In the High Ceiling of Stars by Bradford Morrow

BOMB 9 Spring 1984

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Summer 1937

The white moon acted as cynosure. Angstrom lay awake in his bed, situated directly beneath its transparency. Its vast reflected light aborted within the confines of his bedroom, and through the offices of an unshuttered window concluded in an irregular rectangle, thrown with delicious sentimentality across his face, and bed, spilling in more fastidious geometrical shapes over the sill, floor, wall, bedstead. The concerns of a dog that froze in a field, its foreleg gracefully suspended, its damp nose working before a crumpled snout, displayed in a single abundantly echoed yap the lunacy of an animal’s cycles. Prowl, devour, sleep: mindless round-robin into perpetuity. Another fainter bark ripped into the illuminated night. No birds sang. There were no other sounds.

Angstrom twisted under the bedclothes at the thought of getting caught in this defiant venture, caught by his uncle, whose cycles recently had narrowed to two, with regard to Angstrom: prowl and devour. Angstrom’s stubborn friendliness in face of his uncle’s harassment, served only to agitate his uncle all the more. Uncle LeRoy exactly interpreted Angstrom’s compliance with his rules, Angstrom’s uncomplaining meekness before his tyranny, as the intractable defiance it really was. Not in a position to retaliate, Angstrom waged war with his uncle through a scheme of baffling complacency. An insult propped up every quiet yes-sir; vanity of fulfilling some menial task assigned by uncle LeRoy with every intention of breaking Angstrom’s spirit was restructured by his nephew, through an odd mime of strange grins, into the purest insolence. Mama Opal could not have intervened, even if she understood the subtleties of their war. (Which she did not.) Getting caught with no ready excuse in uncle Leroy’s bedroom had been the first false move Angstrom had committed since he and his mother had arrived. However, his uncle’s crazed overreaction to Angstrom’s trespass, toeing their psychological skirmish over the line into an actual battering, evened everything up. Uncle Leroy, indeed, had been overheard to mutter a sour confection which, at least in Opal’s view, was as close as her brother had ever managed to come to apologizing for anything in his life. The apology, as only Angstrom knew, was riddled with factual errors. Angstrom had rifled his drawers. A silver dollar was missing from his coin collection. He had damaged a favorite family photograph. With no other available father Uncle LeRoy had taken it upon himself to discipline the child. By the time he had concluded his verbal ramble, through a process of democratizing all fault, even mama Opal had somehow been added into the cast of characters responsible for the incident, and the three of them stood, side-by-side, holding hands on equal ground, like figures in a primitive painting where background and foreground converge along a flat place with no vanishing point, no horizon. In its own haphazard way it had been an exceptional performance.

But Angstrom suspected the rage he would encounter would be much greater were he caught with Gerald Mann’s books. In the first place, Gerald Mann did not exist. He had disintegrated into whatever proportions the scrawl of sepia ink might render him (and now, as a result of Angstrom’s getting caught and his uncle’s burning the photograph, no image of Gerald Mann remained on earth). If mama Opal knew anything of him she had never alluded to such knowledge in his, Angstrom’s, lifetime. The straightforward query, What was your other brother like? drew from her a look consummately blank, and innocently alarmed by the madness of the question itself. Every reference ever made about Opal and her brother alluded to them only, sister and brother, ringed in by a general knowledge of what was; two parents, now dead, and their two children. With the exception of a steamer trunk of battered books, every possession and every memory had been subsumed into a very easy category whose principal law, regarding all of Angstrom’s background and family, stipulated that his grandparents Mann had a daughter and a son, each of whom took a spouse. The daughter had a son, but her husband disappeared, had possibly died. The son, older, took a wife, who died, but had no children by her. Only the books remained, incalculable remnants of a ghost without an owner. Angstrom would claim Gerald Mann as his own. Those faces of brothers, one youngish filled with smug indifference, the other, an obliterated apparition, with eyes that matched his mother’s, as empty as a harrowed field awaiting the seeding machine, were to Angstrom an absolute polarization of what persons might do with their lives. If Angstrom could assume at least bits and pieces of Gerald Mann’s being and his impulses, he might defeat uncle LeRoy through a completion of forgotten proportions, instincts.

Soundlessly, Angstrom got out of bed and slipped on his clothes, shoes, and a light jacket. He walked down the hallway, downstairs and soon was outside in the yard bathed in moonlight.

It was a warm night and dewless. The signatures of a million stars overhead were themselves nearly washed out by the moon’s bleaching light. Its intensity was enough, Angstrom thought to himself as he softly strode towards the barn, to keep a hen from laying. He pictured Mrs. Hicks pedalling her bicycle away into the billowed constellations. Inside the barn beams of light shone through cracks that ran where the roofing wasn’t joined. A general chiaroscuro played over the hundred forms therein, some familiar, others nameless.

