What do I do?
by Ian Tallach
The dream prompts me to write, but what I need to write about is very real.
Propulsion paralyses me. The gainsayers are deafening- ‘No-one will believe it.’… ‘Of what RELEVANCE is this?’
Ry Cooder once described a piece of music with the words ‘unhurried urgency’. I cried. Those irreconcilables describe my whole condition.
This time I’m going to do it, though, ‘coz if I don’t, I will go insane. It’s almost 6am. A molten wedge of sun defines the eastern ridge. Fleetingly, the shadows of the cacti stretch to where I sit, on the veranda, with my coffee. I like to be here… now.
‘Cup of tea, Farquhar?’ It’s Melody, my wife.
‘Al-right,’ I mumble.
Her expression is part sympathy, part amusement, part… whatever made me fall in love with her in high school.
She blinks rapidly, like she’s about to laugh.
I put down my pen. ‘Tea?! I don’t drink tea.’
‘Time for something new, maybe?’
I chew the biro. It’s an old one- these marks were made by sharper teeth. ‘OK. Sorry… it’s just… I’ve never felt… so stuck.’
‘The dream again?’
‘Yeah. What it reminds me of…. If you think it never happened, I don’t blame you.’
‘I believe you. I believe IN you.’ She smiles. Her silver hair catches the sun. ‘What kind?’
‘Of tea? Surprise me.’
Her flip-flops make a shuffling sound. Linen really suits her. Lilac too.
Alright– the dream. Let’s get it over with.
A sharply dressed black man is walking down a railway line, towards a sun that’s not long set. I follow him. He stops and puts an ear against the track. I lie down too. The rail is cold. ‘Hear that?’ he whispers. ‘Beautiful.’
‘Isn’t that Beethoven?’ I ask.
‘Damn right. String quartet.’
The track rings with a hammer-blow, but he just keeps on lying there, smiling. I stand, but even so the second blow is deafening.
‘Get up!’ I shout.
‘Shhhh! Lis-ten!’ His voice is like a tremor underground. ‘Eternity is almost here.’
Against a navy canvass, clouds are being sucked into a funnel. I watch a tree with twisted limbs resolve into the outline of a face. The quartet carries on, the hammer strikes again, the man keeps smiling and the face contorts in agony.
Then I wake up. Seven times, I’ve had that dream.
Melody is back. ‘For you. One cookie too. Ginger and honey.’
‘Both- comes as a set.’
No! You fell for this gimmick? You?! Something has shifted in the universe!’
‘Cheaper than your stuff! And, speaking of the universe, I think it wants your story.’
‘In universal terms… it doesn’t mean… anything.’
‘Oh? Didn’t you say the opposite, last week?’ She lowers her chin to her chest to affect a growly voice- ‘…either my undoing or it’s gonna change the course of history.’
‘I did not.’
‘You did. And not-writing– THAT is your un-doing. Don’t think about anyone. Just yourself… and the universe.’
‘What I mean is, think of the very-very big… out there.’ She flings an arm at the horizon, releasing crumbs. ‘And the very-very small… in here.’ She touches her chest. ‘There’s a connection, no? You’ve felt it and it’s overwhelming you.’
‘Look, I’ve never heard this thing. Wish I had. It’s driven a wedge between us.’
‘Maybe if I hear it one more time?’
‘To prove to yourself you’re not delusional?!?’ She gets up to leave. ‘Tell them about Wyatt,’ she shouts from the kitchen.
OK, I will… but first…
We used to have this radio show in college- ‘Wee, Wee Ours’. One night it featured the tune later to invite that oxymoron– ‘unhurried urgency’. It sounded very old, but also futuristic, somehow. Behind the hiss of the 1927 recording, a groan rose and fell. I imagined the musician gently swaying to a music far beyond this world. And that slide guitar– I’ve never heard an instrument so connected with a voice.
