A Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
About 2,150 Words
Cold air, light clouds and a galaxy of stars greeted Clarence, who stood high above the river in the Porcupine Mountains. Overtop of his charcoal beanie, the old man wore a headlamp with the white light switched on. He planted his feet firmly on the basalt rock cliff, and set up a tripod under the moonless night.
“Steady as she goes,” Clarence called down the rocks.
Another tripod made its way up the cliff, this one held high in the air by the young man behind it. He was decked out in athletic apparel, wearing a burnt orange coat with white stripes on the shoulder blades, and a multicolor knit-hat streaming with braided tassels. The young man smiled broadly, revealing teeth so white they were visible in the dark. If it weren’t for his wildly colorful clothes, he would’ve blended in to the night with copper-toned skin and black hair.
“Tyler, lad, why don’t you set that down until you get the lay of the land?” Clarence said. “Turn on your headlamp.”
“I got it,” Tyler said, without an ounce of hesitation. He wore a headlamp too, but it was switched off. He wasn’t even using the dim red light designed to navigate the dark. Tyler fumbled over the uneven ledge, dipping the tripod toward the ground, before he found his footing on the rocks. He stood about 30 feet away from Clarence, occupying slightly higher ground.
The two men had spread out on a long, narrow escarpment, attempting to set up a photo overlooking the Lake of the Clouds. A Coronal Mass Ejection, which had fired from the surface of the sun a few days ago, was predicted to make impact tonight. If it was powerful enough, the Earth’s atmosphere would open up to the solar wind, funneling in a wave of electrons and producing a vivid display of Northern Lights.
“Move the tripod to the left,” Clarence said. “Let’s capture a silhouette against the night.”
“Of me?” Tyler laughed. He picked up the tripod and scanned the rocks for another flat surface. “It was your idea to come up here. I didn’t even know there was a mountain range in Michigan, if you can call these mountains.”
“You’ve been spending too much time in Canada,” Clarence said, teasing him. “Not much compares to Banff.”
“You said it!” Tyler was studying the northern horizon. “Sure is easier to catch a glimpse in Alberta.”
“I have no doubt that it is.”
“When was the last time I saw you on the astrophotography trail?”
“A year ago? Maybe two?” Clarence said. “It was the night of that powerful geomagnetic storm, when the Northern Lights climbed to the center of the sky. Seems like it’s been quite a while.”
It was quiet and still all around them. Set against a pristine wilderness, the Porcupine Mountains were wound through with rivers and old-growth Hemlock forests. Clarence could feel the quiet energy of the forest at night. Even when their voices were muted, he and Tyler heard each other loud and clear.
“Move into the frame,” Clarence urged him. His camera was set up on the tripod and ready to fire.
“Are you getting something?”
“The faintest hint of green,” he said. “Now, lad, this is going to take some time. I need you to choose a position, and hold very, very still.”
“For how long?”
Clarence didn’t answer. Instead, he adjusted the settings on his camera, so he could capture as much light from the sky as possible while still keeping the boy in focus. “Now, don’t move.”
“Like this?” Tyler, ever the star of his own antics, struck a pose that required some skillful balance. He balled his hands into fists and held them out in the air, while he lifted one leg and bent his knee, to create what might look like an action shot.
It was all for fun, but getting a crisp night shot took planning and commitment. Tyler balked at being frozen in time, eager to set up his own astrophotography. He lost his balance, and tilted toward his last standing leg, then he dropped out of position and jogged a few feet to catch himself.
The shutter on Clarence’s camera clicked.
“Well, lad, that’ll be interesting.”
Tyler laughed. “I couldn’t hold the pose!”
“Might be wise to start with both feet on the ground next time,” Clarence said, good-naturedly. He moved his camera into preview mode, and he mused at the digital image. With his index finger, he traced the falling action he’d watched in real time, and observed how Tyler’s body took form in the photo. A thin, white layer of color moved from where the silhouette once stood, and nearly wiped out on the rocks, before disappearing on the left side of the frame. “There’s a ghost in this shot.”
“Maybe it’s the Northern Lights,” Tyler countered.
“That’s alright,” he said. “I’m going to set up some Star Trails.”
“Alright.” Clarence chuckled. “Go on then.”
In his seventies, Clarence was a spry old man. He hadn’t thought twice about scaling the escarpment in the dark and shooting Star Trails and Aurora with a guy in his twenties. That was the easy part. It was the standing still, waiting for the camera to work its magic and capture the night sky, that was the hard part. Especially on cold nights like this one.
A cold snap had blown in from Canada, and the temperature in northern Michigan plummeted to a mere 38 degrees. Factor in the breeze, and it was finger-freezing weather. Clarence reached into his coat pockets, always prepared for the unexpected, and fetched a set of thick gloves. He slid the gloves over his wide, wrinkled fingers, then sat down on a fallen log by the hemlocks. He reached into his pocket once more, and pulled out a single film photograph.
The photo was folded to fit in his pocket, but he bent back the edge and gazed into its face.
Warm green eyes stared back out at Clarence, softened even more by a broad, cheerful smile. The girl’s auburn hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she hugged her arms close around her body, bundled up in a thick blue coat. Behind her, snow blanketed a frozen lake, and beyond her, the Aurora Borealis glowed green to match her large eyes.