Angstrom didn’t need much light to locate the pail, however. There was a sudden sputter from a stall, then dense silence. Soon, the book tucked under the waistband of his trousers, he set out towards the rocky meadow carpeted with rye-grass, brambly and stony, where they never bothered to mow. Here uncle never came, even in perfect daylight. Only the dogs ran down here. He opened the gate, broke into a hurried walk downhill. It occurred to him, as he went, that he might not be able to see the pages clearly in the moonlight. So he stopped, momentarily, pulled out the book, opened it up. The paper cast an eerie glow, and the type was distinct indeed in the intense grey air. Hidden from direct view of the farmhouse, with only the roof of the barn outlined against the starry backdrop, Angstrom sat down on a outcropping of lichen-bearded rock.

Lucretius. De Rerum Natura, ed. HAJ Munro, 4th edition, 1872. He flipped to the opening pages. The text was in Latin and English, too. On the front end sheet, beneath Gerald Mann’s ownership signature, was drawn a diagram, executed in the same ink. Angstrom’s eyes were fixed on this drawing, as if they conveyed some radiance of magic, or an explanation of everything from the commonplace to the—what?—divine?

Beneath the diagram were the words: turned to whole.


To whole.

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Angstrom traced the lines in the figure, as if to memorize it, and stopped wherever Gerald Mann had written a letter of the alphabet, where lines converge:

In the center of the perfectly sketched circle there was an intersection of lines. Across the middle ran a straight line, like a pie halved, marked on the left “S” (sun? south? star?) and on the right “N” (night? north?).

Sun, night. Conversely: south, north.

Star was obviously incorrect.

Cutting diagonally downwards, from the upper right of the circle, through the center, ending at the lower left, was another straight line. It was marked “P” at the point where the line connected with the arc of the circle just right of its apex, and “P’” at the left of its nadir. The point at the center of this circle, where the lines intersected, was marked “O”; what did that mean?

Zero? orbit? ocean? ourselves?

A series of ellipses, five of them, was traced on different axes, intersecting the edges of the circle at different intervals, starting from the midway points “S” and “N”. Angstrom’s eyes followed the first ellipse, through the rings of confusion, around its perimeter. At each of the intersections on either side of the circle there were other letters. None of the letters suggested anything to him, and the frustration of confusion tested his patience. Drawn across the “O” at the center of the circle, at an angle not as great as that of “POP’ “, was the only line in the diagram that did not connect with the outer circle.

Was the drawing unfinished?

Angstrom rubbed his eyes, then squinted at the page, one eye closed. In a moment some of the structure fell backwards into the pages, while other lines, other arcs seemed to lift off the paper and hover over it. The drawing had metamorphosed into a motionless gyroscope. It was wedged halfway into the physical body of the book itself. Angstrom noticed that at the top, actually at the back, of this shorter straight line, which was as long as the line drawn across the middle of the circle, was the letter “W” (surely, west?) which ran through the central “O” and terminated along the front edge of the ellipse, actually itself a circle, where it was marked “E” (earth? east?). Around the new circle born from the ellipse Angstrom now ran his finger: S, E, W, N.


South, east, west, north.

Points of the compass at whose center Was the observer: “O”. Or, ourselves. Points of the compass, the compass with its cracked glass face, and the needle shivering as Angstrom walked across the fields in daytime, twisting and whirling when he spun, the compass held before his face where he watched it, till he fell down, head spinning and his stomach fluttering, nauseous. The points of the compass were subdivided into two poles and the equator. The “P”s were poles, but he saw no equator in the sketch, since the “E” meant east. Counterclockwise he traced the various circles to find himself an equator, finally having to settle with: EQWR, eqw(at)r.

The moon had sunk some, its light not as brilliant as when he first came down into the brambly dell. He might have heard the first dove, behind him in the twisted scrub, close by. The sky was still cast in grey-blackness, as a faint coo whose hollowness was like an invisible encyclopedia of mourning, its every aspect. Its solemnity was matched by the paradox of its distant-nearness. A strange, dry chill blew over his face and hands. He turned round quietly on his haunches in order to sight the dove. With great patience he studied the hillside, training back and forth across the general area from which he thought the sad sound had given. However, nothing moved or made any further noise out in the complex tangle of wild brambles and choke waste. His breathing, which had quickened and become very shallow, slowed, and he looked across the rise for the morning star illustrated in the charcoal-damp sky. It was, he thought, still too early for mourning doves to call and, as he turned, he smiled at the homonym: mourning, morning.

Bomb 9 Ranas 001 Body

Maka, Ranas, 1981, acrylic on canvas, 59 × 52 inches, Mexico. Photo by Gerard Murrell.

