Venus in Transit
It is an overcast morning, a day inhibited by what old mothers out west wait all year to describe as “June Gloom,” though still brighter than one of Hemingway’s “false springs.” This spring is real. Perhaps more so than the others. Today, for the last time this century, Venus moves across the sun, magnifying hidden things that are new or have always existed—numbers in the dark and the viscosity of the human aura, the distance between stars, the taste of ancient light.
Every few hundred years it can be seen in transit, a black dot in the sky visible to the naked eye in the middle of the day, beaming down on half-clothed figures standing with eclipse glasses in certain oceans—the only female planet in the solar system, gendered for its beauty by the usual committee of shriveled men. Brides have lain in the shadows of its rays. Young girls have stood beneath it at night, holding their dolls up in sacrifice, looking for that mirror world somewhere above.
They crawl through the grass now, dragging the tiny bodies with them into the open fields of the park.
Through the canopy of leaves, the girls come upon the cemetery, an enclosure of moss-covered stones behind a barbed-wire fence. The sort of place an adolescent boy might harvest marijuana plants, stealing through a hole in the chain link to check on them at night. One can imagine the body of Montgomery Clift hanging from a tree, or a dark-haired woman passing with her handkerchief, the long grass quivering over the eroded faces of graves. Not far off is the tree with hearts carved into it, profanities in tow. Then comes the rabbit disappearing into the brush. The hidden glade. The precipitous creek. The trash in the bushes. The gated oasis. The lost balloon. The crying child. The smoking fire pit. The wandering dogs. The line of swans. The soprano on the veranda.The fallen sycamore. The kite caught in the branches. The green lake. The empty bottles floating on the surface. The lonely fisherman. The secret path. The sinking earth.The sirens in the distance. The rush of cars at the perimeter. The ice cream man. The strolling rabbi. The black eyes of the ducks. The baseball fathers. The picnic girls. The arguments on benches. The barefoot players. The cricket match. The missing cobblestone. The pulsing lizard. The trampled flowers. The flown-away hat. The passing rain shower. The broken parasol. The toppled Porta Potty. The herd of bicycles. The distant music. The grilling meat. The muddy enclave. The dark passage. The sudden quiet. The clandestine sex act. The leaning columns. The shirtless man. The mysterious electrical box. The hanging mist. The woman selling mangoes. The lost tourist. The pissing drifter. The patchwork of blankets. The moving clouds. The light in the trees. The damp air. The geometry of foliage. The sway of the branches. The lines in the sky. The musician in the tunnel. The sleeping day laborers. The girls jumping rope. The festival of ants. The decapitating frisbee. The deserted baby stroller at the top of the hill.
The pram is old-fashioned, like a Victorian bonnet, edged with lace and propped on a pair of bicycle wheels. Before it is a sweeping expanse of green, a circumference of trees hanging with verdure, dunes of grass, and a buzz of afternoon flies over the sunbathers. There is no piglet foot dangling over the side of the pram, no infantile jingle of bells from the lambskin abyss. The day is low and quiet. The vessel is stationary. Until a gloved hand pushes it down the hill.
There used to be a Death-O-Meter installed in the southeast corner of the great lawn. A clock that counts everyone who dies on the surrounding parkway. A little lady in a cap passes to check the numbers. The stats surge on Saturday afternoons, when the circus comes to town, when spirits are high, when people stop wondering if they will ever see the northern lights. The girls lay on their stomachs with their chins in their hands nearby in the grass, studying pictures of movie stars in the ladies’ digest, as oblivious to the sky as they are to traffic or the meter maid’s business, as the black dot of Venus pulses high above them behind a cloud, not yet approaching the sun’s coordinates.
One of the teenage girls has a new beau. Or perhaps it is the same one. Perhaps he has always been there, whether she has declared him or not. A screech of wheels can be heard on the parkway and she lifts her head, thinking of how she saw him pass by her window this morning on his bicycle.
