Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas said that. My grandfather. I’d heard the name thrown around the house a lot when I was growing up. It was a point of family pride to be descended from such an acclaimed poet, but it never left much of an impact on me. He’d died before I was even born, time reducing even the most brilliant souls to little more than trivia.
After-all, how could I have known that an archaic poem buried away in some dusty volume was written as a warning for what was yet to come?
My father knew better though. And I had the feeling something more was coming too, but my vague foreboding was answered with nothing but his thundering scowl. For the last week he hadn’t talked much. He stopped reading like he used to and barely eats at the table, although sometimes I’ll hear him prowling the house in the early hours of the morning.
And always, always of late I feel him watching me. From over his newspaper, or parked outside my friends house after dropping me off. I even caught him sitting outside my room in the hallway, holding a mirror to get an angle through my partly closed door.
“Just checking if you’re ready,” he mumbled, seeming momentarily embarrassed.
I didn’t reply, but it was getting weird and I would have spoken up if he didn’t say something first. “Camping trip before school starts,” he’d said. His voice carried the insistent authority of a policeman ordering someone to drop their gun. He didn’t ask our opinion like he usually did when making plans. Mom must have sensed it too because she volunteered to start packing without hesitation.
“Don’t bother,” he told her. “It’s just going to be me and the boy.”
6 AM the next morning, he was hammering on my door. Time to go. He didn’t need to tell me not to ask questions. Those sunken eyes and hard-pressed mouth left no room for argument. He was still wearing the same clothes from yesterday when he got in the car.
I kept quiet while he drove. Stoic silence, heavy silence, suffocating all opportunity for conversation. Every now and then he’d pull off the road a little to get out and look around. It felt like he didn’t have any clear destination in mind, and it didn’t take long for me to realize he wasn’t going anywhere in particular; he just wanted to get away.
When he stopped to use the bathroom and get gas I checked the back to see what kind of gear he brought with us. Nothing in the trunk except a backpack. He brought me a sandwich, and after a brief break we were on the road again. A dirt trail cutting straight through the country finally satisfied him. The mood was so dark that I was half-expecting to be murdered the second we’d passed the last hallmark of civilization.
It was night by the time we’d stopped. The sky was a cosmic masterpiece, untainted by the erosion of electric lights. The scattered maple trees we’d passed along the way had grown denser, and dad didn’t have any trouble finding some kindling to start a small fire. We didn’t have a tent, or sleeping bags, or even food. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“What’s going on, dad? What are we doing here?”
He grunted and stirred the fire. I was pacing with agitation now, the restless energy from a day in the car overflowing into jerky, frustrated movements.
“Why didn’t you want mom to come?” I tried.
“It’s none of her business. This is between you and me, and my father before him, and his father before that.” He looked up at me, the guttering flames reflecting dolefully in his deep eyes.
Before I could press for more, he’d sat down on a rock beside the fire and produced an ancient book from his backpack. He held it more reverently than a mother with her child, caressing the dust from its thick leather binding.
“From New York, back to Wales, and then Ireland before that,” he said, handing me the tome. “Come now, take a look.”
I stood beside him as we flipped through the thick vellum pages of the manuscript. Every sheet was dedicated to a single entry, each written in a myriad of separate handwritings and styles.
“Five centuries of verse,” he told me. “Each generation has inscribed lines for the last five hundred years, going all the way back to someone named Brodie in 1522. You’ll notice some of the earlier pieces written in Gaelic, but they’ve been reliably English since around the 18th century. Tonight you’re going to add yours to the end, and maybe if you’re lucky, the book will be finished after that.”
He flipped past the continuous stream of thought through the ages to the last few entries. My eye immediately caught the name of Dylan Thomas, who in his own hand had printed his famous poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
I quickly began to scan the next page where my father had written:
Bloodied, sickened, broken down, we tarry while we may.
For though life has wearied us, from death there’s no escape.
One prayer, one stand, one wild charge, before it is too late,
For though dark and dreary thus, there’s nothing left to hate.
But father slammed the book shut and pulled it away before I could read on.
“Wait – show me what you wrote,” I pressed. He shook his head, roughly dropping the book that he once cradled. “But how will I know what I’m supposed to write then?” I asked.
He was staring at the fire again, not looking at me even when he finally spoke. “Not long now. You’ll know when it’s time,” he said. “You can’t see something like that and not have something to say about it.”
I didn’t have to wait long, but it was unbearable while it lasted. Every rustling leaf turned to the ominous approach of some nameless horror. A snapping twig was re-imagined into the brittle bones of its latest victim, and even the whispered wind became an unpredictable adversary breathing down my neck.
