Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   l a w r e n c e   d u n n i n g   ~   d e n v e r ,   c o l o r a d o

THURSDAY, DAY of the eclipse. Sun bright and unseasonably hot. Scattered predictions of rain, mostly by weather bureau agents; ignored by everyone else. Fact: the scientists have too much at stake here to allow the possibility of clouds creeping in, obscuring the main event. When no one is looking they pray to a God they renounced years ago, they cross their fingers-toes-eyes, they kick the weeds for possible four-leaf clovers while surreptitiously stroking the key-ringed feet of unlucky rabbits. They are like children in their simplicity, these scientists.

The predicted duration of totality, the time during which the sun will be hidden by the umbra of the moon's shadow, is variously given as two minutes twenty-six seconds or two minutes thirty-three seconds, plus or minus. There is continuing discussion on this point among the scientific contingent gathered in the city from the world's major universities. The news media, in their interminable on-the-scene reports, invariably use two-and-a-half minutes as a kind of layman's average -- though, strangely, not one of the scientists has ever mentioned that particular figure as a possibility. Unaccustomed to the ways of social psychologists and TV reporters, the scientists tend to hold the rather quaint view that an "average" is an artificial number which everyone believes in but which is never even remotely accurate. Currently, two minutes twenty-six seconds has something of an edge, though it is difficult to say why.

The town (or "city," to use the Chamber of Commerce hyperbole) owes its present influx of distinguished visitors and curious onlookers to unique circumstances. Marginally situated along the 100-mile-wide path of total blackout which will, at the proper time, curve out across the Atlantic, the town is easily accessible by air, rail and highway. Greedy motel owners have doubled their rates, diners and drive-ins are beginning to cut the hamburger meat with cornmeal and bartenders can now be seen reaching more frequently and openly for the poorly distilled bar whiskey previously reserved only for alcoholics. In keeping with the spirit of progress, several known anti-scientists and free-will constructionists were given twenty-four hours to leave town, and Miss Ebertha Plum, the third grade teacher who has her own theories about the origin of eclipses (as well as many other naturally occurring phenomena) has been ordered held in protective custody in the janitorial supplies closet until the event is concluded.

Numerous townspeople are standing about in the streets, waiting for the eclipse. For the most part they are subdued and wear looks of apprehension on their faces, bursting into smiles only when they think someone might be looking, as though it is expected of them because they live here. When the children occasionally break through the somber atmosphere with their shouting and games, the elders gather them in to quiet them with threats that they might miss the eclipse, it is coming very soon now. But there is something beyond their guile which the elders cannot explain; they wish simply to have their loved ones close about them, close enough to touch, perhaps close enough to snatch from danger should sudden flight become necessary. The children themselves are oddly acquiescent, as though for once in their lives they understand that parents know many terrible things which children are happier not knowing. Meanwhile, men look at their watches and peer at the hot, bright sky for some sign of the incredible event about to take place. Several shake their wrists, study the familiar dials as though they have never seen them before and, occasionally, return to their houses to check other -- presumably more accurate -- clocks.

The scientists keep to themselves for reasons of both shyness and professional methodology -- a child's misplaced finger on a multi-thousand-dollar piece of equipment could ruin literally years of preparation and study, as well as a good many chances at tenure. They joke among themselves about the possibility of disaster, about the ineptitude of their fellow scientists and about the lack of foresight of their various sponsoring organizations in the miserly way they have chosen to outfit this expedition. For a while there was a shortage of electrical wiring and even, in some cases, of electrical power, though the distant universities could hardly have foreseen that. There is a continuing problem of excess humidity which threatens to fog delicate lenses. And there are insects by the millions, for which none of the scientists are prepared except for an occasional bottle of foul-smelling lotion which they dab helplessly on themselves and which the insects seem to like. Still, there is an undercurrent of tremendous excitement among these eminent astronomers and atmospheric researchers; there is the possibility for each of them to end this day as an academic hero, or as a failure. There is challenge, and there is an element of risk, as in some archetypal game of chance.