He goes for bike rides in the middle of the night. After checking on his marijuana plants near the cemetery at the edge of the park, the boy takes the same route home in the wee hours. Each night, the land dips into the valley. Each night, the meadow is undivided by trees. He has seen the pagan encampment there before, a host of tents set up like caravans in the desert, people huddled around bonfires singing over cauldrons of goat meat, drummers banging on taut leather hides. He always stops with his bike at the top of the ridge and watches them for a while.
At 2 a.m. there are few other people in the park. The land is obscured in shadow. This is when they appear, a sea of lights slowly accumulating behind him—the glowing eyes of the girls crawling up the hill toward his body. But the boy has never noticed them there. He has never stood on the hill long enough for more than a single pair of hands to coil themselves around the spokes of his wheel.
In the daytime now, he sits beside the teenage girl in the shade overlooking the great lawn, drawing pads on their laps as they sketch the terrain, his bicycle pitched on its side in the grass. The elms hang green around them, at once entropic and poised to explode into blossom. They have been coming here since they were children, hopping fences to steal pomegranates, collecting empty bottles by the creek, scratching bark off the eucalyptus in the golden shadows. Before them is a weeping organism, two trees grafted together, entirely different species, twisted and overgrown around each other.
It is senior spring. For these last days of school, the magic of leaving is in the air, everyone about to shoot off like sparks from an anvil, few virgins left among them. There is hardly anything left to do now. All work ethic is gone, minds elsewhere, eyes half-mast. It is as if their souls have already left their bodies, flown from the rooms they’ve grown up in into the void. They are seventeen. They have known each other for so long that the surface of the lake has become still. But there is always hidden movement. Barely detectable, Venus drifts above them in the sky, the black dot edging its way toward the sun’s perimeter, crossing its threshold like a parasite infiltrating a membrane. Now is the moment the mythic creature emerges from the water.
“Well, do you think you’re ready?” says the boy, smudging in the shadows on the underside of a branch he has sketched. After fifteen years of sitting at tables a few inches away from her, he is bursting at the seams. The girl looks down at her drawing for a moment, noticing their fingertips are black with the charcoal residue from their pictures, like goblin children who have been eating soot.
“I think so,” she says, a dark smudge across her lips where she has accidentally touched her face. Her answer is spontaneous and uncalculated. Though the words feel foreign as they come out of her mouth, they are true. Neither of them has ever been naked in front of anyone before. Until a month ago, the girl had never even been kissed. This is a secret she will never tell. She is a strange one, the sort who seems as if she has kissed many people, but in fact has held off, having had the premonition since she was a child that she would sleep with the first person she pressed her lips against.
“What about you?” she asks him back. He laughs, as though this is a ridiculous question.
They plan to lose their virginities on a rock overlooking the highway. But perhaps they will end up doing it instead in the living room on a night when his parents are out of town. Perhaps he will take out a medical book halfway through to explain the mechanics he himself has never employed, pointing to a diagram of a universe she can’t imagine is inside of her, before lifting up her nightgown to mine the passage through her body. Perhaps it is there, in the abyss of white fabric that once belonged to her mother, as she is projected on a violent beam of light through the time-space continuum, that she will know for the first time there is no forever.
Weeks from now, here in the park, perhaps they will lie in the bushes, having done the whole shebang a million times by then, both hypnotized and baffled by what sex actually ends up being. There will be others like them in other places, doing it in their cars, in parking lots or at various lookout points, the tops of ridges, the dead ends at the edges of town, under the bleachers on the baseball field, etc. All around them, lonely walkers will go creeping, prostitutes will linger under street lamps, vagrants will bury their weapons and bathe in the pond. Perhaps adolescent boys from the outer boroughs will come to raise hell through the evening, to throw beer cans at the baby bear loose in the park, beating him with sticks before smashing his head against the rocks. Perhaps the kid lovers will lie still, half-naked in the underbrush, American teenagers mid-thrust, watching with hands over each other’s mouths.
“Are you going to get out the medical book?” perhaps the girl will whisper.
