"There broken vows and death-bed alms are found
And lovers' hearts with ends of ribbons bound,
The courtier's promises, and sick man's prayers."
Tunnels honeycomb the Moon. In them men fly. Relieved of five-sixths of their earthly weight, arm-flapped wings of a condor's breadth suffice. They spend their lives in this labyrinthine tomb. A hundred years from now, they call it Heaven. Jasper was one of them.
Greatly he loved winging, from the moment he drew back the lacquered lid & gazed upon his personal pair the color of fire, through the careful adjustment of velvet armstraps, to the first deep tunnel-breath. He stood on the ledge of his tiny but elegant grotto, savoring the cool humid gym-smell of their reprocessed air. Down below were streams of traffic. He fell.
Winging always gave him this: a sweetness like freedom, & then the compulsory dreaming.
Jasper's birdphones immediately began to guide him through the busy multilevelled flow. From immemorial practice his muscles responded to every shifting nuance of the music that steered him & each of the others, the unceasing hymn of ornithopter flight. It emanated from deep within the heart of the city Orphalese itself: a huge computer devoted to no lesser task than the one great hymn. They call it the Bird Brain.
A part of everyone's day being taken up in service to the rapt following of these broadcast commands, a rushing array of entrainment, they all needed little else of communion, & spent the rest of their time in sundry private pursuits. Jasper painted.
He was painting when Sylvia came to visit.
A gust from her stagey arrival made the bells on the iconostasis tinkle. He turned his head slightly & saw her cloudy silhouette, like a word still unspoken. "Jasper?" she said when he hadn't stirred. He closed one eye & all was red; he changed to the other & blue reigned. She heard him sigh, & tried another name that he sometimes answered to.
"There are too many colors," he said finally.
How taken for granted these splendid aeronautics, embodiment of the ages' desire, the danger too a thing of no moment, only to wing among the others & emulate them. He never even heard the voices in his ear anymore, nor saw the rough-hewn walls of their cavern flickering crossed by a hundred thousand shadows. Jasper in winging instead sometimes imagined the pictures he would paint, oil paintings given eerily ambiguous three-dimensionality, through being painted in red & blue registers at once, entwined or opposed as the spirit took him. This he had invented himself.
True, he never yet had produced an image worthy of his thought. He persevered.
Sylvia without the special glasses on would see only a confused mass of colors. And she would ask him mockingly about this or that portion. Was it really finished yet? Shouldn't he do something about the way these clashed? And he could only respond, Put on the glasses.
No more, no more.
She held up one hand, palm toward him, & asked, "How many fingers?" "Six," he said grimly (it looked like four). "You'll wear out your peepers in this light." (She knew it was nothing physical, or they would have given him new ones.) "It's the only light there is."
Once, when they were still lovers, he had painted her all over with body paint. That was before his breakthrough. Or her betrayal. She turned in the mirror, eyes full of sharp-edged laughter, & said nothing. He brought her instead her wings. On the ledge they'd embraced hungrily, & then leapt off in unison, her arc a little smoother & more shallow.
Now she studied his latest picture. "There's so much here I don't understand," she said in a new voice, one that almost sounded as if she were looking into abysses. Hushed (he had become quite acute of hearing). But what could he answer? That as his sight dimmed, his vision increased in power, in grace? "How can what you intend ever find its way into visible expression, if your hand doesn't know if it's holding a brush of pale red or pale orange hue? I know, I know, you tell me you remember, but aren't nuances the very substance of your art,--of any art? Be honest, you paint as tumblingly as now you wing."
He shuffled to the doorway & let the breeze lift his indigo hair, a tinge of resignation in his nonchalance, like a scumble of gray over brown. "My peepers get in the way sometimes Sylvia--the way the body of a lover can interfere with the deepest feelings of your love."
"I won't follow these crooked flights," she said after a pause, "but this body is still in your way, if you'll turn around."
She left his food wrapped in a hundred-year-old shawl.
Orphalese, inverted city, hollow within that blasted orb where no one anymore even goes up to scuff the lifeless regolith; Orphalese, divided into zones according to the chosen hue of their lunar wings--this city he found himself now slowworm in. His wings gathered dust as his blindness snowballed. There were hardly even handholds on the walls of the cavern, in fact, so his course zigzagged from eyrie to eyrie (connecting the dots); while the others winged in geometric vectors. Yet he began to feel for the first time that his huge rock-bubble home was really real.
He let his nails grow into climbing claws. Spidery conversations by filtered earthlight, costume to costume, now took up his time. Everyone was wearing the black polkadot on red motley of a Ladybird Beetle. Had quit counting the black cigarettes whose golden filters they left spent on the floor like cartridges. For it was Imbolc.
Their principal talk is of the newest heresy, para-Koreshism, the twist on which is to have that looming blue globe at most a sort of optical derangement, for their world in reality was to consist of a single great hollow concavity, within an endless depth of solid stone. This Jasper's fading vision might aid in believing, but he could never shake that crucial exchange with Sylvia, long enough to entertain any lighter heresies.
