Under a Full Moon


The following story was first printed in the Fall 2003 issue of OnSpec magazine. Please support their dedication to Canadian Fiction by picking up (or requesting) a copy at your local bookstore.

“Canadians,” he said, “are patient.”

It was fall and I was nine years old, doing research for my history report on the Lunar Slip. Mom suggested I talk to great-grandpa; he had been in his twenties when it happened and was the last living person in our family to see the moon.

“Patient,” he continued. “Not spineless, like the British, or reckless, like the Americans.”

We sat on the porch, breaking walnuts for my Mom’s baklava. The shells were woody and dry, and the smell reminded me of my father splitting kindling. Dad swung the axe out in the barn, his shirtsleeves pushed up over his elbows, and great-grandpa broke walnut shells here on the porch in a grey wool sweater. They both grunted and perspired.

“So when the moon was suddenly just…” he flapped his hand in front of his face, as if shooing a fly, “gone, we kept our wits about us, mostly. No riots. No religious zealots I-told-you-so-ing on the CBC.”

He fitted another wrinkled old nut between the jaws of the silver cracker and squeezed. He used both hands. I kept quiet and checked my little recorder’s blinking battery meter anxiously.

“In the states,” he said, “President McCaffrey–you should look him up on the web, interesting fellow–anyhow, he declared marshal law. Can’t really blame him; people were getting out of control. NASA and the United Europe Space Agency were sticking to the story that the earth was safe, but rumours spread that it was just a bunch of baloney meant to keep us all under control, so there was panic with a capital P. Doomsday cultists on the news, looting in the cities, violence everywhere. I don’t think declaring marshal law improved the situation, but at least it gave the military official permission to continue shooting its most uncooperative citizens,” he laughed. “In retrospect, some historians say it was an awful decision, but none of them was there. I was there. I saw what was happening, and I won’t second guess anybody.”

Great-grandpa scritched at his grey-stubbled chin and sighed. “Americans are strange folks though,” he said. “They locked themselves in their houses, in church basements, bomb shelters. And I’m talking about intelligent people. What I never understood is if it’s the end of the world, what the heck do you want to be locked inside for?”

I smiled. The battery light blinked.
“I’m sure by now you’ve figured out where the Church of the Lunar Deliverance comes from.”

I nodded, but it was a lie. I’d never even thought about it before. To me, ‘lunar’ just meant ‘mysterious.’ “What were they saying on TV?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “a lot of channels were completely off the air; your Home & Garden, your Golf TV and so on. Most others were playing a rotation of satellite photos and film from the observatories, mixed with footage from around the world, showing how the different countries were behaving.” He laughed and shook his head, “I tell ya, in a time of crisis, fly me to Australia any day. Or maybe Sweden. They knew how to enjoy the end of the world. But stay the hell away from the US, or anywhere in South America for that matter. I won’t go into details, but you can see all the video you want on the web,” he said, but then added, “Just ask your mother first.”

“What was so different up here?” I asked.

Great-grandpa picked up the crackers and detonated another nut. A piece of shrapnel leapt into his thick white hair, but he didn’t notice. “Well up here, people were scared for sure. Real scared, son. You really can’t…” he took a deep breath. “How much do you know about what happened?”

“Not much,” I said, “Mom said not to do any research until I talked to you.”

“What an honour,” he said, smiling. He wrung the nutcracker in his hands for a moment, then turned and looked through a window, into the kitchen, where my mother was making the pastry. “Did you tell her you love her yet today?” he asked sternly.

“Not yet,” I said.

“Mmm,” he said through pursed lips. “Well, let’s not make this interview longer than we have to.” He held his arms out in front of him, his hands clenched into fists as though riding an imaginary bike. “It was a comet,” he said, and began moving one of his fists toward the other. “NASA said they’d been tracking the thing for years, and we were clear by thousands of miles, but that doesn’t help much when you go to bed late one night and realize that it’s still light out. All night long. I mean, we knew the days were getting longer, and why, but when we had that first day for night…” he shook his head and looked out at his old, chapped fists, then lowered them to his thighs. “My father, your great-great-grandpa Johnny, he called the whole family into the living room there,” he gestured over his shoulder, into the house, which had been in the family for over 200 years. “Family meeting! Unheard of for the man. Not a real involved parent, let ma take care of us while he worked. He was quiet, loved the land,” he said. “Kinda reminds me of you.”

I smiled, and great-grandpa looked at me appraisingly, with teasing suspicion.

“Anyhow, he started to say something to us, about how we were going to be okay, and not to listen to what other people were saying. I don’t know exactly how it happened–I think he put his arm around my sister, Feeny–but pretty soon, the whole lot of us were in one huge circle, like a big huddle-hug, and my fath–” on the recording, his voice cracks here, “your great-great-grandpa Johnny, well, he started to cry like a baby.”

I remember great-grandpa looking out at the yard then, over the long driftwood fence into the pastures and fields that stretched further than I could run in a day. The battery light was still blinking. Did I dare disturb him?