But there is no knowing how it will happen. These days there are strange things in the air. Hidden vapors transfix the spirit. Volcanic. Imaginary. Libidinous. Deadly. Venus moves invisibly overhead, inflicting its pink Dionysian light on all wandering bodies.
There are marble columns in the clearing, the pillars of a gazebo where the girls imagine themselves as women laying topless in piles, discarded bouquets of flowers strewn over them as they sleep off a night of revelry. Only the girl playing the bride is fully-clothed, a Madonna wrapped in cellophane waiting to be purchased. The clouds part for a moment above her, and the black dot appears high up in the sky, stationed just inside the sun’s periphery.
There have been other days when this has happened in other centuries, other moments of illumination. But in all the others it was only men who were said to be looking, standing by with their sledgehammers to make the discovery. There is no such equipment here today, no car hoods to be lifted, no unzipped blue jeans. The bride stands alone at the altar. As she gazes upwards, Venus disappears again, the clouds re-converged like the slamming of a gate. A red bird that no one has seen in years soars past. It snatches the bride’s veil in its beak and flies away with it. Uncovered, the bride falls to her knees, her head as exposed to God as the orthodox children walking on the parkway at the perimeter. As the clouds grow dark against each other, she sets the discarded flowers at her feet on fire.
The camera obscura has been boarded up for years. It looks like a public lavatory, a cube of municipal brick covered in moss, blurred by the underbrush of the peninsula near the center of the park. The interior is nothing more than a room abandoned in the dark. A ray of light cuts through the empty space, ejected from a single point pierced in the wall, transmitting holograms of the exterior across the room. No one can see the girls hidden inside, the youngest having pried open the door with her famous crowbar, all of them piling in to lean their backs against the cold cinderblock edges, hearts beating in delinquent symphony from their chests. They stand in the darkness and watch the images projected from the pinhole onto the facing wall. Everything is upside down—the flickering silhouettes of police officers on horses, the lovers’ canoes, the men who still can’t feel them watching.
“How many dogs does that kid have?” says one of the men far away in the grass, commenting on a pack of chihuahuas that nip at a child’s heels on the other side of the field, all dressed in pink ruffled collars like Pierrot de la Lune. The three men have been lying there for hours, drinking wine from plastic cups and singing songs they can’t remember the lyrics to, bits of fluff fluttering over them as they sunbathe in the humid air. In the nighttime there is music, but it is early yet. Too early to catch sight of the naked girls who will run through the trees around them high on psychedelics. Too early to say if the cloud cover will burn away with the heat. Now there is just the dog dragging a giant stuffed animal of Mickey Mouse across the lawn between its teeth.
The girls emerge from the camera obscura. They will head to the observatory on the hill to examine the sky. One by one they scamper from the door, arriving in the bushes like beads on an abacus beside each other in a line. They wait there, watching people on the path that leads up the hill. A herd of runners jog past at a tepid pace, sweat streaked down their florescent backs. As they crest the hill where a wolf was once sighted, they all tilt their heads up to the sky and let out a collective bleat.
On the benches along the path, bird watchers pull their diabetes medicine from their fanny packs in unison, each wearing a visor to match. They direct their binoculars up through the branches. Framed within the circular cavities of their devices, a cardinal alights on a tangle of fabric, roosting over a single blue egg in a nest made from a lost wedding veil. A man in a headdress passes and obstructs the view. He whistles shrilly into the birders’ ears, a sound that is identical to a chorus on a telephone wire, as if he has swallowed an entire avian family. The girls turn to each other from their place in the bushes. They pucker their lips but no sound comes out when they blow.
Through the telescope in the observatory, Venus looks like a giant white marble—a few streaks of grey at the temples, a swirl of pink, a splash of Hell at the mouth, the whole mass wrapped in a gauze of clouds. But up close, all is steeped in heavy yellow light, the landscape lost in a haze of 1970s flames, burnt orange, like the woman light-years away, who the girls saw on television yesterday, posing for a picture against an apocalyptic sky, her dress the same color as the forests on fire behind her. From here the girls are too far removed to see any of the planet’s brilliance. It is just a black dot, easily missed, a speck on someone’s lenses, a period at the end of a sentence.
