I walked around the department repeating what John had told me. Have you heard? Diego has drowned. Have you heard? Diego has drowned. Diego has drowned. It didn’t matter if we caught that ferry or not. Nothing mattered. For some reason, I felt it was important that I call Sonya and tell her, like I was holding a great and terrible secret that would change everything. She was surprised to hear from me already. I gave her some details – she seemed to have lost her breath – and there was just silence.
“Listen,” she whispered. “About last night…”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, though I wanted to hear what she would say about it. She paused. “Okay… I’ll talk to you soon.”
Over the next few days, whenever I passed John in the hallways I expected him to stop and say, “Oh, have you heard?” and I would stop too and we would play out that scene again, except with different endings. “Heard what?” I would say, expecting to hear that Diego hadn’t died after all. “It was a mistake,” John would reply, “can you believe it? A mistake.” And he would turn away again, shaking his head, chuckling. Or, he would see the look of expectation in my eye, that innocent look of “Heard what?” – the look that didn’t know what the rest of the world already knew. And he would pause grimly and say, “Never mind,” then turn and continue on his way. It became so upsetting that I could barely meet his eyes when I saw him.
I replayed the swimming scenes – I don’t know why. The clear water held me like a leaf as I fluttered under the sun. I thought that if I stayed out there long enough, splashing around, Sonya would finally join me. At one point, she stood up and stretched, then sat down again to read her book, leaving me out in the water alone.
Diego’s father and his sister Julia came up from Mexico to take care of the funeral arrangements. Julia was four months pregnant but she had insisted on helping. Diego had wanted to be cremated so the service was brief. A couple of us from the department helped them pack up his belongings and they took his ashes to Mexico. I had hoped they would bury him, though I didn’t say anything.
I could hardly get any work done. The blackboard hung frozen in the computer room with Diego’s count of three hundred and sixteen galaxies as if the uncounted ones would forever remain unknown. I strained to hear his footsteps as I struggled with my programs. I went to Sonya’s office a couple of times but I had nothing to say. At night I walked through campus and usually wound up behind the Museum of Anthropology – with its 20-foot-tall totem poles and the view of downtown Vancouver and English Bay. One night I saw a meteor and I realized it was from the Perseids meteor shower, which happens annually before mid-August. Over the next hour I saw another half dozen – streaks of light cascading out of the sky – and I wished on every one.
The woman’s face fills the camera as she mouths the words. I try to imagine her lullaby over the man’s steady breathing, yet the male chorus keeps coming back, tolling: Koy-aan-is-qat-si.
Early that summer, we went back to Diego’s place after the Grad Centre and rented the film “Koyaanisqatsi.” He had played the soundtrack endlessly at the office; even more than counting galaxies, this was the thing that defined him. Despite all we had done together, I felt like I was finally being initiated into Diego’s confidence. The film was full of slow and fast-motion images of natural and urban landscapes – clouds over Monument Valley, people rushing up and down escalators, an old woman who couldn’t light a cigarette – and after an hour and a half of trying to put them together in my mind I was exhausted. Near the end of the film the male chorus began prophesying the end – just like I’d heard countless times on Diego’s tape. An Apollo rocket stood on the launch pad, a towering monument to the laws of physics and mankind’s scribblings in the Book of Nature. But with the dirge, a sense of foreboding was palpable – as if the rocket was too bold, a challenge to God well ahead of its time. The engines ignited and all was ablaze. Debris fell from the launch pad and the rocket rose slowly out of the fireball like a phoenix, tearing away from gravity’s inexorable pull, rising straight up. As the rocket climbed into the blue sky – into space – white smoke and exhaust lingered behind like a ladder up to heaven. And in the background, the male chorus continued chanting their requiem. Koy-aan-is-qat-si.
The rocket exploded. There was a flash of light and that was the end. Everything stopped. Fragments went everywhere. The ladder of exhaust dangled in the air, unfinished. It was all in slow motion. The camera focused on a piece of metal which twirled round and round as it fell slowly through the sky, an intermittent flame shooting out. It was like Pandora’s Box had exploded, and plague and misery dispersed in all directions, while hope, embodied by a single metal fragment, fell dizzily back to Earth. And it kept falling and falling and falling. We watched it like an incomprehensible fate that we were powerless to stop.
We hadn’t spoken at all during the film and then Diego asked casually, “So? Do you think it means anything?” I was mesmerized by the scene and so depressed by it that I couldn’t answer. “I don’t know,” I finally said. We kept watching it as the chorus chanted. Then I asked him what he thought about it.
“You know, I think it’s too easy to say something like, ‘life’s out of balance,’” he said. “I’ve seen it four times and sometimes I just like to wonder about it as a question that can’t be answered.”
The woman’s eyes are still fixed on the baby carriage as she rocks it back and forth. The only thing the woman wants, the only thing in the world she wants is for her baby to go to sleep. She’s forgotten past and future and sees only her baby’s comfort. She’s singing to her baby but there’s no sound in the film, just the sound of a man breathing. Her face fills the screen and her large eyes slowly fade into darkness. For a few moments, the unwavering sound of the man breathing is all that can be heard – inhaling deeply, holding, letting go. Then he stops. There is no sound at all. I wait for him to inhale again – hold my breath in anticipation – but the credits roll in silence.
I stare at the blank screen until the curtains draw to a close. Around me, others cough and shift in their seats. There are four more films on the program, but I collect my things and walk slowly out of the theatre. Outside, I hide my eyes from the brilliant sun.
Originally from Canada, Daniel Hudon teaches math, physics and writing in Boston. He has work coming up in Spork, Dark Sky, Toad and Canary. He is the 2011 winner of the Tiferet Nonfiction prize and the author of The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos (Oval Books) and a chapbook, Evidence for Rainfall. He blogs about environmental topics at econowblog.blogspot.com.