Claire de lune

The singular is not particular; it is universal.m --Unamuno I cannot see our flag or mr. Armstrong's footprints or the astronaut's divot when I look. For me it remains Cynthia or, in certain moods, the old man with the cryptic smile. (Hardly ever green cheese.) Mother of tides and mystery. Ironic smile behind scudding clouds of mere human worry. Antithetical, universal coldness that can freeze sabers of hot sunlight into gold icicles.

Last night, waning, it laid down a carpet of wan, mottled gold on the surface of the lake. Follow. On the far shore hemlock, spruce, and white pine fused into a battlement of black shadow. Machicolations of cold moon oil through merlons of tree top. And, as happens in moonlight, the chill crenelated cheekbone and brow: I looked from behind the castle wall of body through and beyond the castle wall of nature.

Conjured by a blink, the loon appeared on the carpet of gold. He has been doing that to me for thirty years: now you don't see him, now you do. As e.e. cummings would say, justlikethat. While I look at him, he is silent. Only when I draw back from the castle wall, lie down, enter the zone between waking and sleeping, will he laugh and strike up the music of dreams.

This morning, when I rubbed my eyes awake, he was not there. I looked toward the sun, red behind battlement of hemlock, spruce, and pine. When I looked back to the lake, there he was, slicing the red water carpet of the dawn.

Yes, I know. He is not the selfsame loon that first surfaced 30 years ago. Any more than Keats' nightangle was the selfsame bird that Ruth heard in her field of alien corn. the loan's twilight laughter is not the same laughter I heard in my childhood. There are no castles on either side of the lake. Why, last night's loon may not even be the same as this morning's. Moonlight is not, precisely, sunlight.

When I was a child, the loon's laugh scared me. It was the voice of the goblin, the shrill screech of hysteria. Mad. But when I became a schoolar, I put away such childish things. Machicolations of learning doused childish fear. I knew, and the knowing put me in charge, that luna (Latin for "moon") and "lunacy" and "loony" and "loon" were all etymologically related. Who can be frightened when armed with such erudition? Who is going to worry about lunar madness echoed by big grebes when men stand on the moon and talk to us as if on the phone?

However, I was wrong about that etymology. The loon gets its name from some cold Scandinavian source, from ancient fishermen of Iceland or Denmark. Not from the Latin lunam . so much for comforting overlays of scholarship.

The loan's laugh is as transfixing as ever; the moon's transforming power intact. Tonight's combination of bird and moonlight may be singular -- a different bird, a new carpet of gold -- but it will be universal as well and will bespeak the child that is in us all, the past that is in our present, the mystery that resides in the center of all we know.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.