Angstrom looked down at the diagram again. Its perspective had collapsed back into the flatness of the page. His heart sank a little at this and for several moments he fried willing it back into its optical-illusory three dimensions, without success. Like a desperate mystic who failed to will for himself a vision, Angstrom felt suddenly dreary and alone. A realization that he was in no way prepared to understand what this book and the others he had been so fortunate to stumble upon actually meant, and that therefore he would always be condemned to never knowing, that he would be deprived always of a machinery which might bring him a power of understanding his past and thereby controlling the ignorant tyrant who inhabited his present, whipped him down into helpless self-hating desolation. The land, the sky, everything stretched away from him, but arbitrarily. Arbitrarily, because in its big starry regions, expanding away and away, he felt the outrageous certainty that he himself had no place in it. In the simplest act of sitting in a weed-riddled field under the night sky with an incomprehensible text and its mysterious diagram in his hands, he understood his absence would be regretted by no one and nothing. He knew for a single instant that he would never be the desiderate of any will, or love.

In that moment another prospect became clear: that the power to forgive his fugitive father for having abandoned him was at once possible and, being possible—that is, having a meaning unto itself without ever being communicated to the one its direction sought—could be rejected, could be a power beyond the virtual. He could, he knew, in a flash of unspoiled knowing, withhold forgiveness from his father forever, and that act would generate real force in the world. And because his own place in the world was, by every evidence, arbitrary and without point, this evil, so generated, could in no way circle round to its source. There was no spiritual gravity.

Spiritual gravity? Such blank words, such an airy display of the concrete helplessly mixing with the abstract.

A twig clicked behind him, up the rise. He turned, startled out of his revery, and stared at the collection of thistles and stones riddling the declivity. Nothing was there. He stood up, not without a kind of aggressiveness, so frightened was he at this little noise which seemed to have come from nowhere. The book dropped into the dirt. He squinted and looked around for several minutes. Finding nothing, he sat down and picked up the book again, opening the covers and turning to the drawing. It meant nothing, he thought. The little noises of the night meant nothing at all.

Just as he moved to close the book and give up on any rebellion against the despotism of ignorance before mystery, he saw the word, right where he had begun, the word which denoted his place in the universe, depicted in the diagram. Three letters shone in the moonlight and he ran his finger across them, directly across the straight line that traversed the center of the circle. It read: SON. The abstract suddenly melted into the concrete by a strange process of language combining the two hemispheres, south and north, linked by an observer who stood midway between them, which altogether translated into a flesh and blood counterpart.

Possessed, Angstrom’s eyes quickly darted around the maze of lines and letters, mumbling aloud whatever word combinations the symbols might render. Then he read it, astounded as much as anything by the sense that even mysteries have a logical, even linear, order to them, once an initial premise is reached. Three letters, in perfect counterpoise to the others.

—WOE, he muttered.

It fell across the path of SON like a razor traced into pulsing skin, and found at its center the common zero, the mutual oh. And the circular mark fashioned by the ink on the page, the circle which gave each point of the compass a vowel to anchor it and give it life, served as—more than a symbol—a perfect sketch of how the rest of the diagram worked. The “O” was observer, was nothing, was the “oh” of exclamation and love, was the antique “O!” of address, the true first word of the universe which at once circumscribed everything, began everything, ended all. It was the zero that proceeds the first natural number, and the zero that presumes to follow whatever final number might indicate infinity. And surrounding it, as if it were the axle, and the four points of the wheel the compass-points, were the ways this universe might move: south-east-west-north, whose anagram too meant closure and spelled out a zero. The wheel had two spokes which extended from this zero-axle out to the points of the rim, and these were the two results of that universe set into its spinning motion. One was its product, that of generation. The other was his fate, that of grief.

He traced with a twig the other lettered bands that swung around the circle, pronouncing the letters aloud, filling in possible vowels in hope other words might emerge that would further solve the strange puzzle. Gibberish was all this exercise produced, and more and more it began to resemble a child’s sketch of a ball of yarn. Helpless as a man waking from a sweet dream, waking against his will, unable to fall back into a sleep so that the dream may continue, Angstrom now began to try out the three words in combinations, to see whether together they formed syllables of a single word that might resolve everything into a simple key.

—Sewnson, woesewn, woeson. Woesewnson.

It was useless. Each word gave up only its strict meaning which, when mingled with the others, suggested a kind of sense: the son sewn in woe. Sown like a grain, perhaps, beneath the sun, bringing forth a crop of adversity? Or conversely, woe sewn in the son. It was all the same. It was a dreary prognosis, especially in that it promised more than he was able to glean from it, since there seemed to be neither origin nor conclusion for the state of things it decreed.

