Night Sky

When Brian was young, he had looked at the moon as a magical place. Now, he saw the cool serenity of the lunar surface and the efforts that it had taken mankind to reach its surface. Although not even an amateur astronomer, Brian had always enjoyed the night sky. It had been a place of both mystery and discovery for him throughout his life.

It was also a sight that inspired speculation. How far is it to that star? How did that bright light Venus come to be there? How can we break the bonds of Earth’s gravity and make a second home somewhere out there? Whenever he considered those questions, and others like them, Brian seemed almost able to will himself out into the universe, exploring all of the places that pulled at his mind.

Although his days were often blurred with the multi-hued pulsations of common activity, the nights seemed to move at a slower pace. They were times of reflection for him. Often, when Brian was alone under the night sky, he seemed to be able to question any thought, to probe any concept.  It was his private place, where everything seemed possible.

He remembered a night, under a moon waxing crescent, when he imagined God molding and shaping the moon, and placing it with the greatest of care in the night sky. He could almost see the hand of God as He gave the small globe a gentle push and sent it on its way, a majestic pale light in the sky.  Brian thought that he had been six then. He distinctly remembered his mother call him into the house and scolding him for being outside, alone and well after bedtime, lying on the brown, withered lawn in his cowboy pajamas.

There had been another night, almost moonless, when he was a little older. In the memory, he seemed to be eight or nine, but Brian was not sure. He had just finished reading Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein and his adolescent mind was still reeling from the possibilities that had opened up in his imagination in the aftermath of the book. Men (and boys) in space, walking on the powdery surfaces of faraway moons. It was exhilarating, but there seemed to be a nagging itch at the back of his mind, a small gnawing thought, that perhaps the universe did not fit together quite as he had thought that it did when he was a boy of six.

When he was twelve, he had sneaked out of his bedroom window after everyone was asleep one sweltering hot Sunday night and stared holes in the black void above him. He had not said anything to his parents, but he had argued with the minister after church. Brian had been attending a small Baptist church, alone, the only one in the house to attend a church. There was a peace and simplicity inside that small frame building with the tall tower that he could find nowhere else. But, like the night when he had been nine, he could not make all the pieces fit.

If God had made the Earth, with its bountiful forests and beautiful night sky, why did he seem so anxious to take such bloody revenge on the living beings that he had also made? Why did God act like an evil man? The minister had assured Brian that he would burn in Hell for such thoughts. Brian was convinced that the minister was wrong, that no God could be as spiteful as the God that the minister preached about. But although he lay still and pondered for hours, watching the tapestry of stars rotate over him, no answers came.

The certainty of it had finally come to him when he was seventeen, after five years of searching for a reasonable and compassionate God. It came on a chilly mountain night in November in Wyoming. If such a God could not be found, and if there was no proof of any God anywhere, then there clearly was no God. The thought made Brian almost as cold inside as it was outside, but it was the only thought about God that felt right. All of the other thoughts about gods were slippery and half hidden in smoke and fog. The thought of no God at all was pale blue and cold, but Brian could hold it in his mind and see the clarity of its truth. There simply was no god. He was puzzled that the stars still looked just the same after his revelation.

One night when he was twenty-four, lying prone behind a rough stone wall far from home with a bullet in his side, the universe suddenly seemed to be a cold and heartless place. The men that had shot him were still out there, somewhere, and Brian didn’t think that he could run much farther. The pale stars of the otherwise coal dark night seemed to be the only friends that he had. When they had started firing at him, he had taken the easy shot at the nearest of them, and he had killed the man.

Resting there behind the low wall a half-hour later, he knew that no sane God could have mercilessly killed so many people. He had shot at the man tonight in a reflex honed into him by training. It had seemed the best of several bad choices, but the feeling of anguish over taking a life was a palpable darkness that had settled deeply into the pit of his mind. No sane god could survive that anguish multiplied by thousands of times. No sane God would have allowed the situation where Brian had no choice but to extinguish a life.

Long years later, at thirty-two, Brian sat in a cushioned chair on his deck, overlooking the water, with the crescent moon brokenly reflected in the waves. His best friend in the world was dead, taken by an unthinking person with too much alcohol in his system to be driving a car at all, let alone at the speed it was moving when it struck Andy down in the crosswalk. What unlikely series of events had it taken to place Andy and that drunk’s car in exactly the same place at precisely the same time?

But, deep down, he knew that it was not coincidence. All that could make such an event possible is the randomness of a disinterested universe. Andy was the victim of a statistical outlier, no more, no less. If you could see the atoms that make up air bouncing around in a room, you would see the perfect picture of randomness. They bounce off each other. They bounce off the furniture. They bounce off the walls sometimes. Other times, they bounce clear through the wall and could be anywhere in the galaxy in a week. Today, a large universal atom had bounced into Andy and killed him.

Now Brian was fifty, almost exactly. It was late at night and all his friends had gone. The stars were clear, and twinkling. This was one of those ten-year anniversaries of birth that urgently insists that you spend some time reviewing life. And in the main, life was good. He was doing what he wanted to do and what he felt he had an obligation to do. A part of that involved helping others and working for causes he believed in. A part of that was love, happy times, and good sex. Another part involved producing works that could help others lead happy lives.

Still, once in a while, someone important to him died. Worse, sometimes he could not help someone that was important to him, because they simply would not let him. He had finally learned to live with things like that. The random nature of life insured that the bad would come with the good. Once you understood that eternal fact, and developed positive ways to deal with it, it became possible to shake off almost anything and go on with life. At fifty, under a clear night sky and a sliver of a moon, Brian was at relative peace with the universe.

On a night in his eighty-second year, the stars were out, and there was a bit of a moon, but Brian’s eyesight was not what it once had been. Even after the people at the hospice had been kind enough to give him a bed where he could see the night sky, that familiar vision was a little blurry. Then again, everything was a little blurry all the time, now. He had asked that they give him the minimum of drugs to blunt the pain. He wanted to be able to still feel something of the end of life.

Nearing death was a good time to review life, just like ten-year birthdays. He remembered enjoying the night sky as a naïve boy of six. He had distant but clear memories of the confusion brought on by approaching pubescence, of not knowing in what to believe. With utter clarity, though, Brian remembered the flash of atheistic insight that came with his middle youth, and the feeling on another day of finally putting behind him the self-loathing he had felt at taking a life that was trying to take his.

Perhaps most of all, he remembered his hard-earned knowledge of the thoughtless, random universe in which he lived and the impetus that had given him to live a thinking, positive life. The picture came back now, in what were certainly his last moments, of those atoms bouncing around a room. He hoped that he was one of the ones that bounced free out into the univ


Night Sky — 7 Comments

  1. Thanks, Michael, for a very nice short story. I particualrly liked your phrase in the last paragraph: “hard earned knowledge of the thoughtless and random universe”.

    To someone who didn’t get there nearly as quickly as Brian, the knowledge can be, indeed, hard earned.

  2. Well said! I am fifty two and take care of my 85 year old father. He too is a humanist, although a little grumier than I. At 85, his writing days are behind him but your story sure sounds like him.

  3. That’s the great secret: live a thinking and positive life. When you have learned to live each day as though it were your last and to make it as positive as you can, you have indeed learned to live. And no man is an island, so make those around you happy, as well. Then it doesn’t matter if there is a life after this, you have learned to live this life to the fullest. Thank you, Michael.

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