“And then your great-great-grandma started to cry,” he said finally. “And then Feeny, and then on down the line from there.”

“Did you cry?”

“Hell no!” he said, stomping his foot. “My big brother Ollie was dribbling quite a bit though,” he said, laughing. “Oh son, it was something else. And you see, that’s what the comet did. Not anything incredible itself, but it certainly made us all do things that would have seemed incredible back when we thought we had a nice full well of days stored up.”

A couple of crows crockled on the barn roof. A squirrel painted a furry swirl on the trunk of the elm tree as it circled its way home. I could smell old wheat and honey and the autumn dust from the fields.

“Where was I?” Great-grandpa asked, getting back on his imaginary bike. “Right. Up here. North of the 49th. What was different. Mmmm.” He looked soberly at his closed fists. “We were patient,” he said. “The comet got so close that it seemed to blocked out most of the sky. But even still, you could expect the corner store to be open, and water to come out of the tap. People kept going to work. A little quieter, a little paler, maybe, but going nonetheless. It gave us strength, somehow. Made us feel a little heroic, I think, like we were serving our country in our own small way. Hell, maybe we were just sheep, but I tell you son, it sure didn’t feel that way.”

He paused for a moment, and then the fists began to move together.

“But let’s get on with the show, eh?” he chuckled. “So, the end is nigh,” he whispered ominously. Suddenly, his right thumb flicked up, “That’s the moon, there,” he said. “Not to scale, you understand.” His left fist, the comet fist, approached, then dramatically passed over the earth fist, striking the moon thumb as it revolved behind the earth. “We slide under by the skin of our teeth, and whammo, the comet collides with the moon, smashing it into pieces,” he said, opening the fingers of his fist for emphasis. “In four days, you couldn’t find a speck of it left in the night sky. Gone,” he let his open hand trail away behind him. Gone.

“But the most incredible thing,” he said, raising his eyebrows and returning both his hands to his lap, “was the silence. Complete and utter silence. The collision didn’t make a sound. There was a blinding flash, and power grids blacked out all over the world. It was some kind of electromagnetic effect, and with the comet destroyed, and its light gone, our half of the world got plunged into a total, silent darkness. No sound. No cars, no humming electrical wires, no TV, no echoing boom… we were all sitting right out there on the lawn when it happened, and I don’t even think we heard any birds chirping. It was like silence had become a sound all its own, drowning out the rest of the world.”

“Whoa,” I whispered.

“Yeah,” he laughed, “whoa. We had northern lights for weeks after,” he said. “Beautiful, but when I see them now I get sick in my guts. I hope they lose that connection someday. Mmmm,” he growled, chewing his lower lip. “But that wasn’t the worst of it. Some debris made it through our atmosphere, the biggest of which–”

“Moon Island,” I interrupted, leaning forward.

“Right,” he said. “Impacted off the north-east coast of Newfoundland, killing about a thousand people and causing waves that flooded Labrador and even reached some towns in Western Europe. It’s the biggest chunk of moon left, and the only one that took human lives.” Oddly, he started chuckling. “Lord-love those Newfies though. The island topped Ayer’s rock as the world’s most popular tourist attraction, and suddenly they were all off the pogey, speaking Japanese and driving BMWs.”

I thought about pictures and old movies I had seen. The moon was ghostly, menacing. And the orange harvest moon was a monstrosity. Even the sound of it–moon–I was glad I’d never lived with it.

“Later, scientists predicted that without the moon, the earth’s environment would be destroyed. The tides would shift, women would stop menstruating, all kinds of stuff. We were all going to die after all. But the days became weeks, which became months, and slowly everything went back to normal. Folks started writing songs and poetry about the whole thing. Hell, the mint even put out a five-dollar coin–the moonie, we called it–with the moon on one side and Moon Island on the back. I may have one in my golf bag; used it as a ball marker. You can take it to class if you’re careful with it.”

“That’d be great,” I said.

He took up the crackers again and broke the last nut, slowly separating the soft meat from the hard bones with his thick, steady fingers. He threw handfuls of the shells off the porch, into Mom’s flower garden, then picked a large morsel for himself and chewed it. “So that’s it,” he said, thoughtfully. “Oh, and of course that’s where the saying ‘under a full moon’ comes from; you used to say ‘when pigs fly’ or ‘when hell freezes over’ or something like that.”

He leaned down to pick up a shell that had fallen off the table. I reached out and gently plucked the piece of shell from his hair. I put it in my pocket. He sat up and threw his shell into the garden.

“But who really knows what will come of it all,” he said quietly. “It’s only been sixty-some-odd years since it happened, maybe we’re doomed yet. Mother Nature moves slowly about these things.”

“Maybe she’s Canadian,” I said.

Great-grandpa laughed. “Wouldn’t surprise me a bit, son.”

He let out a long wheezy sigh and slapped his thighs. “But enough science.”

