The Illuminated Man | Andrea Mosier
When he was translucent like an opaque canvas, his shimmering skin came alive with his unbidden thoughts. At those times, he did his best to stay away from people, but the city where he did his work teemed with them, and besides, they were drawn to his luminosity. Most of the time, his skin was the color of coal dust painted over with images done in white, like a work done in paper cut-outs on black canvas.
He had a working knowledge of all flying objects, and so he landed a job repairing private aircraft at a place known as Osiris Aviation, a sandy scar in the green earth off I-25 with the logo of the all-seeing eye atop a sign now faded. The man they called Jasper, who ran the place, had been in business some thirty-five years.
Qwuan moved and dressed carefully as he worked among them, wearing jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and aviator scarves through the hottest months of the year. In all that time, he had allowed himself to get close to only one human on the planet, a middle-aged woman with skin the color of an unripe peach they called Sarah, who sold her dead husband’s private plane to pay for cancer treatments for herself. Qwuan had never known a person near death, and it fascinated him the way others would be fascinated to watch his skin turn to moving pictures underneath his denim shirt, revealing dreams and imaginings that surprised even him.
On a warm Albuquerque evening, she came up from Tularosa to pick up the check from the vintage airplane sale, and Qwuan spoke to her, turned his watery gray eyes on her, aware of the motor oil blackening the blue of his shirt, the sweat on his brow despite his protests that he was not suffocating inside his denim sarcophagus. He removed his scarf, and her image played just at the collar of his shirt, moving up to fill in his neck all the way to the black curls at his hairline until she saw herself reflected, if idealized, in his face.
Instead of turning away in horror, she took his hand.
After the consummation of their relationship, her skin became luminescent, not with images but with color, and she never returned to the hospital in Albuquerque. They spent nights in a tiny trailer in a field of dust behind the aviation shop. She spent her money on frivolous things that brought her joy, things of beauty made of turquoise, clay, and blown glass. Qwuan spent his extra time with her, and all that summer, the color of her skin gained vitality and intensity, at times sparkling until she could no longer go out in public without a cloak covering her full body. It was at this time that Qwuan suggested with a smirk that she looked like one of the holy men on his home planet, and she looked up at him, saying, “Holy men in the ancient scriptures and our own stories wore such robes.”
At that point, Qwuan began to think about his own image-decked body as something that needed covering, perhaps with more than mere clothing.
Sarah lived five years beyond the doctor’s death sentence. She died on an autumn day in her house in Tularosa, in the shadow of the mountains with the sky an unrelenting gray. The skin of her wane body lost color until it turned to white like gypsum. He buried her behind her house under a cottonwood tree. She left him the house, but he dared not move into it. He had learned not to create questions in the minds of the men of the town. Or any town.
His move south had to do with an inexplicable desire to see the desert. His own home was mountain basalt giving way to lush vegetation in the lowlands, a rocky landscape born of volcanoes. He could not imagine a vista such as the one Sarah had described, a place he had visited only in his dreams. The White Sands basin. He took his touring bike there, traveling only at night, coming into town on Highway 70 and parking the bike at a restaurant where 70 became White Sands Boulevard.
Southeastern New Mexico was a strange hybrid landscape of palm trees, yucca plants, spider cactus, bright green grass in the shade of cottonwood trees, and the endless gypsum sand stretching to the Rockies.
White Sands was a national monument and a missile range and Qwuan only went there to camp when he was in his opaque stage, parking at the diner, walking unobserved on the edge of the Air Force base, and slipping past the guards to gain access.
The missile range and national monument sat at the edge of a small town at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains, and one day, one of the town’s residents wandered onto base in a kind of trance. He was found sitting on a patch of sand, his eyes fixed to the sky. An MP collected him, put him in the Jeep, and took him to the base clinic for observation. Somehow Qwuan knew this even though he hadn’t seen the man let alone the MP or the clinic doctor who called the man’s wife and used the word Alzheimer’s. The scene played out in Qwuan’s nightly dreams as if he had dreamed the town and its people.
He had almost convinced himself that he had.
After that, a few more of the town’s residents contracted Alzheimer’s and made the trek out to the base using the gate on the north side, slipping by the now unmanned guard posts unseen.
That is how it began. Women watched their husbands walking out on their front porches, unresponsive, unheeding, with a look of transfixed awe as they stared at the sky. At first, doctors explained away this phenomenon as stress, food poisoning, prescription drug abuse, and environmental toxins, everything from genetically modified food to radon gas in their homes to artificial sweeteners. But each night, more of the town’s men, airline pilots, soldiers, lawyers, gang leaders, store clerks, custodians, hospital patients, and inmates walked out of their abodes, trailers, mansions, barracks, cells, hotel rooms, to gaze in wonderment at the sky.