Her lover of old had returned from final devivement.
Lawrence Welk's harpsichordized rendition of the "Exodus" theme greeted him as he cleared the stone doorsill with difficulty.
"Jasper! old droog," cried a familiar hoarse richness. "I heard what happened. Zounds!" Gandalf guided him to a table, & soon he tasted the mysterious reminiscence of an "Alexandrian" (one part blue curaçao, two parts green Chartreuse) cocktail, sweet & heady as a late unlooked-for love. The music changed, not disagreeably. They sat at the Poets' Table, unoccupied at this hour. "Speak," said Gandalf. His third eye, surgically implanted & optically irrelevant, regarded Jasper with a fixed stare.
Jasper considered the matter. Dawn-shadows of some unimaginable catastrophe, or mere jealous delusion? First, one does not return from the grave like that. No way, no how, no algorithm. Starkly true that Sylvia had lied, or the cad himself (yclept Phoebus Phoenix)--or else the machinations of LunoPangenesis Ltd!? "She says they'd already called it quits," he offered. He could barely make out a turquoise blur near his hand. It radiated chill without his touching.
"Then what's the tsurris?" "How much wiser to choose a corpse over one whose future is stasis & futility," answered Jasper in a croak unmoistened by all sweet liqueurs; "I know what I know." And later, when the purloined arclight made like original earthshadow, who was there to say it wasn't enough?
"Death have no dominion? Dominion is death & death, dominion. That's all." He gazed at the bright mirage of an entrance. Much later, & nearer to the last eclipse, he remembered this moment as a bitter talisman & unheeded warning. Sylvia had become a ghost, who wandered freely through his moods & stumblings, without ever breaking his clasp or quite filling it. His last picture burgeoned. Its turmoil frightened her till she learned not to look at it. They made love with a tapestry across it, figured with spectral arabesques, a dwindled malison. They spoke little of Phoebus, & she never in fact met him again. But they did hear of his bizarre celebrity.
Jasper dreamed, not of flying but of falling.
"Of the many things you have taught me," she used to say, "some you shouldn't have: & until your illness I only knew how to love one way. Now love is a chorus of contradictory voices, all harmonized by the fear of suffering. Jasper, I've realized something terrible. I don't want to watch you become an empty shell. I don't want to watch myself betray you."
More passionate than ever, they touched helmets in the pitiless vacuum. "I shall found a sect of Koreshians who worship your shadow, perhaps. And perhaps too I shall just forget I ever encountered that evil painting."
Often he would hear her songs passed on by others, who visited him in the cave now he never left. Her lyrics proclaimed the end of an age of secrets, but her music withheld all closure; & this was itself a kind of secrecy.
Each visitor took away a little more of his sight. After a point, it is said, he either died by his own hand or someone else's, to do his bidding. But this takes us too far ahead of the story. For she did return to him, once, before the end.
He was auditing a frail black platter of Penderecki, fabulously rare & expensive. "Almost angels," she remarked of the tormented choir.
"What? Ho! Who's there?" He peered in the wrong direction.
"Sylvia, when you knew me."
"I know no Sylvia."
"That is so."
"I tried," he said falteringly. "No. You didn't try. You fled from a second attempt." She moved closer in the candlelit fastness. "Let me tell you a story."
"More & more the tunnels become constricted, narrowed then completely blocked by repairs & meaningless construction of arbitrary barricades; finally, the population of flyers will be reduced to circling barely each in his own length. Heaven will depopulate, space exile for the ones unable to bear gravity. What was I thinking, there never even existed a colony on the Moon. Back in the twentieth century, a hundred years ago, the point was reached where they either had to choose to continue to explore the planets, or waste their wealth on guns & bombs & you know how folly always wins. You know which they chose. We were never here, we never flew on the Moon."
"I seem to recall something of the sort," he admitted. Her eyes shone with a pearlescent rigor.
"And you, you cannot meet Phoebus for he is yourself, risen from the grave; & you aren't even dead yet. You see the difficulty."
"What was it we loved then, in the spaces between the stars? That desert more than desert, those questions we only shatter ourselves against?" "Have you forgotten, Jasper? You painted it." They turned to the shrouded image.
Before their eyes it changed. They saw the world, a seething hierarchy of balanced forces, a maelstrom in incessant transformation. They saw the strand of human-entelechy come spiralling out of the center of the picture, making itself more separate & more prominent, extinguishing many others so that it could proliferate & itself diverge into different strands, which then struggled each to impose its own style & milieu. The outpost on the Moon flickered briefly, part of Man's ongoing lunar reveries...the furious efflorescence of fossil fuels & technological exploitation one huge flash in the pan, then all the following centuries of global poverty & spiritual exhaustion, the song that burns, the apology never delivered...
They saw themselves, & all they might have become: Phoebus the shadow of his blindness; & cars in the daytime driving with their headlights on.
Hurtling out of the morning glare, under the blast of noon, at crimson eve cars driving, driving, like Diogenes--with their headlights on in the daytime."