The Greatest Light

Josef was a man ever-growing his capacity for the arts, never satisfied. He took to knitting once, starting with hats and gloves to keep him warm in the winter’s freeze and graduated to quilts and rugs before tailoring lush curtains for Broadway and, in a rare sense of adequacy, retired his deft talent upon catching a never before seen squirming giant squid with a crafted mesh net the length of three football fields. It was this kind of poor squid trophy that made up for the sleep he would abhor.

He could recall in his dreams at an early age fighting as an older fighting dragons as a brave ten year old. He would build planes out of sticks with bullets of pine needles to fight the beasts, run landscapes on foot to castles with princesses and save them and be happy. He grew into his thoughts at night and dwelled as a peasant or a forester, taking calls from the towns to save the peoples from their troubles. But at night he grew not with his self by day. As a teenager he could manage for only so long the setbacks of life as a youth, his blows slow and weak, his bravery slipping to reticence when his foes began to laugh at the boyish hero.

He smoked Camels, at first, having quit running after his smashing win in the trans-Himalayan ultramarathon at seventeen. Josef quickly discovered that hand-rolling his smokes was an act that lent a sense of accomplishment to the whole act of smoking, a feeling of triumph won before even lighting the shag. He honed his skill so he could roll a perfectly balanced, cylindrical cigarette with tip aglow in a flat four seconds. This act mused many at parties, but left Josef empty and hungry for more. Rolling a larger cigarette would be a task of tasteless despair.

Josef was inspired when a gentleman asked him for a match.

“Would you like me to roll you one?” he replied, eager to please.

“No, no,” said the man, elderly, “just a match will do if you have one to spare.” Josef struck one against the book and raised it to below and fore the man’s chin. The flame grew slowly as Josef held the little stick, his eyes intent on not the man leaning to light, but the shallow ember that rose into a thin leaf of fire, growing, rising by the moment but bubbling within and pointing up, up. The times he had lit a match for himself, he noticed only the flame from the base of his gaze and paid no notice to the ceiling upon which the fire pushed. Josef’s eyes heightened and he ran home.

When Josef was twelve, one night in a dream he received a message from a currier. It was a note from a nearby lord, begging his presence in the manor. Josef rode in on his silver steed, brandishing armor and sword. The lord humbly rose with a solemn face as Josef entered the villa. He said that word had spread that the king and the queen and the fine men and women of castle had all quickly fallen ill and all collapsed. The few that made it out of the royal terrace said that the air had gone thin. That all choked on their fleeting words. That some mystic had entered the land and grasped the air they breathed. Josef said he would take on this beast and charged towards the king’s castle on his horse at full gallop. Crossing the moat, he at first bore witness to people collapsing. Within the walls dozens of bodies littered the grounds. He drew his sword and shouted to whatever demon came that the no fool dare enter the castle and kill the king and queen and the fine men and women and the words came out of his mouth but the air did not return to his chest and his gasps failed as his eyes grew wide and his sword fell from his hand, grabbing his neck in a primal reflex and falling slowly off his horse in a slump onto his head with shocked neck and jammed spine following limbs into the ground where he lay, staring at the sky, defeated by a beast he could not see with his eyes but was there now inside of him, wrenching his heart and its beat, slowly pulling him downward, ever downward ‘til he awoke.

Returning at full pace to his residence, Josef rummaged through a storage closet and wielded a small gas torch. Shaking it in an assurance of nonemptiness he rolled a cigarette in a blitzing pair of seconds and triggered the torch. He stared in a cold glue of awe at the jet blue force blasting from the instrument in his hand. The tube of fire pierced the air and he inched it near his face, cigarette in lips. The blue flame seared across the end of the cigarette and shot a yellow flickering wing from the tip of the paper. As he drew in his lungs the orange body of the cigarette shined as Josef smiled the smile of an oil man stepping in fresh crude sludge on an open plain. He exhaled an afterthought, plumes a dying cumulus.

Josef ran to the hardware store and purchased a large propane tank and yards of tubing. At home, he rigged the tubing to the tank’s end and turned the valve, drawing a match to the opening. A mushroom rang out and collapsed into a cone, a small tree of a deep violet flame, standing. He rolled a cigarette and brought it to the flame, feeling his spirits fill with an excitement greater than ever, the visceral fire adsorbing his being. His body felt a mass of energy within balloon so hot he fell back, dazed.

Laying on the floor, he laughed.

He limited the times between his waking hours anymore. Once a boy in a body of a chivalrous knight, he was constrained now by naivete. Once indefatigable in his advance, he broke quickly at challenge, powerless in suit. He would awake in a sweat and swear to never sleep again, always.

As a night took over, he ran to a gas station and filled two tanks with regular fuel. Walking deep into industrial grounds, he spotted an old abandoned building and circled it, emptying the tanks’ contents on the brick as he moved. When he completed his loop, he removed a book of matches from his pocket and in a motion stroked and tossed the stick in the moat of fumes he founded. The flame became before the match had landed and streams of orange raced in both directions. The bushes caught first, then the building’s crusted walls of neglect joined the dance. Within minutes, the building, once a symbol of product and boom, was now a source of great light in a sink of disregard. Leaning into the inferno with a cigarette taut in his mouth, he felt the heat of world burning amidst the sounds of crumbling rafters. Sirens grew as the rage of the fire softened with his walking away.

Days later after the papers had waned of cries of arson, Josef sold all of his belongings and stocks and began buying drills and saws and welding torches and oil and sheets of graphite and carbon tubes and motherboards and wires and silver and glass and screws. He labored for months on end in a yard he took up, building and tweaking and tuning until much time later before him was a small ship. The vessel bore a dorsal fin out of which faced back a large combustion rocket. The cabin was just large enough to hold Josef and a pack of tobacco and papers. Checking the final numbers and gauges on the ship, he boarded and engaged all launch commands. A clock ticked ten as the rocket began its proto-ignition thrust as the ship rattled and shook, nine, eight, the heat of the engine seeping into the cabin as it passed seven, the monitor blasting warnings and red lights and tones he did not know he had assembled or allowed or even could now fathom as six the headshield tinged with a foggy soot of chimneys never cleaned, five, four, his body trembled and seized under the glaring heat of the rocket and, three, two, he saw he could stand from the ground that he had lay upon so long ago in his armor and he rose with his sword to see a castle filled with emptiness and his horse lay on the ground unmoving and he removed his knight’s helmet and held it in front of his face where in the polished silver he saw an older man staring back, not the valiant knight of youth but an aged gentleman in chainmail who looked now only tired, until after one the ship rose from the ground in an instant, racing out of the land and into the sky, sailing towards the only light he could ever see now and needed, needed so dearly, to be a part.

Author’s Note: Written in 2011, this was originally a commemoration of a lost friend. I now find this more than ever to be most autobiographical, for reasons at once both entirely different from its original celebrant, and entirely encapsulating of our character’s (and author’s old) modus operandi. Yours, ELN

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