One of the girls opens the newspaper to read the forecast:
Clouds, the collected works.
A density of paragraphs.
Page left blank for a moment of nuclear sun.
Melancholy over the lake.
In the valley at the foot of the observatory, the girls put on their white dresses and stand in a ring around the Maypole, each holding a brightly-colored ribbon attached to the pinnacle. It seems as if there are thousands of girls projected into the distance. The animals have been set free, the man made of sticks erected in the square and burnt down. And still, the weather has not been determined for the coming summer or the summer after that. In a moment the fiddles will begin to play. In a moment all the ribbons will be tangled.
The oldest girl has wandered off alone. Hidden in the shade, the petals fall from the trees around her. Pink dots blur her vision, as she moves her hand under her dress. Like the others, she was told that today there would be some movement in the sky. She looks up and imagines a touch of nitrogen on the air, a blue snow falling over the atomic lake, a yellow precipice under Soviet observation. Years from now a mysterious gas will be detected on Venus, drifting from the planet’s core—a place hot enough to melt lead—beyond its frozen moons and possible water worlds, indicating, that perhaps once, in a cooler time, the smallest forms of life evolved upwards into the clouds.
The black dot has reached the center point across the sun’s circumference, the dilated pupil of a bloodshot eye. For a moment the park fills with ultraviolet light, but the flash is hardly noticed. The girls lay on their backs in the grass. As a burst of rain pours down on them, their bodies glow purple.
A ways off behind the chain-link fence at the back end of the cemetery, the electrical tower buzzes with invisible signals, camouflaged into the landscape. It stands erect, shrouded in an imagined aura of barbed wire and red squiggled lines, emitting a detritus of sound bites over the park—waves of neon and songs from car windows, hurricane names, mushroom clouds, radiant skeletons. All pulsing through the veins of a fake evergreen tree, flanked with plastic spikes painted to look real. Weee-ooooo-weeee-schpeeewww-tic-tic-tic, goes its little song. One verse. Two verses. Dead. Overheated. Cracked screen. Bad reception. Magic. The point of power. The nexus of every message for a five-mile radius, shooting through space. All its vibrating parts suddenly gone still.
The oldest girl steps out from the trees, as if exiting the confines of a still life tableau entitled “Visions of Spring.” As she scatters the allotted seeds of fertility from her skirt, the sky turns a dark Medieval green. Black paper cut-outs of a forest stand around her, the negative space between the leaves forming the shape of fallopian tubes.
One might assume she keeps a ram of purest white as her pet, held on a leash of wild grasses from the meadow. Perhaps he wakes her in the morning by bleating softly in her ear. Up close, her face is a mysterious fresco, like the Unicorn Tapestry, luminous and unsolved, her hair still red, though the ends have become brittle, closer to straw than heavenly bullion. In her early days, she rode on a giant seashell through the canals, her bare parts covered only by a pre-Raphaelite tendril, divine light streaming from the exhaust pipe in a golden thread across the water. Once she was even photographed for the cover of a magazine, standing in a blow-up kiddie pool as a thirteen-year-old in her one-piece bathing suit, pastoral laundry flying on the clothesline behind her.
But that was years ago. Now she lives like a vagrant in the woods, eating the low-hanging fruit, careful not to pluck the figs of Chernobyl. The other girls gather around her, specimens of flowers wilting from the embroidery of their garments, pearls woven into the braids coming loose down their backs. They reach down to the ground to ingest the seeds the oldest girl has scattered from her skirt, the tiny ovules glowing in their palms before they devour them, stuffing their mouths with light. In the overcast haze of the late afternoon, their bodies begin to look like they are made of ice, drifting in long diaphanous robes, the outlines of their petal-like breasts only lightly veiled, as they reach their hands toward each other. It is as though they are levitating over the ground, their feet perched at the very tips of the blades of grass.
