the story of how eleven hundred dollars earned a vintage Corvette, and because he had never been inside my house, I thought of him bidding if it were foreclosed, how much he’d risk for what he imagined I treasured.

None of them mentioned the current war. How, for weeks, threats drove the evening news. Then invasion. Then lives bargained, not only for land, but also culture, cathedrals and museums pillaged as if they were strategic. The defenseless, when aid was insufficient, made weapons from trash. When the weapons offered became more powerful and sophisticated, something like a stalemate has followed for months. By now, the news, each night, barely mentions what appears to be another indefinite war.

Last semester, a colleague died during class, the first day, in front of his students, all freshmen, who knew him only by name or through stories shared by veterans. One witness said she could see silence, like a cloud, smothering his body. The others nodded.

My father, who surrounded himself with silence, taught the imagery of stars. On clear nights, when I visited, he turned talkative in the backyard, picking out even the lesser-known constellations—bird of paradise, eagle, whale, the two hunting dogs that I accepted as his way to enter paragraphs that introduced stories set, as he aged, further in the past.

Now, though he is fifteen years dead, I am sending a postscript, how, lately, it has been declared that cave paintings in Europe depict, not animals, but constellations. That there was, from prehistory, metaphorical portraiture of the distant. That I have stood, tonight, in the safety of my yard to squint for patterns, thinking of the high risk for translating the language of night scenes. That sacrifice, sometimes, attacked those eyewitnesses who, after a time, began to believe the world’s ceiling to be decorated by gods so generous they displayed an encyclopedia of the world, every pinprick of light with purpose, something more than beasts waiting to be discovered by those willing to risk the sharp-toothed and clawed.

The future was still as unformed as heaven, a wish in need of language. An idea, not yet named, was unborn, but already a shape revealing itself, imagery evoked in unreliable light. It is possible, still, to imagine chanting in caves newly decorated, a single syllable repeated with the lilt of sudden awe. Though such comfort proved elusive. The land was violent and cruel, little to be done about suffering despite spears and clubs readied nearby. Whatever else might have been said was lost in eviction or death, that gallery given over, as it often is, to brutes.


Gary Fincke’s collection of essays, The Darkness Call, won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleaides Press, 2018). A new collection, The Mayan Syndrome, will be published in May 2023 by Madhat Press. Its lead essay, “After the Three-Moon Era,” originally published at Kenyon Review Online, was selected to be reprinted in Best American Essays, 2020.

Art by Sheila Squillante