The title story from my book of creative fiction short stories, "I Leapt Into the Night, and Ten Other Stories"...
"I Leapt Into the Night"
The air was cold and brisk on that starry night, and my breath spewed from my mouth like a dragon, a comforting reminder that I was still alive and breathing. The snow-covered trees and wide-open meadow were cast in that eerie black-and-white light, the awesome presence of the full moon hanging high overhead. I could see the warm lights of my father's humble cabin in the distance behind me on the edge of the meadow. The trees behind it loomed darkly, as if to pounce at any moment. The dull lantern on the front porch swung creakily in the slight chill wind. All I could see of it was the faint point of flickering light swinging back and forth, back and forth.
I hadn't yet devised a practical way to carry my telescope, especially while tromping through the deep snow in my awkward furry winter boots, such as I was. Since the day it had been gifted to me in the sixth grade (I was now in ninth) I had tried, with moderate success, to make my passion as convenient as possible. Fortunately, my father was supportive of my unusual hobby—he trusted me alone out in the arctic cold, as I'd lived here in Alaska all of my young life. I couldn't even imagine living somewhere that the ground wasn't white for half the year, and the skies dark for much of that time.
My telescope wasn't one of these rinky-dink little things. It was a pretty big one, especially in comparison to little old me. I'd sewn straps around the legs of the tripod, so that I could swing it over my shoulder and across my back—like an archer’s quiver, sort of, but not quite as dexterous. And then I carried the lens case in my arms, just like when hauling firewood. Good thing that I had practice already, because you have to walk without seeing where the heck your next step will be—and besides, the arms get tired pretty quick sticking straight out like that.
At least I grew in the three years between sixth and ninth grade, which helped in some ways, though not in all. I must admit, budding breasts just get in the way for a young girl astronomer, at least in my case. Boys were starting to pester me for dates, but all I wanted to do was gaze up into the night sky, lost in my cosmic little world. Cheap, yes, but not much of a date. And besides, most boys just didn't understand the beauty of the night sky. It was too much trouble, too mysterious, and just plain weird for a girl.
Sometimes, I admit, I wished that I'd just taken up the harmonica or something for a hobby—I mean, you just slip it in your pocket and anytime, anywhere, you can pull it out and make your music, and you're happy. You don't have to worry about the clouds or waiting until dark, or it's too cold outside, or it's a pain in the butt to set everything up—or who knows if there's anything interesting up there tonight anyhow?
Despite all these random thoughts, I struggled on through the cold with my precious telescope that night, taking each step carefully, occasionally looking up at the deep, darkened sky that filled me with such warmth, even in the dead of winter. It was one of those nights when it was so clear, you could tell that the Man in the Moon was an adolescent, because he had the worst case of acne you'd ever seen. And yet he was still infinitely more handsome than most of the idiots at my school. I'd toss their silly cars, beer and sports out the window any day for that calm, cool, reflective persona of the Man in the Moon, and his infinite array of celestial relatives.
When I was young (well, younger) I wanted to be the first person to walk on the moon. When I found out it was too late, I decided that I would be the first person to walk on the sun. For some reason I thought that would be even more heroic. Never mind that the sun has no ground on which to walk—I'd just float there amongst the burning gasses, taking in its warming rays and looking back at the Earth with a certain pride and longing for whence I’d come. Oh, the innocence of youth! Fortunately, my dad had set me straight with some basic scientific principles—and soon enough provided me with a way to merge with the stars, and yet still stay connected to the ground.
If you happened to be looking down at my viewing spot from high above, you would see mountains all around—white-capped, snowy, beautiful awesome mountains, that make you want to leap right into them they're so shiny and wonderful in the moonlight. And within these mountains—in between them, that is—you would see a huge valley, probably five miles across, with lots of trees all over the place. In the middle of this forest was a clearing, and on one side would be our wonderful wooden cabin, that my mother and father built all by themselves (with a little help from me, of course, though I was only five at the time). Right in the middle of the meadow would be a small mound of a hill, only about ten feet across on top, which is where I always set up my telescope. And then waaaaay off in the distance, on the other side of the forest—with a skinny little dirt road running down through the valley—would be town, with its lights twinkling and smoke coming out of the smokestacks, and maybe a few dogs barking if you listened closely enough.
But anyhow, the important thing here is the little hill, because that was my mound of inspiration. You see, when I was really young, I used to go out there and lie on that hill and just watch the stars with my cat Vaughn (pronounced "Von"). This would be around late spring or early fall, when it wasn’t quite so crazy cold yet, but the nights were still plenty dark. Sometimes, if I heard there was going to be a meteor shower or a lunar eclipse, or maybe it was just an extra special night for some reason, I would bring my heavy-duty sleeping bag and a pillow and a thermos of hot chocolate. Then Vaughn and I would curl up nice and warm in my sleeping bag and just lay there watching the stars and the moon, until we got too cold to open our eyes anymore or even think. Eventually, we'd rush back inside and warm up by the wood stove.
So finally, like I said, in sixth grade my father decided that I needed a little better view of all that stuff up there, since I was spending my time out there watching it anyhow. He surprised me Christmas morning with the best present I ever got in my whole life. I was so ecstatic that I went out that very night and watched the sky do things that I hadn't even realized it was doing all along—though of course I'd imagined.