The oldest girl remains still, always the vestal at the center, as if just returned from another kidnapping by a bare-chested demigod, avoiding the arrows of cherubs in the trees. Over time she has grown old and young at once, her skin consumptive as a stillborn baby, her eyes ancient and delicate as silk. By now she has run her fingers through the beards of many centaurs, spun her ax overhead to trim their tails. She is hard-pressed to remember a time when she knew nothing of blindfolds or sabers, or her first occasion of “going walking” with a man in a red cape. That was the day the flowers sprung from her mouth. When the monochromatic fields burst into flames.
If you try to speak to her now, she will only shriek at the heavens, a siren’s call that leaves a yellow scar across the sky.
The girls follow her across the field to the other side of the trees, their eyes beginning to spin with psychotropic visions. It is dusk. Elderly couples are ballroom dancing on the empty basketball court. They sway in slow motion to American standards, dipping each other and singing along incomprehensibly to Frank Sinatra, the music drifting over them from a radio on the ground.
A few of the girls join the dancers, leaving the others to watch from the edges. They are almost thirty years old, these two, but they dance together as if they are teenagers, their stiff bodies teetering back and forth against each other like buoys. One is a whole head taller than the other, a fact they rarely notice, except when dancing or standing beside each other against walls, or when lined up with other couples in photographs. Slow dancing has always embarrassed the smaller one. She even declined offers from boys at her senior prom to avoid the absurdity. The ones who asked her to dance were always much taller, too high up to rest her head on their shoulders like the girls who dance at proms in the movies. In the hot pink haze of “Time After Time,” or “Lady in Red,” she felt like a child in a circus act, the comical bird perched on the nose of a rhinoceros. Even now, in her twenty-ninth year, imagining herself just returned from the ballet in a bustier wrap dress that once belonged to Dorothy Lamour, it feels as if the elderly dancers are laughing at them. The smaller girl assumes it is because of the height discrepancy.
The other dancers appear drunk on the evening air, letting loose in a century when a soft interlude in the park is as good as it gets for anyone. Many of the ladies are dressed in floral gowns from the 1980s, with bunched-up shoulder pads and gold powder brushed across their eyes. Their faces are far off in the whirl of a blue Gatsby party, a Shanghai sunset, a hammock over a lagoon. A few paces off, crowds of men are gathered around a volleyball game, jumping up to spike the ball over the net. Two players stand at a table nearby, slyly collecting bets from onlookers, as an old woman hobbles around at the periphery, selling single cigarettes from the pockets of her apron. Dogs gallop over the surrounding fields, sniffing the ground, lifting their legs to pee on trash cans.
The sun has nearly set over the trees, with no one watching for the green ray at the end of it. It is not the first spring the two girls have spent together in the city. Love is not new, but still pulsing in anemic waves at the edges. The air is turquoise. The twilight purple. The taller girl dips the other with mediocre form. A fog curls and dissipates around them, like a paper dragon at the end of a parade.
The pagans have left a severed goat head in the dust of their disassembled encampment. Used condoms hang from the surrounding branches, like the ones found in stairwells and thrown from the window onto fire escapes. In the dusk, there is nothing but a pile of bones. A wet dollar. A trampled corsage.
Dragging her crowbar through the dirt, the youngest girl picks up a tossed flower from the path and tucks it into the pocket of her doll’s pinafore, along with an airplane-sized vodka bottle someone has discarded by the lake. Looking down, she is transfixed by the dead face of the goat, its pupils black as the dot obscured in the sky, a glittering substance oozing from them through the grass. The girl places the carcass on her head and walks off toward the zoo, her tiny body teetering under the weight of her disguise.
The light was different today, a little pinker than usual, a little heavier with smoke. The flames now burn neon in the pit at the center of the gazebo. At the countdown from ten, all the girls throw their dolls into the fire.
When the darkness has set in, the youngest girl removes her clothes and climbs over the fence, two of the other girls following after her. It is early evening, the gates of the zoo on the east side of the park locked and evacuated just an hour or so before.
