Vertigo is a sensation of feeling off balance.
When he was a child, he discovered within himself the capacity to slow down time. He did this by experiencing things as fully as possible: going silent within himself, he'd stop, and look, and listen: not the way his teacher told him, to scout for oncoming cars, but to imbibe the essence of the moment around him. Everything about a moment – the sights, the sounds, the smells, plus some indefinable something people had no name for, but which he called 'spacetime' – could be remembered if it were only paid enough attention to. Paying attention was what he was good at. Apparently, nobody else did this, because they were always too busy doing something else, like talking, or wanting things, or defining their place in the social order. So he never discussed it with anyone, ever.
He discovered early that he had absolutely no desire to construct a social identity for himself. That sounds odd, but it's true. He didn't hate the world. It was only that most of its concerns seemed irrelevant to him. Mainly, he wanted other people to be happy. He tried to discover what they wanted, and figure out how to help them get it (if it wouldn't hurt them) without involving too much of his inner self. His private thoughts were inviolable, and not for sharing. Not, at least, until a better world came along. His idea of a better world was one that didn't hurt other people, but also contained, possibly, someone who cared what he thought about things. Until that happened, he'd keep his thoughts to himself.
'Most people want to get together and have fun,' said his mother. His mother said things like that a lot. 'Most people want this, most people want that.' He was grateful for the information, not because he intended to pattern himself after 'most people' (much to her evident disappointment), but because it helped to know what other people wanted. He had no other way to figure it out. He didn't particularly care what people thought of him, but he didn't want to weird them out. Weirding people out distressed them and could lead to counterproductive activity on their part and inconvenience on his own.
So he acted like most people and got ready for the Youth Retreat. At least it was in the woods. He liked the woods.
It was a beautiful, late-summer day in the large rural park. It was the end to the kind of magical week that happens every year in western Pennsylvania, when the hot weather gives way to a sudden cooling trend. The days, sunny and warm (low 70s/about 21C) are followed by surprisingly cool nights – a foretaste of fall to come. The sky was a brilliant, deep blue. The leaves were green. Squirrels frolicked, even where they were not supposed to be frolicking, like inside chimneys and stovepipes. The landscape was…humming?
'All right, listen up!' Mrs Waggoner was barking orders. Mrs Waggoner was a substantial and vaguely menacing woman who bossed her art students, her two athletic sons, her meek choir-director husband, and anyone else in her field of vision (except his mother). Mrs Waggoner had plans for this retreat, and they didn't involve dawdling. Girls were directed to stow their stuff in one primitive cabin, boys in another, and all to proceed to the pavilion for the first session. The bare dirt of the open square was a hive of activity as adults dropped off teenagers or loaded food supplies into the kitchen cabin. Everyone was moving.
Except for him. He stood transfixed, staring at the alien horror that had just landed on his sweatshirt. It looked like a nightmare out of the apocalypse: red eyes, green body. Wings. Whatever it was, it wasn't earthly. It seemed menacing and vaguely evil.
Why can't I move? What is this thing? It reminds me of a grasshopper, or a katydid. I hate those things. This is torture. Everybody else is ignoring them. I can't…and they're all going to fuss. But I can't stand it. And they're everywhere.
They were. Everywhere, it seemed. As if they'd fallen from the sky, the seventeen-year locusts. A kind of cicada. Mostly harmless, at least, they didn't bite or sting. They just…swarmed. And mated, apparently. Locusts whirred in their hundreds of thousands, darkening the trees. They flew across grassy spaces. They settled on flowering plants and hung there. There was no escaping them in the open ground.
There was no particular reason for alarm. But something atavistic in his brain was firing panic signals and refused to turn off. It was not amenable to reason. He stood there frozen, then mustered the courage to shake the monstrous thing from his body, where it did not belong. He fled to the relative safety of the pavilion, which seemed to be almost completely free of the things, because they were swarming on the roof. On the corrugated tin that covered all the buildings their loud whirring competed with the natural tinnitus that provided the backdrop to all the sounds he heard. He sat down on a bench and waited for the programme to begin.
He supposed it would be the usual drivel to encourage 'spirituality' in young people, organised by rather unspiritual adults. It was. Jolly songs, scripture readings, and 'talks' consisting of analyses of modern life which told him more about what the adults were going through than anything a teenager might have needed to know. After the fourth silly verse of 'Give Me Oil in My Lamp' (the one about 'Give me wax for my board, keep me surfing for the Lord') he zoned out, as usual, and meditated on the memoir he'd been reading by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre seemed so despairing at times that he felt the urge to pray for him, so he did that (while fully aware of how much this might have irritated Monsieur Sartre), at the same time feigning polite attention to the meeting. Eventually they ran out of steam and sent everybody off to a hotdog supper. 'At least they didn't draw any of those 'Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts' schematics,' he thought as he grabbed a handful of potato chips. 'Thank you, Lord.'
As usual, Mrs Waggoner had overplanned the activities. By the time all the group games had been played and the last song sung (yes, it only takes a spark to get a fire going), it was after midnight and even the teens were exhausted. As he fell into bed, he noticed three things: the bedsprings on this cot were noisy and uncomfortable, the blankets weren't nearly warm enough for the night chill, and somebody, somewhere was screaming.
