Not many people will tell you, but a few years ago I was struck by lightning as I crossed a bridge with my son, Harvey. I was holding Harvey at the time, so I guess you could say he was struck by lightning too.
It was the summer, Harvey with the haircut some babies have that makes them look like a piece of fruit. I think it also makes them look like they could be fooled easily. In the moments after we were struck and before I passed out, and for much of his life afterwards, he had the dumb expression of someone thinking precisely the opposite of what you’d just told them.
I woke up mid-conversation with someone. There was a nurse nearby, and I asked her what she thought my legal options were. ‘Someone is responsible for this,’ I said. ‘But I can’t put my finger on who.’
‘I know how you’re feeling,’ the nurse said. She looked like she’d never slept a night in her life. ‘My dog got lost at the beach about a year ago. All the people in the world staring out at nothing, and you’re telling me no one saw a thing?’
‘It’s disgusting what we do to each other,’ I agreed.
Later, on the news, there was the miracle of the baby who’d survived dry-lightning. He was already laughing again, cradled in the rubber arms of his mother, who was behind a protective screen. All his responses seemed to suggest that not only was he unharmed, but that his brain was growing happily. No one was around to get me a glass of water, and I had to drink out of the tap like a wild animal.
Now, Harvey was back in hospital. I was at singles night when I got the call to say he’d somehow mortally wounded himself giving a demonstration at his History of Junior Innovation Society.
This was years after the lightning strike, and Harvey was in school. The lattice of burn scars left in our fatty lower backs had faded dramatically. Now, we just looked like we didn’t take care of our skin.
Kids were always getting their asses handed to them at the charter school that Harvey’s mother paid for him to attend. Rich, smart children ruining their days with ambition, tearing themselves apart with unregulated access to 3D printers.
I can’t exaggerate how often this kind of nonsense occurred. One girl put her fingers into a machine she had designed to recycle military waste. A whole class poisoned themselves drinking methylethyl. God at his race track, why? The principal encouraged their inquisitiveness, pushed them constantly. He was a plastics genius who’d served time for a famous environmental nastiness; of those wetlands holocausts, from which he profited handsomely. Stretch out your little arms into the storm, he told the children. Some of them may break and blow away, but only some.
And it worked. Take Harvey. Despite his facial expressions he was, at this point, significantly richer than me. He and one of his little friends had created an app of some monstrous function, the kind that’ll get you a profile in an in-flight magazine, and it had made him a fortune. He’d been an honourable mention in Moneyboy’s ‘15 Under 15’. Before his latest injury, he would run many miles every morning. He even had a podcast with a modest following, which he recorded at his mother’s house. I found the premise tired.
Unlike me, Harvey had a dedicated partner, an overseas girl he spoke to online. I had a penpal growing up, but our letters held nothing of the trash I found in Harvey’s chat history with his French–Canadian girlfriend. They said they hoped to die making love, swallowing one another whole, being reborn again as a single animal, huge and impossible, like a fish big enough to eat the sun—it was real unhinged correspondence. The kind of thing the murderers say just before the state blasts them with the electric chair.
Where was my news story? Where was my Quebecoise girlfriend, my miraculous development? I taught history at a vocational college. Aren’t teachers at vocational colleges allowed their dreams? I’d thought many times of what it would be like to be a solicitor to a wealthy family, or a painter who would one day take things too far and disappear. Once I wanted to open a chain of dojos, teaching self-defence to weaklings and the children of weaklings, but the administrative hoops were an aneurysm, and while I followed my train-at-home tapes vigilantly, my ankles seemed to sprain at anything above a whisper. After the divorce, I put my efforts into making my own podcast, one to rival Harvey’s. It was clean and, I felt, succinct, but after a year was still struggling to find listeners.
I would wake in the early mornings, listening to Harvey make long phone calls to friends in dark parts of the world. I would shut my eyes and wish for more lightning, or someone to appear to me, to take me back to a time when more was possible.
Take Ancient Greece. What a time that was. You could lay with any animal you wanted, as long as it was a god in disguise. No one would look twice if it wasn’t; the odds were that it would turn into a human soon enough anyway as a result of this congress. If you had sex with something else—a cloud for instance, or your father, on account of a spell being cast on either of them—you or your father or the cloud would most likely give birth to something wonderful: a new god or a centaur.
You could be murdered too, and it would be the best thing that could happen to you. It would be by the hand of a loved one, driven mad by song. You’d be brought back to life again, new, severed from of the errors of your past. Your corpse would be swallowed by a great bird and you would hatch from the egg it laid, and you would probably go on to have sex with the bird.
Can you imagine living in those times? When the rules of the world weren’t yet in place? What have we given up in ceasing our congress with the gods? Some marvels, sure. Podcasts, for one thing. Machines that recycle military waste. Suspension bridges—the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, which is the longest suspension bridge in Japan or any country. But in those moments, lying in bed, when I don’t yet have the will to rise, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge seems very far away from me, and I know the truth of my failings: that I am no solicitor to a wealthy family; that I am a simple lightning-strike survivor, and childless—or virtually childless, in that my son is deeply, aggressively overrated.
I used to fear dying famously, my parents seeing my decapitated head on the front page of their paper. Once, I had a dream that my son would live forever, outlasting us all…
This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Jack Vening is a writer from Canberra. He is currently completing his first collection of stories.