By the end of this, I’m going to tell you my answer. I’d do it right now, but I don’t know what I’m going to say yet. That’s one of the reasons we have writing: to find out what we think.
This has to do with the Ukraine. Not in any politicized way, just as a place, and a people, and a language.
And also as a way of spelling that I can’t read. Some of their letters look like numbers. Others look a bit like those plastic pieces in the old-fashioned kids’ game Perfection. I don’t know if you ever played it, but I did. A lot. You’ve got to fit them all in the right spaces in a ticking board—there’s a 30-second timer, and it’s going like a taunting insect—or else the springs pop, loud, and the game board jumps with a kind of thud-clap.
Anyway, I had an occasion to be looking at Cyrillic because a man named Alexander Yemets wrote me recently. He’s a professor of literature somewhere in Europe, and he’d been teaching one of my flash fiction pieces. One of his students did a translation of it, and it got published in a Ukrainian journal, so Professor Yemets sent me a pdf of the pages. That might be commonplace for a lot of people, but it isn’t for me. For me, it was a first.
This is the story:
Maybe it’s different if you grow up around lightning. Say if you’re from Kansas where all it is, is normal. Normal and dangerous, and you know exactly what it’s like to catch the whipcrack end of the stuff with your roof, or barn, or with the only tree around for miles. But that’s not me. To me, it’s incredible. I mean, I look forward to it when it smells like lightning’s coming. When it slashes and streaks and you can hear it sizzling apart the night. I totally love that. So guess what: I was on a plane one time—this was about three years ago—a little puddle jumper out of Dallas down to Lake Charles—so we must’ve been over East Texas or Shreveport—it could’ve been Arkansas—wherever—the point is, out the window was this giant cloud that looked like a lightning factory. You know, I mean, you should’ve seen it. It wasn’t shooting out lightning bolts. They were all happening inside the cloud, so these areas would suddenly flash in the middle… then somewhere else… then pmm pmm pmm pmm pmm all in a row… like if you were standing outside a welding shop in the dark, in the snow, and seeing all these blue-white flashes through windows covered in dust. And, I mean, it really did look like a factory. You know, like this was where and how lightning was made, then shipped around the world to thunderstorms. Like down there in the middle, gods were working with hammers and anvils and bellows and wearing those helmets with a little strip of glass to look out of. Like a cloudy furnace. Like the birthplace of light. Like maybe that’s the way the universe looked in the womb. God, I wished someone would’ve been there with me. It was the kind of thing that’s twice as good to share.
. . .
It first appeared in Quarterly West about 20 years ago. Then later the editors of Flash Fiction Forward (W.W. Norton, 2006) asked if they could use it too. And somehow that book made its way to Eastern Europe, into a college class about the genre.
That’s not why we have writing, but it’s cousins with why we have writing because something of mine somehow reached across a different language and the ocean and a continent and a generation since that college student was probably just a baby when I first wrote it down. And the point (or irony, or meta-something) of the story isn’t even stated, it’s just implied in the final line: We have writing to make up, or hold onto, vivid moments. We have writing so they can keep on going.
My character wished there was someone with him, but there was. There is. There’s the reader.
We have writing and reading so we know we don’t live our lives alone.