Predicting the Clouds
Near Pittsburgh, overlooking the Monongahela River, is a little mountain with a house on the top of it, a house that looks like it’s trying to move to the green valley at the base of the mountain. A man lives in that house, as if he belonged to the mountain.
When he was a younger man, Gandi lived like everyone else on the plains, with a family and work. Then his wife died, his daughter married and left; he retired. Gandi moved to the mountain just as he had always wanted. Marden, Gandi’s grandson came every summer and stayed for two weeks.
Gandi made sure he was prepared for emergencies. He had been a sailor and in the navy as a young man and that training showed in the way his house was organized and disciplined.
He trained himself to synchronize his loneliness with the mountain. He realized very quickly this was essential for living there. The massive sky he constantly watched helped him a lot too.
One day at a wayside yard sale, a man was selling an old telescope. It was about four feet long, heavy, dusty and ungainly, mounted on a plank with wheels of which two were broken. But it worked. Gandi bought it for thirty-five dollars. A very good investment. Especially after a bit of cleaning and adding a few more accessories: a star finder, a new base for easy movement, two or three eye pieces, and a moon filter.
Gandi looked at the moon for several days. Its chilled magnified brilliance moved him to tears. He gazed at its craters and cracks with reverence. February and March provided mostly clear, cold nights. On some nights, he went star hopping across the sky, unable to sleep with the excitement of finding some remembered asterism, some constellation that he had known in his childhood. On nights that were cloudy, Gandi felt doomed and forlorn. He even developed a sensitivity to clouds and was able to predict them from the way his bones cringed.
The telescope stood right in the center of the living room, more important than the old wooden table and the two chairs Gandi had made from the oak tree that used to grow on the left side of the house. After he had his dinner, Gandi would wheel the telescope out to the front of the house and settle himself on a wooden stool that he had adjusted to reach the eyepiece of the telescope. Time went by in this starry business and when summer came, Gandi waited impatiently for his grandson.
On the first Sunday in July, Gandi walked up to the road outside his house and watched his daughter, Faria’s car, come up the mountain. He waved as it came near. When Faria and Marden got out of the car, Gandi felt something was wrong. They looked forlorn; Gandi did not want to ask. Morose with them, he helped to carry Marden’s two suitcases and backpack to the house.
When Marden came into the living room, he stood silently looking at the telescope. “I got myself this, bought it at a junk sale,” Gandi said and patted the side of the telescope.
Marden touched the gray patch on the side where the black paint had peeled off. He tilted his head to read what was left of the name, “Dobin?” Gandi scratched his chin through his beard and laughed at Marden, “Alright, Mardy, it’s a Dobin alright,” he said. “Not Dobin. Dobsonian.” He pronounced every syllable, holding it in his mouth for the longest time, as if unable to let it go. He made some softs sounds and went around the telescope, touching the long metal body; like he was trying to heal the paint.
“The things she can do, you’ll see, Mardy, you’ll see,” he whispered and for a moment, Gandi disappeared into that world of the sky and space.
Faria came in, cracking her knuckles; she had unpacked Marden’s things. “Dad, make sure he goes to bed latest before 11,” she said.
Gandi avoided her sadness and nodded a little too soon. Even before Faria had left, he was clasping and unclasping his wizard fingers as if he could get some magic started.
“Come on here, Mardy, see this little tube here? The man said he put that in just recently. Just needs some batteries, is all. It’s a laser pointer, Mard, what do you say to that, eh?”
Marden’s face was all pinched up and tight.
“My head’s not feeling that good,” he said, finally. “I’m going to lie down.”
Gandi turned and lowered his eyebrows. “Must be the drive,” he said. “And the heat, you know. You rest now, Mard. I’ll have all this set up for you by six. That’ll give you enough time to rest away the headache; we’ll have some good tea, and if I’m not mistaken, old Mrs. Billy has baked us a nice little sweet something, she knows my grandson is coming.”
Mrs. Billy helped Gandi once a week; she lived on the other side of the mountain. Her side overlooked the river and every time it rained, she was afraid her house would slide down.
“What if it rains, Gandi?” Marden said, quite unprepared for how Gandi’s face crumpled and folded.
“Is that what they said, that there’s rain this evening? Did you check when you left Richmond, what did your mother say? Does she know it’s going to rain today? We have to see what they’re saying on the radio, Mard. We can’t take chances like that. Not after I’ve waited for you all this time.”
He was hopping about around the telescope as he spoke, like it was a flower and he was a thin little humming bird.
The radio was an antique; maybe the very first radio that was made. Marden had tried for the last two years to get Gandi to throw it out and get a TV, and each time, Gandi just nodded and said the day it doesn’t turn on, Mard, that’s the day, that’s the day.
The radio was on the shelf behind the telescope. If he had to turn it on, Gandi would have to move the telescope and get around it. Gandi shrugged. “Never mind, I’ll just go with what I feel in my bones, then. It’s clear and dry, Mard, that’s what my bones are telling me. My bones are singing the song of the telescope. Do you know the telescope song, Mard? My big hand bone is saying, Mars, Mars. But the finger bones are all whispering, Venus, Venus. The ribs, they go, Omega Centauri, Omega Centauri. Mard, rest up your headache. There’s Arcturus and Spica, the Dippers, the moon, we’re going to galaxies and supernovas and Antares, Mard, Antares. They’ve been waiting there forever, Mard. We’re going to get them.”
