There were the Meskwaki Indians of southern Ontario who, when they saw the lights, imagined the spirits of their slain enemies flickering across the sky, furious in their ethereal impotence, aching for revenge. Or the Greenland Inuits who looked up at night—the boundless quiet of their winterlong night—and saw the dancing ghosts of stillborn children, transformed by death into energy and light. Or the Menominee of Wisconsin, who imagined giants stalking the unbroken woods surrounding them, spearing fish from rivers by the lights of their torches. Or the Makahs of Washington, who squinted towards Canada and envisioned a tribe of dwarves roaming the Pacific in canoes, grabbing whales with their hands, then burning their blubber in beach-fires that shimmered red and blue against the horizon, like the holographic scales of salmon.
Most days, my world encompasses the ten blocks immediately south of my apartment. I ride my bike to school. I teach freshman how to cite scholarly journal articles according to current MLA formatting standards. I sit at my desk and comment on essays until dark. And then I bike back to my apartment, where I’ll eat a fried egg sandwich and spill its crumbs between the cushions of my recliner, where I’ll plan tomorrow’s class while drinking Carlos Rossi boxed cabernet out of a coffee mug, where I’ll shut my eyes and fall asleep for an hour before waking up and realizing that it’s time for bed. Who knows what happens beyond this? Maybe dwarves are building fires. Maybe giants are spearing fish.
Tonight, though—October 24th, the start of our long, gray slide into winter—the northern lights are out, and so bright I can see them out my living room window: a hazy blotch of red hanging over my parking lot, vibrant as a fresh wound, pulsing, growing brighter, and spreading cracks of light into the black sky. The northern lights are out, and my neighbors are all outside in their pajamas, out amongst the dumpsters and cars, silent with their mouths open and heads tilted skyward.
I want to get closer. I want a better view. So I go outside and walk towards the beach, down the middle of Hawley Avenue, staggering like a drunk or a toddler with my head turned up. I cross Lakeshore Boulevard, climb over the boulders that keep Lake Superior from flooding the street on windy days, and lie on my back next to the water. The lake is black and silent tonight. The lake is silent while, overhead, a band of scarlet is ribboning like an incision into the sky. Someone is tearing a hole into the night and revealing the insides of things, the hidden mechanics of creation and life, and I have no idea what I’m seeing.
Though this will pass, I know. In an hour, the lights will fade and I’ll walk home beneath a blank sky. And, tomorrow, there will be a new stack of essays to comment on. There will be office hours. There will be takeout pad Thai for lunch, and a cold bikeride home in the dark. I know this.
But, right now. I am shivering on my back, my head inches from the black water; overhead, the spirits of dead children are rippling across the sky to comfort the living, to shock us back to our senses, out of our heads and into our skin. I am alive, I finally remember, fanning out my hands to feel the cold sand against my fingers. I don’t understand anything about anything, and I am alive.