And the physicians began to seek out each other in secret rooms, paying large amounts of money for discretion, discovering the habitual night wanderings bordered on mass hysteria because more than a thousand people had developed the habit.
Just when the strange behavior peaked, it halted.
The physicians interviewed their patients and found the men had no memory of wandering around and staring at the night sky. For a long while, wives had their husbands back, mothers ceased worrying about their middle-aged sons, siblings no longer burned up cell phone frequencies gossiping about their aging brothers. Like beetles after a rainstorm, they went back to the routine madness of their lives.
Not long after the town’s aging men started star-gazing, Qwuan suspected he might have something to do with their erratic behavior. The skin of his body began to fill with papery whiteness like the sand in the basin. He had no doubt there was a link to the men’s sudden preoccupation with the night sky, their keen sense that something was awakening over the gypsum sea. He had never before picked up the color of his environment, and the logical region of his brain told him all these changes had to be connected.
On a Friday in late October, he awoke, once again in his opaque state, his skin watery and devoid of images. He walked unseen into the gypsum desert. Afar off, he saw them.
A black line of bodies like a long snake uncoiling itself onto the white canvas.
Back in town, receptionists overwhelmed with calls stopped answering the phones of town physicians and walked out front doors to observe the town’s fathers walking away from their vehicles, stopping traffic both directions on White Sands Boulevard. Men walked west, so many leaving their posts on Holloman Air Force base that all entrances stood unmanned, allowing scores of the touched to enter the protected area. The air traffic control tower emptied. The cafeterias shed line cooks, dining room managers, cashiers, and bookkeepers. Car washes, movie theatres, diners, banks, prisons, grocery stores, and even doctors’ offices emptied of their men.
They all walked west into the white blanket, staring into some other dimension, skyward.
Qwuan dared not move, afraid of creating a wrinkle in the fabric, a detectable fly in the ointment of atmosphere. How he longed to see what those men saw, the spectacle that transfixed their gaze and left them untouchable by this realm. He would have loved to join them but he had to watch even his breathing as they began to move closer to him as if drawn, although he was certain they could not see him.
All night the gathering grew, eyes to heaven, and Qwuan, unable to shake off the inevitability of sleep, succumbed.
In dreams, Qwuan watched the men as they observed a sky filled with tattooed, luminous pictures, not unlike those of his long body. At times, they spoke to the images, communicating with creatures moving in and out of the various illustrations. For the first time in decades, the men played. They moved inside these picture-stories, creating the storylines, and Qwuan watched their dreams in lighted splendor on the night sky, which had turned into a gigantic movie screen.
When he awoke, they were gone, the dreamers.
And Qwuan himself was once again the decorated man, his skin once again a canvas, a moveable feast for the eyes.
He envied those men and he felt sorry for them at the same time.
For they had seen something no one, not even himself, Qwuan the Illuminated, had seen. They had shared something that made them brother and kin to every other man who saw what they saw. But they could never tell another soul as long as they lived, for no human would ever open his mind to such a shared vision for the same reason many short-sighted people called spirituality “mass hysteria” or coined the philosophical aphorism that religion is the opiate of the masses.
For the same reason that a beetle cannot comprehend the orbits of planets, the rising of the sun, or the birth of a star.
And Qwuan knew instinctively that the men had seen too much of truth in the Universal Picture-Show, and so he determined to walk west again, always west, in pursuit of a private place that could hold his dreams.
His last night in camp at White Sands, sleep found him early. In his dreams, he saw the bodies of very old men lying on their backs, their gaze permanently transfixed. Their souls had traveled far, and their bodies were aligned perfectly east to west with their heads pointing east and their feet pointing west.
Doctors, psychiatrists, journalists, bloggers, preachers, and mediums responded to the news, offering various explanations. There was some talk of a suicide pact, although that faded when the medical examiner announced the cause of death in each case as “natural.”
Qwuan himself resisted the urge to turn back east and examine the bodies himself, both in his dream-state and later, when he awakened before dawn, when the fingernail moon gave little light as he packed his gear.
It was that night, and other nights as well, that he missed Sarah, but mostly what he missed was giving voice to his dreams, and he wondered if life existed solely in the re-telling, just as the men had taken great joy in acting out stories they wielded with their thoughts, projected on the sky for all to see.
As he packed his bag, the sun rising in the east gave the gypsum sea a pink and purple light.
As he turned his back to the Earth-star, the sky washed turquoise blue, as if it had never held any pictures at all.
Andrea Mosier is mom, writer, nutrition-geek, maker of legendary potato salad. I am the author of Fire Eater, which short-listed for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2015 and “Mass,” a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose. She is a fellow with the Middle Tennessee Writing Project and a judge for the Eric Hoffer Award for Books in 2016.