Marden’s head felt a burst, a vaporizing. “I just told you, didn’t I, that I have a headache. You don’t care anything about that, do you? You don’t get it, do you, I hate to be here, my head hurts, I wish Mom would stop leaving me here.” He kicked the base of the telescope as hard as he could.
For the briefest moment, Gandi stood, shocked. Then he went at Marden, his fingers around the boy’s right upper arm, crushing the soft flesh into the bone. “You leave that alone, you hear me, you, you,” he shouted. “Brat, ungrateful brat, you touch that telescope, and I will throw you down the mountain.”
Marden’s face was blotched. He squirmed violently. Gandi tightened his grip some more and then suddenly let him go. Marden lost his balance and fell squirming to the floor. His head hit the leg of the wooden table with a sharp sound. He lay still for a few seconds with his eyes closed. There was no response from Gandi. Marden opened his eyes to see Gandi inspecting his telescope for any damages. He stood up shaking and determined. He kicked the wooden base again, but before Gandi could react, he was off, running to his room. At the door, he turned, stuck his tongue out and was gone before Gandi could move.
Gandi sat down opposite the telescope. An hour went by. Still he could not get up. All around, the evening began to settle down into silent purity. The sky visible through the window was flawless twilight blue. Gandi stared at his hand and wondered that he could get so angry. As if he had never grown old and calm, as if he was a young man once again, packed with rage, uncontrollable rage that could be triggered in so many ways.
He looked at Marden’s door, tempted to knock. He went around the kitchen tidying up the counter and shelving dishes. He boiled some water to make rice. As he reached for a broom, he looked up to see Marden at the door. The boy’s face was swollen. Gandi threw the broom aside and went to him. Marden backed away.
“How is the head? That fall couldn’t have helped it, right. Is it worse?” Gandi asked.
Gandi felt his mouth twitch. He controlled himself and said, “Are you hungry? I am making some rice. But there’s the cake, Mrs. Billy made for you. Will you have a piece?”
Marden shrugged. Gandi took out a plate and carefully cut a piece. He poured out a glass of milk and set the cake and the milk on the wooden table in the living room. Beside the plate, he put a little white pill. “For the headache,” he said. He did not look any more at Marden.
Turning the telescope to face the front door, Gandi wheeled it out to the front of the house. He positioned his stool near the eyepiece and sat down.
Marden watched Gandi as he ate his cake. It was a pretty good cake, with large chocolate chunks melted in its middle. He finished, washed up his plate and glass and went to the front door and stood for a while, he tapped a rhythm on the door, but Gandi showed no interest that he heard him. After a few minutes, Marden gave up and went to his room.
Gandi sat on his stool without looking through the eyepiece. The darkness started up the mountain and soon included Gandi.
He must have fallen asleep, for when he opened his eyes, Gandi saw it was completely dark; his mind tingled and exploded with the wonder of the sky; it made him forget: rage, oldness, relationships, time, his body. It was enough. Gandi stood up, fighting the stiffness in his back. Marden was standing near the doorway.
“I’m about ready to go to bed,” Gandi said. “But do you want to take a look”.
Marden walked hesitantly forward. Gandi adjusted the eyepiece and repositioned the stool. He moved the telescope to capture Jupiter. It was a royal sight. Accompanied by five moons, four of them in a straight line and the fifth a little below the celestial orb, Jupiter’s beauty reached into Gandi’s head, creating a physical reaction there.
The boy stood completely still with his right eye pressed into the eyepiece for a long time.
“Do you want me to adjust the pointer or anything,” Gandi asked finally.
Marden stepped aside and Gandi looked into the eyepiece.
“That’s as good a sighting of Jupiter as you’ll ever see.”
Marden looked again and was completely silent. “Well, what, do you see it or not?” Gandi asked.
“Nothing, there’s nothing to see,” Marden said, defiant.
Mystified, Gandi looked into the telescope to see Jupiter still in view, disappearing top left. He studied Marden. The boy was so tired? he thought. Plus the headache? He put his arm around Marden’s waist and felt a slight yield. He drew him against his warmth. Tomorrow, he would ask. They would talk about what made Faria so sad and why Marden could not see.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
The Tamil word for smile is ‘ponnagai’ which translates to gold ornament. It does seem to suggest that everyone’s smile is a gold ornament. Not so. As the whole smile industry knows, there are some ugly smiles and some beautiful smiles; certainly not all could be so generously referred to as ‘ponnagai’. Which makes me wonder at how exactly does beauty take place in a face. Is it about the technical perfection of a face: the alignment, the proportion of the features, the color of the teeth so beloved of dental advertisements, etc. Or is it about the act of relaxing those features into an expression that bypasses the need for a technically perfect face. I am inclined to the latter. Beauty is a complete state of relaxation. One can be in such a state if one is confident, secure, fearless, in nirvana.
At least theoretically.
Still in my quest for beauty as a writer and painter, I am now aware of something else happening on the page and on the canvas which I would like to rationalize. Why is it no matter how much I work – the line, the detail, the exact color, the word – on a particular piece, I know ‘it’ did not happen. I equally well know, when ‘it’ does happen. Just knowing this is a kind of personal definition and a huge help to me, unfortunately not so easy to state overtly.
But I have learnt something and can only say this much: Beauty is when the thing we know with our physical senses transforms us to know it with our soul.
Padma Prasad is a writer and painter. Her fiction has appeared in Eclectica, The Boiler Journal, Bindweed Magazine, Fine Flu Journal and Your Impossible Voice. More at: padhma.wordpress.com and: http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/padma-prasad.html.