The sun climbs steadily toward its plotted rendezvous point. The scientists begin to make last-minute adjustments to their instruments now, and from abandoned camera cases the townspeople produce bits of double-thickness exposed color film through which, they have been told, they may safely view the eclipse. When seen through these deep-blue filters the sun is no more than a harmless orange ball, perfectly round, possibly inert, in no way a source of life. Somehow it is disturbing to the people that the sun's magnificence is thus diminished, brought down to the level of an ordinary, understandable phenomenon. Without visible tongues of flame the sun is no more miraculous than a cold and desolate moon, perhaps a minor planet of a minor star, or simply a smooth rock suspended in the sky.

But regardless of the activities of men, masses do continue to rotate on their axes and revolve in their orbits, just as Newton (modified by that upstart Einstein) said they should. At ten minutes to noon a general cry goes up in the town -- someone has spotted the first erosion of the orange disk by the premature curved shadow of the moon's edge.

The scientists, of course, have known for some seventy-five seconds and are now much too busy, bent over their instruments, to notice the excitement of ordinary people. Specially equipped cameras have been clicking their shutters automatically each five-thousandth of a second, while their puny relatives belonging to the townspeople struggle to keep up. By now every man, woman and child has commented on the "bite out of the hamburger" which is growing symmetrically larger with each tick of the clock. The children are dutifully shown why they have been gathered together to look upward through funny blue things; having seen and exclaimed upon the crescent, they feel free now to return to previously interrupted games of ball and tag.

The seconds creep by, change on a grand scale not so violently swift for the moment as some had been led to believe. Then one of the scientists yells to a co-worker that totality is coming up, and just as suddenly the bright blue sky becomes noticeably less bright. A cooling breeze springs up from nowhere. The apparent late afternoon becomes twilight. With no decent interval, the darkness, frightening in its intensity, descends everywhere at once. There is a corona, for the scientists, and there are stars clearly visible, but still the darkness is overpowering. "My God! Ain't that something?" an old man wheezes, and the people, feeling the power of his emotion in their own souls, let his comment stand for them all.

The immediate effects of a total eclipse are, of course, well documented. Birds fly to their nests, the petals of daylight flowers close, men begin to ask for their evening cocktails. The enthusiasm of onlookers lasts usually less than a minute, at which time it begins to be replaced by stirrings of apprehension. This primitive fear of the darkness, a tremor in the intracranial synapses indicating that the sun may have deserted mankind over some real or imagined slight, generally increases until the corona disappears, signifying the end of totality and the beginning of restored light. But now the townspeople are quiet, watchful. Some are shivering -- the temperature has dropped several degrees in as many seconds. Feverishly the scientists twist dials and adjust angles on their instruments, pushed by the knowledge that exactly this kind of eclipse will not return to exactly this place for perhaps 400 years.

There is an eeriness about the cold, dark silence that has so suddenly descended on the town and its inhabitants. "One of the scientist fellows just said it should be ending soon," a woman reports to a small gathering of her friends. But though they wait out the seconds and then the minutes without further comment, eyes straining to see luminous watch hands, there is no discernible change in the darkness. "I'm cold," a child whines to his mother, and the mother pats the child's head and assures him the sun will reappear any minute now. But she herself is not certain -- there is only this feeling in her bones, if she were pressed about it, a feeling that is strong and undeniable.

At first the scientists attempt to ignore the delayed ending of the eclipse, instead concentrating on their good fortune in having extra seconds to research the corona and whatever other phenomena they are interested in. But then, one by one, they question their timepieces, and the timepieces of other nearby scientists, and they discuss among themselves, rationally, why the eclipse is not ending according to schedule. There do not seem to be many workable answers.

The mayor of the town, when he can be found in the menacing twilight, is approached by a delegation of the people, and it is suggested that he find out what the trouble is from competent authority -- meaning, in this case, the eminent scientists. At this point the scientists are pretending to be extremely busy. Finally, when pressed, they reply in unison that it is impossible, the sun and moon and earth cannot stand still in their orbital paths through the universe, every schoolchild knows that. They seem very sure of themselves, and of the facts. But when asked why the impossible is nevertheless happening, they turn away in confusion.

It has now been fifteen minutes -- at least double the duration of any known previous eclipse in the history of the earth. That there is panic in the town is a statement of fact, but panic of a subdued nature, possibly owing to the absence of light. Further demands are made on the mayor and other city officials to do something constructive. A three-year-old Washington D.C. telephone directory is found, and after studying its mysteries intently for a half-hour or so, the mayor places a hasty call to, as it turns out, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which knows nothing of the circumstances surrounding eclipses but promises to look into the matter as soon as possible, particularly as regards the child labor laws and the guaranteed annual wage.