“Let’s go for a swim in the moonlight,” the youngest girl says, first to scale the wall and slip into the water. A month from now, motorists will speed around the edges of the park emitting clouds of brown exhaust. Mattresses on fire escapes will cook in the heat above the streets, where entanglements of siblings will sweat in their underwear. But the girl is here now, floating in the water, the moat green and cool against her skin.
The zoo has always housed a haphazard menagerie: two cinnamon bears, three red deer, a buffalo, a peacock, a sacred cow. The flock of sheep kept to maintain the grass have since been replaced with mechanical mowers. The wild elk are now still, fenced in on the same ground they used to frolic. Behind the glass inside the cathouse, jungle felines pace the dunes, looking for domestic puddles of milk, as rats run across the walkways into the enclosures. All is steeped in the patina of deterioration. The bloody footprint. The shattered wine bottle. The unidentifiable substance collecting in the basin of the fountain.
As the moon emerges from a mass of clouds, the youngest girl catches sight of the black dot, now edged with a ring of light. Her own eyes mirror the shape in the sky, pupils dilated and swirling with reflections of something no one else has seen. But hers is not the only body in the cage. First one eye opens and then the other, the claws already brandished even in sleep. The fence is lined with barbed wire, but there is no electric shock from touching it. It takes the police fifteen minutes to find the night watchman to unlock the entrance. They can only see the children screaming in front of the cage. By the time they get inside the gates, the youngest girl’s ribs have been torn open, her legs eaten off by the two bears.
The other two girls flee into the woods, running past the sunbathing men now asleep in the grass, past the adolescent boy tied to a tree, where the rest of the girls lay piled at his feet with swollen lips. They arrive home to their mothers barefoot and in a state of undress. Their friend is already dead when the police turn up with their guns, pumping twenty shots into the two animals before bringing them down, nine hundred pounds each, eight feet tall on hind legs. Chained to the post overlooking their bodies, the frayed vulture twitches at his perch, unmoved by the ravens flying freely through the trees, circling the black dot that has nearly traversed the sky.
At the gates of the zoo, a single doll has been left in the dirt. Another hangs from a noose in a tree. A third is floating facedown in the pond.
The goat head has been pried from the youngest girl’s shoulders, but there is little left of her girl body. The numbers of the Death-O-Meter go up in respective notches, marking all casualties, inanimate and human.
In the morning, the adolescent boy rides his bike down the block out of the cemetery, love bites all over his neck as he leaves the park behind him, empty of almost everything but dogs at this hour. The teenage girl hangs onto him, arms wrapped around his torso, her eyes wheels of fortune slowing to land on the wrong number.
They ride past an old woman watering her lawn in oblivion while rocking an empty baby pram back and forth at her side, legs unshaven, her undergarments deteriorating into her skin like labels melding to the glass of old condiment bottles. Gloved hands venture anxiously into mailboxes. Drips of rain trickle from the roofs over boughs of wisteria, the purple wasting from them to the ground as if clumps of rotting grapes.
A figure inside the last house steps into the doorway. It is the oldest girl just woken for the day, having slept in a man’s bed she often finds herself visiting. Pushing open the screen uncharacteristically locked, she steps out into the yard and notices for the first time that there are chickens clucking somewhere. The silence lately has been overwhelming, eerily quiet despite the spring weather. She glances at the old woman holding the hose over the grass next door.
“It’s raining Ms. H,” she calls over the fence. “Why are you watering?”
It takes a moment for it to occur to her that the boy riding past the house is wearing a gas mask, that another funeral procession is not far behind. She turns to look at the house she has exited. The reflection of her body in its windows is upside down.
Above, the sky is clear now. And in its clarity, emptiness. No paragraphs of clouds. No period at the end of the sentence. No one has seen that the black dot has already crossed the face of the sun. Venus has passed over, illuminating nothing, the flashlight flicked on in the darkness to reveal a vacant hall. From their own celestial heights, the Venusian girls look back in this direction, hair singed from their passage through the sun, as they glance up from the yellow fields for an instant, dropping their dolls into the jaundiced rivers, wondering what world they might have missed.