In the mountains the night sky is startlingly near. Darkness falls gradually here, the line of things lengthening in shadow all languid and loose until gloaming eases belly-up into darkness.
The first poke of stars over the southern ridge is cool as ice against the fading heat of the day. Gradually, they all emerge and from the deck you feel pressed up against it, this sky, luminous, dappled with light.
I love the sky. I always have. Friends sometimes have wondered at my tendency to gaze up at it through gaps in conversation. ‘Like you’re waiting for the words to fall,’ someone said one time, and they were far more right than they realized.
We all of us are cosmic energy. We’re all star people. We have within us the very stuff of space and the blue ache of yearning we feel when we look at a sky, all endless and pure, is the universe reminding us of home. We all share that and it’s the glue of things, the mortar of possibility we build a world with.
One day in the summer of 1989 I took a day trip with two friends out into the foothills of southern Alberta. The drive out was wonderful. Van Morrison sang on the CD player, the windows were down and the coffee was hot and strong.
We drove out to an area where the Sheep River tumbles out of the mountains. There’s a small waterfall there and we picnicked on the flat rocks at the side of it. Then, after a spell of reading, drawing or simply looking at the landscape we hiked along a trail that meandered along the river.
Brian was a product of the ‘60s. He was a gifted finger-style guitar player who’d once lived in a tree house with a Cajun girl in Louisiana for a couple years. During the Summer of Love, he’d hitchhiked across the country with a cello.
He’d been to Spain and France and Greece and we had long conversations that ranged from Dvorak to Son House to Marx and on into post-modern literature.
Kathy was a Maritimer who’d grown up in St. John, New Brunswick. She was a small-town girl at heart, old-fashioned, and loyal with a squinting curiosity about life and the world.
She was an artist or working hard at becoming one. She was tall, brown-eyed and beautiful, and worn down some by the moves of men. We tried to be lovers but were better suited to friends.
All three of us had our eyes on the horizon. Each of us was in pursuit of a dream. For Brian it was a life in fulfillment of art and music. Kathy craved a home, a family, stability and a long elegant slide into permanence.
Me, I sought definition as a native man and a vague dream then of writing, publishing, creating. It was our dreams that brought us together.
When evening came we found a fire pit in a campground and prepared supper. None of us wanted to leave. Darkness fell and we began to tell a shared story around that fire. One of us would tell part of it then pass it on to another who continued the thread. We laughed and that story about a man who finds himself lost in the jungle became vivid and wonderful.
It was late by the time we felt motivated to move. When the fire was doused the darkness was whole and complete and we could feel the raw power of the land all around us.
It was humbling and we walked wordlessly across the parking lot to the car. Then, driving out of the mountains along that sinuous, sloping road we kept the windows down so we could see the stars.
We’d just slid out onto the gentle roll of the grasslands when Brian told me to stop. When I pulled the car over he jumped out quickly and ran a few steps into the field gazing upward at the sky. We joined him.
What we saw in that night sky was unforgettable. They were lights, a handful of them, four, maybe five, all orange and red and yellow. They moved across the sky and you could tell that they were lower, closer than the stars. We moved back to the car and sat on the hood of it, watching the lights in the sky.
They changed directions. They changed speeds. Their brightness altered and when they all came together suddenly in a tight formation and disappeared at what can only be described as supersonic speed we all heaved a collective breath. The sky was suddenly stiller, emptier, more silent than before.
We sat there for a long time waiting for them to reappear, wanting them to reappear, somehow needing them to. But they never did. Instead, the sky became a panorama of galaxies, planets, nebulae, constellations and space, all black and void and spellbinding. We watched it until a yawn signaled our need to be home.
We never spoke the rest of that drive. There were no words to describe how that event touched us. Some things are beyond vocabulary and must exist in thought and feeling alone until time grants them syntax. Such is the effect of magic on our lives.
Brian eventually disappeared in the direction of Montreal and Kathy found her man and home and permanence. We haven’t seen each other in years. Our lives fell apart as easily as they’d come together, and that’s magic too.
But somewhere, I know, they both look at the stars and remember that night. Somewhere, I know, they carry the residue of that experience and the residue of that friendship, too.
See, that’s the thing of this life. We’re all star people. We’re all built of the stuff of the cosmos and the breath we share is the first breath of Creation. It means we can never be separate. We’re all kin.
Sometimes it takes cosmological magic to enable us to see that — the universe revealing itself and us in rapt attention to the image, the idea, the pull of all the possible worlds.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.