Meanwhile, the scientists have called their own governmental sources for instructions. "What do you mean, the eclipse won't end?" the sources demand to know. "Goddammit, it has to end!" But the scientists, who have been living with the impossible for more than an hour now, are in no mood to be put off. "What do you suggest we do," they ask, "initiate ancient tribal rites to frighten away the moon god?"

The sources think about it, in unison, on a conference line, and finally reply that that may not be a bad idea, in the absence of other, more concrete solutions to the problem. The scientists hang up in disgust, but it is not long afterward that, by general agreement, they approach the townspeople to ask their assistance in setting up and performing the primitive group dance known as "Moon-God-Go-Away-
Take-Darkness-With-You" in the square in front of Civic Center. They also discuss certain other ancient Greek and Roman celebrations and rituals to ward off evil spirits, but nothing much comes of this as no one can remember the second verses of any of the chants.

Weary of thinking the unthinkable and having nothing else to do, the scientists and the townspeople go to bed early. There is nothing unusual about its being dark at midnight, of course, but there is a strangeness in the air outside and even the scientists are fearful, as though night may suddenly and for no reason turn into day. The mayor is up later than most, staring out the window of his bedroom at the star-filled sky and wringing his hands as he waits for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to call back. His wife has taken an overdose of Nembutal, but not enough to do the mayor any lasting good.

Eventually it is morning, or time for morning to make its appearance; but somehow morning is nowhere to be seen. "Owing to the difficulty of scheduling the orbits of certain planetary bodies, morning has been temporarily misplaced." The townspeople, it may be said, are afraid to wake up but even more afraid not to. Cautiously they peer out their shuttered windows for signs of light, for a hint of the sun's brilliant warmth, for the delicate beauty of shadows. But there is only the darkness, and the cold, and the silence.

The scientists have spoken to their governmental sources again. Someone has remembered that ancient Indians, during infrequent total eclipses, would shoot flaming arrows toward the darkened sun's disk, hoping to frighten away the evil spirits. Analogies are drawn, somewhere in the Pentagon there is talk of shooting whole phalanxes of hydrogen-bomb-tipped rockets into the impeding body of the moon, but no one wants such a dreadful responsibility resting on his own shoulders, least of all the Head Source. Officially there is mostly a great apathy toward the city's plight; it is, after all -- the government reminds them -- only one city.

The scientists are the first to pack up their equipment and leave the desolate darkness. "Cheer up," they tell the townspeople as they depart. "Who knows, the sun may come back tomorrow -- or if not tomorrow, then the day after." But of course no one believes them, and they do not believe themselves.

After the scientists have gone the mayor discovers a conveniently ill relative in a neighboring state and apologizes for the fact that he will be gone quite some time, necessitating his carrying with him everything that he owns. He is followed by others, though not as many at first as would seem likely. However, when it is learned that factories and stores are also closing, not to be reopened, the ones who had chosen to stay change their minds. They, too, pack all they own; in a daze they leave by whatever means they find available.

The government sends a final word to the town, a telegram, something about a stiff upper lip. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forwards a detailed report to the mayor that his city can expect a certain amount of rising unemployment during the next fiscal quarter. In the nick of time someone remembers to release Miss Ebertha Plum from the janitorial supplies closet at the elementary school. Miss Plum, it turns out, has known all along that something like this was bound to happen as a direct result of the inclusion of sex education and new math in the school's curriculum. "Doesn't surprise me a bit," she tells her rescuer -- Mr. Hoskins, the janitor -- who has always personally felt she was crazy as a loon. They are the last two human beings to pack their meager belongings and leave the unfortunate town.

IT HAS been a day, or several days, or perhaps a week now. There is nothing, no activity but the wind whistling down empty streets, now and then brushing up against some forgotten residue of the ordinary lives that were once lived here. The stars scintillate brightly in the cold midday air, and far above the quiet houses the earth's faithless moon can be seen basking in the solar radiation which, by an unimaginable effort of will, it has captured for itself, forever.

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