By Daniel Hudon
The screen is dark, but I can hear the projector rolling. Someone crinkles a candy wrapper. Crunches popcorn. Shifts in the seat. And then: a man breathes. He inhales deeply, holds… and lets go. He repeats – like waves at the shore.
Two young girls look into the camera. With hair smoothed back under white bonnets, their large, round faces fill the screen. One is freckled, smiling, showing spaces between her pointy teeth. The other has braces and is smiling even more. They’re looking out at us as though into a Hall of Wonders. The freckled one closes her eyes – her eyelids come together in slow motion, remain closed for a moment and finally open again – without changing her smile. The other follows. They are laughing but the only sound is that of a man breathing. The screen fades into blackness – bonnets first, then eyes, then shiny smiles. I find that I am breathing as slowly as the man in the film.
Grainy images percolate onto the blank screen. Something going round in circles, silver rods tick past until a wheel forms, spokes and pedals, circling slowly. Two boys fill the picture, cycling around one another, around cracks in the asphalt, around tufts of grass as sunlight glints off handle bars. They make shapes with their mouths – a silent childhood code – planning a route, a game; they stand on the pedals and ride slowly out of view. The cracks in the asphalt grow larger and darker until the screen is completely black. The sound of a man breathing continues.
Each time the screen fades I expect the credits to roll, then I remember from the program that the film is 18 minutes long. I slip down into my seat and stretch my legs into the aisle. All this slow motion and lack of a narrative reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi, a film I saw years ago.
A stone arcs into the air, falls. Small fingers release and another stone follows the first. Blond hair and shirtless, his eyes fixed on the distance. The beach is speckled with stones. His arm rises and falls. One stone follows another into the air. In slow motion, with the breathing in the background, the boy’s movements are majestic and effortless.
The soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi was by Philip Glass – or Philip Philip as my friend Diego used to call him on account of his monotony. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word that means “life out of balance.” There’s a scene near the end of the film where they show one of the Apollo rockets explode in slow motion. It blows up like the shuttle did, and the camera follows a metal fragment as it spirals back down to Earth. In the background, a male chorus is singing Koy-aan-is-qat-si slowly, like Tibetan monks sonorously chanting down from the roof of the world. The metal fragment keeps floating down, twirling around, down to the ground. Diego had the soundtrack, and he used to play it when we were in grad school together in Vancouver. I used to have to stop what I was doing when the male chorus came on.
Whenever the man inhales in the film, I imagine it’s the male chorus getting ready to chant.
Water, maybe a lake. A placid surface scattering sunlight. Leaves float over reflections of trees. A stone appears and breaks through the surface. The water engulfs it. A splash blooms, a translucent orchid, and withers back into silver-ripples.
When I first met Diego at UBC he was hunched over photographs from the Palomar Sky Survey, counting galaxies. “So you’re one of the new grad students?” he asked, eyes flicking up from his work. He was short, with thick brown hair and a proud, bushy beard. “Good. You’ll like it here.” He explained that for his PhD thesis, he was generating a catalogue of compact groups of galaxies before studying the dynamics of each group in detail. He said it was like stamp collecting at the moment, “except with more interesting stamps.”
I began a research project on red giant stars; it appeared relatively straightforward – photometry and analysis of stars in a nearby galaxy. It took a while to get going because I didn’t understand the details of the data analysis or the software I was using. Every time I took a break I found Diego sitting up on his stool hunched over the Palomar Sky survey – his music on in the background – counting out more groups of galaxies. His work always seemed so much grander and more important than my own. He went at it doggedly every day until about seven o’clock and then went home for dinner, stopping by the computer room on his way out. He wore Birkenstocks and would make a few loud steps so as not to startle me. I’d ask him how many new groups he had found and soon I began to keep a tally on the blackboard. Seven one day, three the next. As the days passed and the list grew longer, the blackboard took on a greater importance, and we often looked at it to decipher patterns in his productivity, trying to make correlations with what he had for lunch, the weather, or day of the week. There was a string of Mondays in November in which he found a minimum of five groups each time, and a gray sunless week in February in which he found sixty-three – more than twice his average of thirty-one.
Another stone splashes. The man inhales, and for a moment I see eyes in the water. Men are chanting. Koy-aan-is-qat-si. The eyes stare into me. Waves ripple over the leaves on the water as the screen fades.
In the spring we started going to the Grad Centre on Friday afternoons for a few beers. We would sometimes drag a faculty member or other grad students along; usually it was just the two of us. I still spent my time adjusting parameters on my photometry program, without getting anywhere – venting my frustrations during the first beer. Diego would nod his head and look at me thoughtfully. “You’re sure the computer was on?” he’d say. Or, “What if you sat in a different chair?” He reacted the same way when I told him of my current love interests. “Maybe you dialed the wrong number?” After I was done he would change the subject to something completely unrelated: from the next trip he was planning, to newspaper articles about injustice in Nicaragua or a letter he got from his sister, Julia. Once he said, “I heard Bach’s Cello Suites on the radio last night. Have you heard them? They contain so much silence it’s astonishing.” Life was in slow motion for Diego. When he told me that Julia was going to have a baby his eyes were radiant. “I’m going to be an uncle,” he said. I congratulated him and he just sat there glowing. “Yeah,” he said softly, “yeah.”