It turned out to be one of the girls, who had discovered the bat in their cabin. Someone had told them that bats would fly into your hair and get caught. They were terrified. He sympathised, though he knew better about bats. At least, there weren't any seventeen-year locusts inside the cabin, only a few million of them drumming on the tin roof above like extras in some B-minus horror movie. So he settled down, shivering, as Mrs Waggoner yelled at everyone in both cabins to shut up and go to sleep because she was tired, already. As he fell asleep he thought, 'And whose fault is that, pray?'
The next morning (up at 7) was more of the same. The adults had an agenda, he knew, that would lead up to tomorrow morning's worship service. Their plan was for the attending young people to Make Decisions. As he had already made all the Decisions the church required, he felt like a bystander – an interested bystander, but as no one was encouraging the young people to talk to one another about these decisions, but only to the responsible adults, he didn't feel as if his input were either necessary or desired. Besides, he knew all of these kids. They'd all made Decisions, too. He wondered if the adults were trying to draft them all onto the mission field, in which case, good luck. The Waggoner boys were too busy playing sports to worry about future careers at this time. He let them get on with it, while his mind was elsewhere.
He also disagreed with the general American belief that somehow, baseball was a useful bonding exercise. While he regarded baseball as a benign sport, he failed to look upon it as a transcendent metaphor. Normally, he placidly agreed to play 'outfield', meaning to move as far as possible away from the ball-playing activity as he could get, usually in some tall weeds. There he could zone out and avoid the embarrassment of trying to catch a ball whose trajectory he could not possibly track visually. Explaining about his vision problems might have sounded like whining, but this time, he decided to risk seeming anti-social by declining to participate on the grounds of tiredness. Instead, he headed for the woods behind the makeshift ball field. There, under the thick canopy, was a seventeen-year-locust-free zone, and he wanted to be there.
Following the paths in the woods led to instant relief. No more hectoring voices. No more whirring insects. No more horrifying eyes out of Revelation. Instead, quiet. Stillness. Peace. The confusion in his head cleared. He followed the path, and discovered that somebody who planned better than his youth group leaders had had a great idea: they'd built a meeting place in a natural, sloping amphitheater here in the woods. Half-buried logs served as pews facing down to the cleared platform, where a rock served as pulpit. Huge trees reared upwards, shading the whole.
He knew what this reminded him of: an old, pretentious song, way past its sell-by date, that he'd learned in school choir. Since there was no one around, he sang it, softly, to the trees.
I know a green cathedral, a hallowed forest shrine,
Where leaves in love join hands above to arch your prayer and mine,
Within its cool depths sacred, the priestly cedar sighs...
He figured the trees would understand that it was the thought that counted, and not mind the schlock. He sat down on one of the log benches, and got a surprise – what, some years later, he'd recognise from one of Castaneda's books as an 'agreement'. An inchworm, dayglo green in colour, was proceeding the length of the log. Its tentative motion, folding, raising its slender body in exploration, unfolding, folding again, was something he had heard about, but never witnessed. Suddenly, he understood another work of dubious musical merit.
Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds,
Doing your arithmetic, you'll probably go far...
This silly ditty contained a childhood mondegreen for him: he'd thought it was 'measuring the miracles'. Watching the inchworm, he decided he liked his mondegreen better than the original. He sang the song (miracle version) to the inchworm, who inched along, unconcerned.
Later that afternoon, he passed out crossing the square to the kitchen cabin. He declined the offer of a ride home, aware that home was a two-hour drive away and a great inconvenience to everyone, endured the evening blather, decided not to share his discovery in the woods with anyone (because they would probably not have been interested), spent another night with the shivering and the whirring, another morning service where the anticipated Decision was made (some private matter the adults knew about that was definitely nobody else's business and quite rightly not discussed), and then off home for a rest from the retreat.
He'd laid down for a nap on the sofa in the living room, but when he woke a couple of hours later, he couldn't stand up. The room kept spinning. It was a curious sensation: anything he looked at started moving to the left, then, suddenly, jerked back to the right and started again. It made him nauseous. It also kept him from standing upright.
For four days, he lay in bed, as he and everyone else hoped it would go away. Finally, it was decided that the doctor would have to be visited, so he crawled into the back seat of the family auto and was taken to see Dr Gillespie. Dr Gillespie shrugged, said it wasn't mono, or an ear infection, or anything he'd ever encountered in his long career (Dr G was over 70), but it was definitely vertigo, which only meant dizziness, really. Dr G was remarkably candid for a man who had scored second out of the entire state on his medical exam back in the day, and he tended to demystify medicine. He was also free with his free samples: they went home with the latest pill for vertigo. Which worked a treat: he was up and about the next day.
He went on with the business of pretending to be a teenager. He never developed a tolerance for cicadas or their kin. He never developed much of an affection for drivel, either. But the spacetime was always there to be recalled, and a walk among tall trees would do it every time.