The DJ spoke eventually. ‘That was Blind Willie Johnson– Dark Was the Night. Impossible to follow.’ He eulogised the man, but, to my shame, I forgot about him until decades later.
Trip of a lifetime - Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia – 1990. On the way, night fell around us at 33,000 feet, offset by the spin of the earth, I suppose. We hit bad turbulence. Stewardesses scuttled for the alcove. Lights went out. Melody was quite unphased, though- ‘Just close your eyes, wait for a tune, and listen.’ That sounded unhinged, I but tried it. And very clearly ‘Dark Was the Night’ was that tune. I listened to it! My fear of turbulence was superseded.
I looked out at the stars. ‘Is there a loneliness at the centre of the universe?’ I asked my diary.
On that holiday, I heard the tune again, hummed by a beggar, on the pavement. We got swept on by the crowd, though. Next day he wasn’t there.
Back in Arizona, I bought ‘best of Blind Willie Johnson’. His voice is very powerful. Must have been some preacher, if you like that kind of thing. But then I lost the tape.
In 2004, about three miles from here, it came another time. Strange things happen in this desert, so I wasn’t too surprised… initially. But it was loud and very clear and only audible for the duration of the track. That freaked me out. I told the police– couldn’t think what else to do. They thought I was crazy. Looking back, I should have persevered.
In 2012– same thing, but only for about ten seconds. Then, after another eight-year gap, it came again, but this time, it was all stretched out… and faint.
Soon afterwards, the dreams started. I wake up terrified. Cold sweat might be a cliché, but not if it’s as cold as mine. Coffee, then the urge to write- a sense of obligation- but to WHOM?
Let me tell you about Wyatt Ho.
We were at school together, forty years ago. I looked him up, gave him a cyberwave and he replied ‘woah! Farquhar MacNeil! Cannae believe it!’ (We used to tease each other about roots… or lack of them.) Turns out he and Sylvia, his wife, live sixteen miles from here, just past the state line. He recently retired from the Deep Space Centre, also in the Mojave desert.
Last Thursday night they came for dinner. ‘No ceremony,’ he insisted. ‘I just want to talk.’ To help with that, we had Malbec. I was nervous; their lives have taken them to places we can only dream of.
Melody put on some background music. Wyatt was telling us about his work as Sylvia- a sparrow of a woman– sat demurely by his side. Suddenly, he stopped and pointed to the stereo. ‘Know this? B flat major string quartet. I love Beethoven!’
The hairs rose on my forearms.
‘You OK, sweetheart?’ Melody touched my hand.
‘That’s… the music in my dream!’ I swallowed. ‘Never heard it… in real life.’
‘Your dream?’ Wyatt and Sylvia chimed.
I told them everything, including what I’d actually heard.
Wyatt shivered. ‘And you’ve never spoken of this?’
‘Well, I did tell the police. They thought I was crazy.’
‘That well-dressed man must be Blind Willie Johnson,’ he enunciated.
‘But, this guy could see where he was going!’ I tried to sound composed.
‘You said he was heading towards the sun?
I thought back. Strange– in the dream, I never see his eyes.
Wyatt was unperturbed. ‘Born 1897. Apparently, his father’s lover threw lye at him, when he was little- some kind of indirect revenge for infidelity. That’s when he lost his sight.’
‘How’d you know this stuff?’ I was feeling more and more inadequate.
He closed his eyes. ‘His life was hard. Played the blues to survive. Of course, he didn’t think he played them– the guitar was just a vehicle for preaching. Funny– he’s the only bluesman on the cover of a Led Zeppelin album! At forty-eight, he slept in the charred remains of his house, after a fire. He contracted malaria. No hospital would admit him, so he died.’
When Wyatt opened his eyes, he seemed to come back from another place entirely.
‘And wait for this,’ he added – ‘Dark was the Night went up with Voyager 1 in 1977, on ‘the Golden Record’. The idea, at the time, was that intelligent life-forms might be able to decode it and play it. It’s the second-last track on the disc. The last one is the Beethoven we’ve just listened to– the blind man and the deaf man, side by side.’