The battery light stopped blinking. That’s where the recording ends. But I haven’t forgotten what he said to me next.

“Out of juice?” he asked as I whacked the little digital device against my chair.

“Yep,” I said. “It’ll take about ten minutes to recharge it.”

“Well, don’t worry, we can pick this up later if you need more material,” he said. He selected another piece of walnut and chewed. “Son, you know what the biggest loss is, with the moon, I mean?”

I shook my head.

“The romance. You’ll never know what it is to be out with your girl–when you start liking girls, of course–with his huge, magnificent face shining down on you. Everything was better in the moonlight, my boy, everything. That moon, it was something everybody shared, but we all claimed it in our own way,” he said. “It chaperoned all my dates with your great-grandma, gave us something to talk about when we were too nervous to hold hands,” he laughed self-consciously, coughed into his sleeve, then picked up the crackers and squeezed them absently. “Now don’t you go telling your folks any of this. This is between-you-and-me talk, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“Mmm, right you are,” he grumbled again. He flexed his fingers absently, giving away his poor circulation. Another thing that couldn’t kill him. His two blue eyes, pushed back in his face like marbles in old bread dough, would conspire with cataracts in later years and try to blind him. His legs would betray his balance and break his hips. His lungs would deny him air, and if it came his heart would refuse to transport it. But none of these things could kill him.

“Think I can tell you something even crazier?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“You won’t tell a soul?” he asked, leaning forward.

I shook my head, no.

“Well, I don’t think those scientists are telling the whole story. I don’t think the moon was simply destroyed by a comet.” He leaned close. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Promise,” I said, already giggling and moving closer, feeling his breath on my cheek.

“I think that when they first met,” he whispered, “the Moon fell in love with the Earth. Madly, like I did for your great-grandma, and like your dad did for your mom. But after centuries and centuries of circling her without being able to touch her, he couldn’t take it any longer. He decided he had no choice but to leave her or die of longing.”

Great-grandpa levelled those old eyes on me. I held my breath. “But in the end,” he said, “that ol’ moon’s heart broke from loneliness, out there in space, and he died anyway.”

We heard the familiar stubborn crunching of gravel: my father coming down the laneway in the truck.

“You know,” my great-grandpa said quietly, “every day afterwards, my pa came in the house and hugged us, said ‘I love you,’ to us every day. And in my whole life, I only have one regret.” He put the crackers down on the table, stood up and stretched to greet my approaching father. “I should’ve cried, son. Now go inside an see your mom like I told you.”

Great-grandpa outlived his wife, which was considered a horrible injustice; she had eaten right and walked to Dell’s variety in town almost every day, while my great-grandfather had spent his evenings on the porch and drank and smoked and was basically ornery to everyone he saw. But I never knew that man. He stopped smoking when great-grandma died, before I was born, and his drinking became more hobby that habit. One time he took me out to the woods that picket our fields, cow corn that year, and showed me–just me–where to scatter his ashes, on the spot where he’d first made love to great-grandma. I promised not to tell anybody that it was before they were married.

How many promises did I make to that man? Broken only now, now that he is gone, when I need him most.

My great-grandfather died during a robbery at the Brantford Bank of Montreal. Two men with guns came into the bank and made everyone lie down. While one of them emptied the tills the other selected a young woman from those on the ground and started to drag her around the front counter. She didn’t resist; there were at least a dozen other hostages, and both men were frantic and twitchy. Drug testing later determined that they were high on synthetic crystal opiate. So she didn’t do anything that would set them off. She put her hands over her face while her skirt rode up her thighs and her hair swept the cold tile floor. My great-grandpa saw what was happening; he stuck his cane between the man’s legs and sent him sprawling. The robber leapt to his feet, forgetting the girl, and on the security video, you could actually see their eyes lock, and the robber hesitate, before he shot my great-grandpa in the face.

That was eight months ago. He was 92.

At his funeral, I met the woman he saved and understood immediately why he had to give his life. Her name is Allison, and she offered me her sympathy and thanks. I offered to make her dinner, impropriety be damned. I know the dust of the man in the urn would have approved. Out of a sense of duty, perhaps, she agreed to that first meal, and after we’d eaten, while there was still light, I took her to the woods to help me sow my great-grandpa’s ashes.

Now when she comes out to the farm, it is by her own volition. With time, we have become familiar; she rubs her wrists when she is uncomfortable, and reads more from my silences than I am withholding. But she has someone, and even though we are eternally connected by the memory of a man long put to rest, she seems to move farther away with each visit. There is a vacuum in our intimacy, cold and silent. We will never be together.

These days I am either with her or waiting for her, and I worry that I will not last much longer like this. Last night, as we sat on the porch and looked up at the evening’s star-freckled skin, I found myself wanting for a moon.

I thought I might recognize the look on his face.

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  1. #1 by gillian - July 3rd, 2006 at 05:53

    Wow, I just read this. Amazing. Bravo.

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