One night I dreamed I was locked in my Father's watch
With Ptolemy and twenty-one ruby stars
Mounted on spheres and the Primum Mobile
Coiled and gleaming to the end of space
And the notched spheres eating each other's rinds
To the last tooth of time, and the case closed.
John Ciardi, “My Father's Watch”
My father bought me a little wire ball. It popped open to make a hinged sphere with thin
black lines of latitude and longitude.
With me on his shoulders, we stopped to stare at the statue of Atlas, carrying heaven and
a see-through earth. The prime meridian I recognized. An iron planet on an iron man.
All of father's place names indexed, an armchair appreciation as he shouted for dinner,
those below us would take a broomstick to the ceiling to complain.
He did not choose this life willingly, but took it in spite. He chose Philadelphia, among
other places, and before any line could be drawn, we moved again.
Anyone worth his salt, father said, by the length of a hard day worked, by the height and
revolution of the sun, snow on your shoulders, shadow at your back.
A rise or fall in barometric pressure, one latitude to the next, we learned as children, to
gain or lose time, gauge his temper, we all got where we were going, more or less.
He did away with us. What utility, what accuracy. All these threads, to unravel them now, abandoned satellites, lost telemetry.
His calculations eventually ruptured under the weight of blackened cells. As proof of his
guilt and contrition. A weak vessel. A navigator's Dead Reckoning. How quickly his ship receded.
The pocket watch he left behind. Cracked beveled glass, stiff counter-motion, always ran
fast. We threw it off the deck and into the lake he never wept.
We shredded the sails and pitched everything, yet the winds whittled, held west, what
sway he held over us, held fast. Years go by and nothing moves.
A given star to occur at a given time. Skies tumble over. Salt over the shoulder for good
luck. Telescope to the sky, our small bodies vanished from Father's azimuth.
When the skies were overcast, father withheld his blessing, by the light from the shadow
of a wild goose, by the urgency of rain. Where he went, there was no good map, no good route.
The sky held out hope with a sunset by the phases of the moon, by his skin turning from
white to yellow, breath paused, the way a tossed ball pauses momentarily.
These events, a finding, orienteering an end to means, all the far-flung stars, consumed
and collected, when shadow—then pray to keep up, if we're able.
We did not keep time well, father said, we were negligent and slothful, however, namely,
to the task, against the assault of decay, it is not clear if he knew he too fell short.
In fathoming the behavior of light, here in the coiled balance of our kitchen, mother
argued over entitlement, eventually the matter was dropped. In the end there was no end.