Angstrom lay back and took in with his eyes the high ceiling of stars that flickered overhead. He picked out Sirius and the Dippers. The earth under his back was warm but prickly. He rubbed his groin. But he could not make his body answer. His thoughts were an unslaked confusion, but their patterns twirled still round the three words, faltering, straying, gliding further and further off-center like a top whose gyrations slowed and whose instability gained, its fat bell racing side to side and threatening to topple.

—Woe, woman, womb, woof, worm, work, worse, wound.

It came like a moan this incantation, so slowly made. And as he inscribed each word on the lips he noticed the stars turning blue, and several turning reddish, or pink. The moon remained a severe white and the space between the countless stars stayed its black-grey. The face in the moon was relentless and stony; it did not spring to life as the stars had. Angstrom blinked. When he opened his eyes the stars were white.

Then the dove sounded behind him again, although its cry was oddly guttural. This time Angstrom refused to acknowledge its presence, or non-presence. The shooting star that burned directly overhead only extinguished once it traveled far down toward the horizon over an island of sunflowers that stood up taller than a man, heads bowed. They looked like foreign monsters in the pale moonlight, but drooped and were far too groggy to be frightening. Angstrom closed his eyes and smiled to himself, although his lips remained a taut straight crease across the smooth skin.

But this time there were steps and thistle crackled, and there was a scraping of little pebbles being moved. The blood in Angstrom’s veins was charged with adrenalin and he jumped up with such celerity, turning to face the hillside, that there seemed to be no transition whatever, but only the end of one perception and the beginning of another which was so radically different it was as if Angstrom had plunged into an alien world, had tumbled out of his own life into another’s.

His eyes adjusted to the dark, and there it was, glaring at him, its incandescent eyes, muddy yellow but which were seemingly luminous from within, stationary and aglow in the darkness that hovered in the brush not ten yards above where he stood.

It was the goat. Angstrom gagged on the scream that broke in his lungs. Nothing moved, nothing sounded. The head of the goat was stiff, almost statuesque, shorn of any locks. Its pale flesh clung to the convex forehead and stood out like marble beneath the moonlight; from its poll two thick scimitar-like horns swept backwards, undulant, marred by knots and bosses, culminating in points jagged, sharp as arrowheads. They were a corrugated filthy white, and beneath them were pendant ears that tapered into its pied shaggy coat. Sunken nostrils and watery black lips were the conclusion of its narrow expressionless head that now began to toss back and forth. This movement, the first either had made in a matter of time that to Angstrom seemed like hours but which was probably limited to less than a minute, produced in the boy a fresh terror, causing the length of his body to be convulsed into a tremor. He was soiled between his legs, the shame of which registered in a flash of fever that set his face hot as if it were burning. Now its head stopped moving from side to side and off its back rose its large wings: they extended atop its back to their fullest reach, and they resembled the webbed structure of a bat’s wings, filmy membranes stretched between the delicate elongated bones of four or five fingers. The wings rustled like paper as it brought them back into its sides.

Angstrom stumbled backwards, half tripping over his book, as it flexed its jaw, as if to speak. He snatched up the book, holding the creature’s amber eye, then began to walk sideways up the hill, the barbs of weeds brushing against his pantlegs. It made no move to follow him, but only turned its head to watch him as he stumbled away and soon broke into a sprint. As he reached the gate he glanced around down into the moonlit rack of weed and rock. He saw something moving down there, though the moon had gone down, throwing the field into considerable shadows.

How had the moon gone down, he wondered as he shut the gate quickly, and ran towards the huddle of buildings colonnaded on the flat ahead, ashamed and angry, his pants warm, his eyes confused by tears. Again he thought he heard something and whipped around, expecting anything, expecting to see it bearing down upon him, its black wings careering: there was only stillness and far away the drowsy performance of different birds passing from nocturnal to matudinal songs. He hid his breaches under a pile of hay in the barnloft and walked, still clutching Lucretius in his hands, across the shadowed clearing toward the farmhouse, half-naked and still shivering, but not from the cold.

Bradford Morrow’s collection of poems, Posthumes, was published by Cadmus Editions last Spring. He lives and works in New York City where he is Editor of Conjunctions and is currently working on a novel.

Bradford Morrow by Jim Lewis
Morrow 01
Fanny’s Lament (More Experimental Animals) by Thalia Field

It was with the printing press and Enlightenment science that history first demarcated itself from literature as a field of knowledge founded on scientific principles and archival methods.

Gloss by Leah Dworkin
Leah Dworkin Gloss Banner

I say something about the time and he replies, “I cannot sleep in this lifeless room, I can’t, I can’t. I won’t. You can’t make me.”

Ghosts of History: An Interview with Jesmyn Ward by Louis Elliott
Jesmyn Ward Banner

Congratulations to Ward on winning the 2017 National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Originally published in

BOMB 9, Spring 1984
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