“Laura,” he whispered.
His daughter had been lovely and bright, and she had grown to a tender age of 10 before she died from a brain tumor. That night before the tumor took hold, they had watched the Northern Lights dance together, filled with curiosity and imagination. He’d worked the camera that was mounted on the tripod, taking her photograph from a few feet away.
Watching the Aurora pulse, Clarence was overcome with a strange sensation. It was both soothing and electric – a peaceful fever. Like meditation or song, the natural phenomenon worked its power over him, making him feel more centered and more alive. He wondered if his daughter felt it too. It was an honor to have her there with him, to catch their first display of the rare celestial phenomenon. That night, viewing the Aurora became a passion for Clarence. He vowed to see the lights again, with both Laura and her mother by his side. He never wanted to miss another show.
Clarence looked up from the photo, and saw Tyler come strolling back across the rocks.
“It’s in the bag,” Tyler said. “I’ve got it set to shoot one frame every five minutes. That should do the trick.” He plopped down beside Clarence, saw the photograph, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Who’s the girl?”
“The light of my life,” Clarence said. “My only child.”
“Where is she now?”
“Following the torches, I suppose,” he said. “To paradise.”
“It’s an ancient Inuit myth.” Clarence combed his fingers through his silver beard. “Many of the indigenous tribes of North America believed the Aurora Borealis were torches. The flames were lit by their ancestors, who carried the torches through the sky, leading their loved ones to paradise.”
Tyler studied the old man’s face.
“Just an old legend,” Clarence said.
“I’m sorry,” Tyler said. “How long has it been?”
“Is that why you live alone?”
Clarence had to stop to consider the question. Surrounded by a thriving natural wilderness, he didn’t think of himself as a loner. He was, of course. He spent the better part of his days alone, until he could find an excuse to meet up with his nocturnal companions.
“You do live alone. Don’t you?”
“Well, sure,” Clarence said. “It wasn’t always this way. But Laura’s passing was quite unexpected. It was too much for Veronica to bear.”
“Your wife, right?”
Clarence nodded. “She was,” he said. “She left me and moved to another state, so she could leave this all behind.”
“What was she running from?”
“Well, lad, I can’t answer that. The truth is I don’t know.” Clarence bent back the edge of the photograph again, and gazed at his long lost daughter. “I guess it was something she had to do. When she moved away, it left just myself in our house in Grand Rapids. So, I sold the place and moved north.”
Tyler stood up. “North is a solid choice,” he declared. He looked down at his elderly friend, who was gazing again into the photograph, and gave him a firm pat on the back. Then he turned toward the cameras, and went to check on his Star Trails.
Clarence glanced up, if only for a second. He ran his gloved fingers over the glossy photograph, tracing the shape of his daughter’s hair, her nose, and her crooked smile. At nine years old, the girl in the photo had seen the Aurora that night, staying up late to go with her father to his favorite lake in northern Michigan. Her birthday was coming up, and little did he know it would be her last.
Tears ran down Clarence’s face in large, slow drops. He looked at the black sky above the Lake of the Clouds, and he traced the Milky Way with his eyes. The galaxy was brilliant tonight, appearing in shares of purple and burnt sienna. Millions of stars stretched out above him, winking and comforting him with their light. But the sky carried no torches. It showed no signs of the Aurora Borealis.
When the tears dried, Clarence felt alone. Tyler stood just over the rocks, setting up a second camera. But this wasn’t a simple loneliness that could be solved with any companionship. It was the forlorn sense of a childless father, who is left with a void in his heart.
Once a transcendent experience, the Aurora had become an obsession. It still brought him joy and inner calm, but now he also ventured out into the night to heal.
Like the ancient Inuit tribes, he would watch the mysterious lights move above him and contemplate the spirit world. Every once in a while, he envisioned his daughter up there, the daisies on her green dress dashing through the sky.
Unwavering in their chase of the Northern Lights, the two men waited. Clarence would give anything for a hint of that peaceful fever. The solar wind fascinated him more than anything on Earth. The celestial phenomenon moved him to his core. Though they stayed out all night, it was no use. The marvels of outer space wouldn’t be visible tonight.
Clarence walked down the escarpment. He stopped under the canopy of stars, taking a moment to study his first photo of the Northern Lights.
“That must’ve been a difficult time,” Tyler said, as he walked up behind him. He touched his shoulder briefly, before stepping beside Clarence on the rocky surface.
“Yes, it was,” he said. “Grief steals everything. Basic daily functions like appetite, sleep, or memory. Even cultivated personality traits like courage, patience, optimism. The sorrow was enough to tear my family apart.”
“Brutal,” said Tyler. “I can’t even imagine.”
“I thought those wounds would never heal,” said Clarence. The shade of the night sky lightened in their midst, as the first colors of dawn found the horizon. “Then I realized something.”
“Loss becomes something beautiful when we measure it with love. No matter how fiercely it courses through our hearts, the loss we feel for someone is only the extent to which we can’t live without them.”
Tyler looked out over the horizon. He tucked his tripod tight against his shoulder, as he weighed the meaning of the words.
“It may sound simple,” he said. “But the idea is profound.”
Clarence paused. He waited until Tyler looked over at him to speak again.
“Our grief is only as deep as our love.”
. . .
© Copyright 2018 by Melissa F. Kaelin