We went hiking once. It was a clear Saturday and I was at the department working on an observing proposal when I heard Diego’s familiar footsteps.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Wherever it is, I can’t.”
“That’s what you think. Garibaldi: there might be snow at the top.”
“I can’t afford the time.”
“Yes, you can.”
He insisted. We took a relatively steep trail; I was soon laboring up the path, though Diego had an easy time of it and went slower for my benefit. He seemed to take it as a pilgrimage and didn’t say much. We took a break at a clearing by a half-frozen lake. Diego pulled an entire gourmet lunch out of his knapsack: cherry tomatoes, marinated olives, French cheeses and baguettes, orange juice, nectarines and chocolate.
“Don’t just sit there, dig in,” he laughed.
We spent so long eating everything that we didn’t have time to get up to the snow. It was dark before we got down the trail again.
It happened the next weekend when I went camping with a girl I was in love with: Sonya, one of the other grad students. She liked my company but only tolerated my attentions. One of the faculty members told me when we got back. I was walking down the hallway to my office, smiling, because I was looking forward to catching up with Diego again. But he wasn’t in his office or the lab. Nobody was around. Then I ran into John, one of the junior faculty members, in the hallway. He taught a course on stellar evolution and sometimes came with us to the Grad Centre on Fridays. I saw the grim look on his face and knew as soon as he asked if I had “heard.” Diego was the only other one who was going away that weekend. I knew it was him.
The boy on the shore is joined by another. They each have a handful of stones and are throwing them into the water. Two land in unison, their ripples mingling as they spread out through the water. The man’s breathing is regular – no hint of a sigh.
The sun was brilliant that weekend. We read novels on the beach of one of the tiny Gulf Islands. After Sonya split with her boyfriend I spent about two weeks trying to convince her that we should go camping together to get away from everything for awhile. Diego told me, “Forget her and come sailing with me instead.” We were the only ones on the beach. I couldn’t make Sonya understand what was so funny about my book. And, much as I tried to get her to come swimming with me, she wouldn’t; even though she was wearing her bathing suit. That was probably the same time Diego was going under a few hundred miles away.
Two stones crisscross in midair and slip into the water. There’s hardly any splashing. He goes under again. The water opens up, drags him down. Eyes still open.
A woman on her front porch pushes a carriage back and forth, trying to get her baby to go to sleep. Her face is drawn, bags under her dark eyes. She looks wistfully into the carriage as she pushes it, rocking it softly. Her face gets larger and larger as the camera closes in. Strong eyes, tired yet warm.
On the day Sonya and I planned to come back, we missed the afternoon ferry and had to stay another night. It was her fault for taking so long to pack up, but I didn’t say anything – I was obsessed with her, glad we could stay together longer. Sonya had a delicate, oval face, olive skin and perilously deep brown eyes. Her hair flowed to her shoulders and when she laughed, waves of beauty radiated from her. I flew around her like a moth, daring myself to get closer on each orbit.
That night we went back to the beach and sat under the stars. (We had gone there the night before, talking quietly, and I held her hand as we walked back in the dark. I remember the dark road, the brilliant stars, and the touch of her fingers.) But she was still mad about the ferry and didn’t say much. Waves lapped at the shore and the sky was just as pretty as the previous night. But now we were light years apart. I couldn’t get her to respond to anything. I asked her what she wanted to do with her life, what she dreamt about, and if she was over her ex-boyfriend.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she sighed. I took out the binoculars that I’d brought with me and began scanning the night sky. I located the bright globular cluster M13 in the Hercules constellation and the binary stars – Mizar and Alcor – in the Big Dipper. Then I turned my attention towards the pair of nearby galaxies: Messier 81 and Messier 82. M1 was a spiral galaxy and M82 was irregular. Looking at them then, they both looked like thin, fuzzy blobs.
“You know what’s annoying about all this evidence for an accelerating universe?” “I liked a closed model better.”
“Big Bang to Big Crunch,” I said. “It seems more appropriate. A cycle of birth and death.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I just like it better.”
“It doesn’t matter what you like. It’s all about the data.”
“Everybody has their favorite models and I have mine.”
“Who cares what anybody thinks or likes or wants?” She stood up. “It’s not about opinions. It’s about observations — data — like my variable stars and your red giants. It doesn’t matter what we think. We just have to make the observations make sense.”
She continued ranting about scientific bias and narrow-mindedness. I had no idea why she was going on about it and tried to ignore her in the space between M81 and M82. I thought how Diego would laugh when I told him about this. She threw a stone into the water. “I’ll see you back at the camp,” she said, and walked down the beach.
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.
In the next few weeks I saw Diego everywhere. Someone on the West Mall had his red windbreaker. A bus driver had his spirited smile. I even saw two Diego look-a-likes. One was Diego’s height and had the same thick brown hair. I followed him for a block and a half down Granville Street. My heart was going crazy as I caught up to him and said, “Hey D-” But when he turned to go into a shop, I saw I was mistaken. The man’s eyes were blue and he was clean-shaven. He looked at me, gave a smile and a shrug at the same time, and went into the shop. Another time I was crossing Alma Street and thought Diego was driving the blue Cutlass stopped at the light. It didn’t matter that he didn’t drive. I walked closer, and the driver, bearded with brown eyes, scowled at me and drove off when the light changed.
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.