An astronaut relives his recent past through a single, dancing flame.
The wind from a golden sea brought the scent of ash to a man sitting on the beach.
Next to him was the lantern. Orange and red and yellow it burned. A tiny version of the view over the sea. The man leaned into the light and gazed deep into its quiet fire, the flame drawing his eyes back towards the summer, just passed. Wild roses of June and July and the sun-drenched afternoons of August. He was there.
November was at the edge of the flame where the light gave in to darkness. He didn’t look there.
He sighed and turned his gaze to the sea and then to the night above. Stars in tangled constellations shone ten million lifetimes beyond the sky and ended here within the eyes of Victor Johnson. He heard their whistling signals and fell towards them passing through their diamond light with the swift, magic breeze of an angel in flight. The sky between was velvet, deep and treasured with, as yet, unseen things. Comet veils and dust lit by the stars flew by fast and silent. And his heart was filled with the wideness of eyes that have seen stars for the first time. Starlight caught within the waves of faint light traveling a trillion years dusted his forehead and cheeks.
Silent and high he went, golden-haired and crimson-toed from the stars and their children: the worlds possessed by their grasp and hidden from this world and others. Once around the silver moon he sailed, both darkened and enlightened by its presence and its severe elegance.
And with the moon behind him, the stars in its glow, he returned silent and content to the lantern and its light at the edge of the ocean.
Victor Johnson had been an astronaut in the months and the years passed. He had ridden the vehicles that pushed away the Earth and wandered the space between worlds with a mountain of power behind him and the unforeseen hazards of discovery beyond. He had seen and felt what could never be described and had developed a new sense that no-one forever remaining on terra firma could know. It was a feeling, a knowing; something from an area somewhere in the middle of the other senses. A region where emotions from new experiences were created.
The flame in the lantern was showing him that time in its enchanting, fiery glow. It showed him the roar of the rocket engines, their red and orange billowing clouds of burning fuel pushing the giant machine into the deep blue distance with thousand-cannon blasts of deafening noise filled in by his memory. He soared in the flame, and inside, his console lights - the reflecting flames in the lantern glass - winked on and off showing him the sequence of events needed to pull him into the wanting and promised arms of the universe beyond Earth.
A hundred flickers of the lantern’s light later he was there - silent and free and back among the stars. Once again he heard the whistling signals and felt the veils of comets in his position as observer of everything. He didn’t have to see the things he new were there. Some, like the dust between stars and the messages from the sun through radio space, were reconfirmed by the new sense he had developed. This was something very special.
The lantern burned bright and the mission continued. The starlight, now still and untwinkling, came to him over the great distances and the long years. They were the light version of whale songs, singing their music and communicating their once urgent messages to the ages.
The feeling of motion had now stopped and he drifted in his tiny capsule - a bottle with a message for anyone who wanted to pick it out of the dark sea.
The flame flickered. There was a breeze coming in from the slow-moving waters out beyond the dusky semblance of volcano and pillars of smoke. This is where Victor Johnson fixed his gaze. The moon, silvering the horizon, showed its seas to him. Seas that were dry, dusty, forever still wonderlands of black and white memory. The glass case of the lantern became his visored helmet reflecting the extreme light and dark landscapes of craggy rock and crater wall. The images shifted as he moved his head slowly from dark left to bright right, from shadows and secrecy to brilliance and blaze.
Behind every strewn rock and boulder lay severe and absolute silence. The dark was silent, the light was silent. Everything was touched by ancient mystery and ageless patience. And Johnson walked the seas and plateaux that made up the once and forever face of the moon.
Moving himself to behind the lantern he positioned the night waters that sparkled below his moon so they were behind the glass. The bright and glowing sea-shimmered image filling his vision fired his re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. His mind completed the flame-induced memory with the thundering rumble surrounding him. He moved his face closer to the orange light while sequencers sequenced and controls controlled his brave machine. And then he moved to the side of the light to take in the approaching sea.
His parachute deployed.
The charred hull of the million mile metal voyager splashed into the sea. It bobbed and jostled in the currents of southern waters waiting to be plucked, once again, - the message in a bottle - from the worldly waters of home.
The eyes of Victor Johnson closed. He waited to be picked up from the sea and was tired after his long and lonely voyage. For two months he had travelled, explored and wandered through blackness to return home now, late November, and feel the clutch of gravity and the warm welcome of the men who had sent him.
A night and a day after hitting the Earth, the lantern reminded him, he waited and nobody came. He had grabbed the lantern and inflated the emergency dinghy. Through the watery night he then floated to the beach on which he now sat.
His fiftieth night had passed and to his good fortune the supplies had lasted him until he had found food beyond the beach.
Johnson lifted his head and sighed, the lantern light was still. He had ended his fiftieth journey through the rescued lamp. Each night he stared into the light and was launched atop immense thrust into the vast black solitude - an echo of his biggest journey of all his rocket years at summer’s end, long gone it seemed.
He looked around - back on Earth. Back to his not yet accepted surroundings here on a beach, in an ocean, on a world. A world that was once his home. He looked around dispassionately and turned off the lantern.
The sea was just dark water - deep and unending. Not the catcher of his craft or the warm waves that brought him here. The night was truly the night - holding the scared air. It wasn’t the perpetual, timeless firmament through which brave explorers like Victor Johnson raced. It was just emptiness. And the ground where he now lay was somewhere he did not want to be.
But the stars were still the stars. They shone their million year light into his eyes and flickered through the atmosphere he had so often pierced. They kept bright his lonely mind and made his solitude a wondrous journey. For tomorrow night he would return to and relight the lantern. To fly again amongst the stars where he belonged.