Since then I've seen the rings of Saturn; the moons of Jupiter; several comets that flew by, I forget their names; craters of the moon that would just blow your mind if you were me (which they did); the asteroid belt; double-star systems; quasars: a little meteor that exploded when it hit the atmosphere, which made me feel a little sad, in a happy sort of way; plus all sorts of other stuff that probably wouldn't sound very interesting or make much sense to a normal person.
On a night like tonight, however, I was hoping for something extra special, it being so exquisitely beautiful and cold and crystal clear and all.
When I got to the top of the plateau, I set down the lens veeeeery carefully. Then, I swung the tripod off my back with a great sigh of relief; the air blowing out of my mouth like a steam engine in the crisp cold.
I just stood there for a few minutes blowing into the air, taking in the night sky to see what it might have to offer this time. My arms hung stiffly from my sides from all the clothes I was wearing, including a scarf wrapped around my neck, that my mother had given me the Christmas before she'd died, when I was six. It had been much too big for me then. But the scarf had grown smaller as I got bigger (or something like that) so that it kept my neck nice and cozy now without choking me, even in forty below zero—which was about how cold it felt that night.
I was thinking that maybe it was a little too cold to stay out for long—which in my case could be for an hour or three. But it was just too perfect. There was electricity in the air, like a thunderstorm approaching on a clear day. The stars were so bright against the dark sky, the mountains gleaming white in the moonlight, that I couldn't waste this night inside doing homework or the dishes or anything. It was just right for becoming one with nature, as they say. This is what I most wanted, really—to feel no separation between the vastness of the cosmos and myself.
I was just finishing screwing the lens into place, when I heard my dad yell from the cabin,
That's my name, obviously.
"What, Dad?" I yelled back. Sound carried easily across the meadow in the cold night air.
"I'm letting Vaughn out—she's been meowing at me. Come back soon. The radio said it's minus thirty-three in town, so it must be almost forty-below out there tonight. I don't want you freezing to death. Would you like me to bring you some hot chocolate in a little while?"
"No, thanks!" I yelled back. "I'm okay. I won't be here for too long, I don't think, maybe just an hour or so. It's nice out here. It's pretty! You should see the mountains from here."
"No thanks, sweetie. I'm gonna stay inside where it's warm. It feels like an ice-rink out on the porch. I'm going back in. You be careful!"
I could here Vaughn's faint meow, as she picked her way across the meadow through the snow.
"C'mon, Vaughn! Here, kitty! Come on!"
She rubbed herself against my leg, as I finished adjusting the telescope. Then I put her in my lap, as I sat down on the chair that I always leave there. I covered her up with my jacket, since she was already beginning to shiver from the cold.
The sky was, of course, even more awesome seen through the God of Telescopic Insight. Everything was so clear, so real. It was as if a barrier that had always existed between myself and the sky was lifted, and I felt closer to the infinity of space than ever. The cold didn't seem to bother me at all. I just sat there, transfixed, my one open eye glued to the end of the telescope as I drifted off into the nether reaches of the universe. The glowing warmth of the moon and stars comforted me simply by their presence.
Soon, without realizing it, I guess, I lost all awareness of my surroundings. I even forgot about poor old Vaughn in my lap, who was probably asleep by then, but hopefully warm inside my jacket. I couldn't say. I had completely forgotten about the reality of the meadow and the trees, and the cabin nearby with my father resting quietly beside the fire. The stars were magnificent. They became everything to me in that moment. I could feel their brilliant light filtering down through the telescope, filling me with life.
The Man in the Moon seemed to be smiling at me. And once, he winked—a long, drawn out wink, that left me surprised, but delighted.
"Come on up," he seemed to be saying.
"But how can I?" I asked. "I don't know how."
"Just let yourself go," he said. "Let yourself go—give yourself to the sky, and it will happen."
I didn't know what he meant, at first. I thought, "'Give myself to the sky?' What's that supposed to mean?"
But as the warmth and comfort of the sky above filled me with assurance and strength, and helped to release me from the familiar physical world around me, I began to feel the truth of what he meant. The weight of my body slowly became less of a burden. I no longer knew or cared that I had arms or legs or breasts or a brain, or even an eye that perceived all of this through the telescope. I only cared for the beautiful sky above. As I came to realize this, I became more a part of the sky with every precious moment.
Soon I felt the tunnel walls of the telescope completely fall away. And I gave myself to the sky—just like he'd said—leaping straight into the night like a rocket leaving its launch, the force propelling me upwards, higher and higher. My spirit rose above everything, far above the meadows and the trees and the mountains and the town, and even sweet little Vaughn and my father's beautiful cabin.
Pretty soon I was looking down at the Earth like it was a speck of dust on the ground, far from my sight, but still at my feet. I could even see my body sitting there in the meadow, my eye still attached to the telescope. I admit that it made me a little sad—especially when I saw my father come rushing out of the cabin in panic and run to my lifeless body, screaming,
"Aurora! Aurora! What has happened to you?" (Though I could only imagine what he was saying.)
But I soon recovered from the sorrow of leaving behind the sweet Earth and my beloved friends and family, and became quite content hovering there above everything in the eternal night. For of course, it is always night in space, just as I had always wished. And if you look closely enough as you stroll along beneath the night sky, you may notice a little sparkle in the darkness of the night that wasn't there at one time. And if you smile, I'll smile back, I promise.