I couldn’t respond.
‘It was fainter the last time?’ Sylvia spoke with an assertive voice.
I tried to hide my astonishment– she hadn’t really contributed until then. She put me in mind of a heron– motionless for hours, before announcing its true height. I nodded.
‘I worked at Deep Space too.’ She nodded back. ‘We have one of three giant radio antenna facilities. The others are in Australia and Spain. We’re still able to detect occasional transmissions from Voyager 1, even if it’s very far away… and low on power.’
‘You keep a diary?’ Watt asked me, inexplicably.
‘If possible, could you check those dates?’
I went to the bedroom. Wyatt and Silvia were pacing the floor on my return. Melody smiled nervously.
I found two of the dates- August 25th 2012 and December 17th 2004.
Sylvia began. ‘On August 25th 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause, the outermost reaches of our solar system. It’s now the only man-made object in interstellar space.’
‘And 2004?’ I downed the last of the Malbec. ‘What happened then?’
‘On December 17th it broke the sound barrier- what we call the termination shock- the point at which the solar winds have finally decelerated to the speed of sound.’
‘Wait! Wait! You cannot seriously be telling me there’s a scientific explanation?!’ I was agog.
‘No, we’re not.’ Wyatt took over. ‘If it were a physical phenomenon, the signals would have arrived here later.’ He looked at the ceiling. ‘We believe in physics, 100%. That’s what physics is– proof beyond doubt. But that doesn’t mean we disbelieve metaphysics. In your dream, he mentions eternity, yes?’
‘Yeah, but it’s just a... I c-can’t believe…’ I stammered.
‘In the observable universe, we have time. But we refer to certain things as time-less- a piece of music, for example. ‘Dark Was the Night’ has often been described like that. Ry Cooder, whom you know, called it ‘transcendent’. Others say it’s ‘a window to eternity’. Bach, who ‘channelled the music of the universe’, has three pieces on the Golden Record.’
Melody shook her head. ‘Wyatt, are you, of all people, saying there’s a spiritual connection between my husband and a piece of metal 14 billion miles away?!’
Sylvia gasped. ‘How d’you know that distance?!’
‘I-I read science magazines.’ Melody blushed. ‘Listen! Farquhar has to write this… without interference. All I can do is encourage him. It’s exasperating!’ She laughed shrilly. A tear rolled down her cheek.
I didn’t know whether to berate or comfort her, so I laughed too. Then we all laughed together.
Wyatt suppressed his giggles. ‘And… your dream… sorry… your dream seems to me to be… about… a meeting of eternity and time. I think you might know what I’m trying to say. In Scotland, your dad was a presbyterian minister?’
‘I don’t want to go there.’
‘OK… just… I think it’s still in your subconscious– the tree from the ground and the pillar of cloud from the sky. The agonized face. BC, AD and all that.’
‘No. For you, it might still be a powerful picture- of irreconcilables being reconciled- time and eternity, physics and metaphysics. We often process events through our religious traditions.’
I put my forehead on the table. ‘So… what… now?’
‘Like Melody says – write it down. We’ll stay in touch, alright?’
I raised my head. ‘Thanks. Immense thanks.’
‘It’s past eleven,’ Sylvia observed. ‘We’d better go.’
‘It’s our duty to record what we observe, even when it seems meaningless,’ Wyatt proclaimed from the doorway- an interesting parting shot, after a very interesting evening.
So, I’m sat here and I suppose I have told you the facts, along the way. What do they MEAN, though? What’s their SIGNIFICANCE? I only have more questions.
Oh, yes– just one more thing. Wyatt phoned next day to ask about our holiday in 1990. Turns out that was when ‘the pale blue dot’ was taken - our part in the ‘family portrait’ of the solar system. I wasn’t overly surprised– to be surprised again.
What now, though? WHAT DO I DO?↑