And always, always, my father’s eyes – fixated on me, boring into my skull. His rigid attention sent waves of tension down his face at my slightest movement. That should have been a clear enough sign of what was to come, but I didn’t see it then. I just kept watching the woods, or the fire, or the great empty sky, peering and straining my ears against a world which was deaf to us.
But then in the absence of all other sound I heard what he was waiting for: the catching of my breath. I lifted vain hands in feeble disbelief, clutching at the invisible noose around my neck. I wanted to scream, but I could barely draw enough air to breathe. Dad’s eyes lit up as the wheezing gasp involuntarily escaped my closing throat. Each breath came shallower than the last; only a few seconds until they stopped altogether. I was getting dizzy, and with the passing seconds mounted a desperate crescendo of my flailing heart and smoldering lungs.
Dad was solemn as the dead, still sitting a few feet away, his eyes an inferno of reflected flames. He didn’t say anything, but he withdrew the paper bag which contained my lunch and tossed it into the fire. Blue ribbons of light danced across the open air, although I don’t know whether these were a product of my oxygen starved brain or some covert substance revealing their purpose.
My body thrashed and revolted against the grasp of some unseen specter, yet my whirling consciousness stubbornly refused to abandon me. I felt my body lifted by the pressure around my neck, pitching me to and fro: a cresting ship on its last voyage. The world bled together like running paint, and the meager fire roared into cascading heights to spit sparks like a thousand falling stars.
The dizziness mounted until I couldn’t tell left from right, up from down, living from dying. My legs were numb where they beat the open air; my fingers frozen where they scraped helpless against the unrelenting force. Even if I didn’t pass out, it was surely only a matter of time before my neck broke. Past the point of all thoughts and prayers a persistent recollection stormed against the closing dark.
Do not go gentle into that good night…
And then another thought that was not my own, coming from within me as though my mind played puppet to its presence. A lighthouse beaming words which carved their way through the midnight of my fading mind. I was struggling again, kicking and biting and clawing at the open air. My wild lashing finally connected with something solid, but the running drool of colors flooded my vision and made it impossible to guess what held me.
Every sense, every muscle, every feral instinct begged for me to close my eyes against the nauseating tumult of color. To let go of the insurmountable force I was thrall to; to find acceptance in defeat, and peace in death. But louder than the diminishing throb of my heart were the words:
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And so I did. I swam through the sea of melting colors, fixating on the black blemish which refused to relinquish my throat. I fought back, tooth and nail sinking into yielding flesh, kicking and screaming as stale air tore through my howling lungs. I lunged after that, digging my fingers into the thing that attacked me until warm wet rivers bubbled over my hands up to the wrist. I wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop, pouring all my love for the light and rage against its defiler with one unified assault.
Not until it lay still did I allow myself to fall gasping onto my back. One reluctant star at a time unraveled from the tapestry of madness to find its rightful place in the heavens. My body ached to the core, and were it not for the last utterances of my internal voice still coaxing me back to life, I would have been confident that I had died.
I didn’t wake until the next morning. My first shock was that I was alive; my second that my father was not. His body had crumbled beside the ashes of his fire, deep craters gouged into his throat to match the width of my hands. I didn’t understand until I had a chance to read the whole book: my unequivocal inheritance.
I wasn’t the first, and I won’t be the last. My family has been blessed to pursue the secret of the divine spark, and through the years our trials have brought us closer to its unveiling. The voice I heard on the edge of death is the same which inspired my ancestors to write their verse: a further puzzle piece in the enigma of creation. And when the final piece is set to place, then born again is the next God to walk this Earth.
I regret to tell you that such wisdom has exhausted all efforts toward its discovery so far. When we have given up, as my father did and his father before him, it is our place to pass the torch for the child to carry on. Until the day when he too sees his child’s mind flare more brightly than his own and knows it is time for them to continue the search in his stead.
I am only writing this now because I have grown so weary of doors without handles and windows looking nowhere. I wish my father had explained this to me before I was thrust upon this quest, but I suppose he thought me too cowardly to end his life and begin my search when such an end was already written by a hundred hands.
That’s why I am writing this, my son, so you can make that choice for yourself. And so armed with five centuries of verse, you will listen for that whisper at the end of all light and learn from it what you may.
Open the book, when you are ready, and your trial will begin.
This letter from my father was tucked inside a leather bound book, delivered to me the day of his funeral.