When the lights in the sky finally receded, the whole town could catch its breath. The asphalt of Main Street seemed to rise and fall, an airy shuddering sigh of relief, and the hens started laying again and the well water lost its funny taste and now, at last, everything could go back to normal.
Every night, you climbed up on the roof and sat there and imagined what might have been if normal never came back.
What if the lights had left more than patterns in the neighbours’ fields? What if the barely there shadows in the clouds had taken more than sheep? What if all the world had turned its eyes on Ely, Montana, and being from Ely had at last finally meant something?
But the lights just left. And everyone preferred not to talk about them, preferred to act like they’d never been there at all.
On days when you could get a break from choring, you sought it out: any evidence that the lights had left behind. You climbed perilously high to photograph the scorch marks left on the tippy-tops of windbreak pines. You returned to the strange, crispy spot in the alfalfa where the stalks grew in funny and sideways, where they twisted and spiralled into one another in a way they hadn’t before.
You catalogued your evidence and took your photos and pasted them in a little hardshell binder, but mostly you just waited. Your parents told you to stop it with the roof. But you didn’t listen, you just climbed up quieter. Some nights, you hated yourself for not trying to do something to catch their attention. Why didn’t you wave a flashlight? Why didn’t you yell? Of course, you were scared as anyone at the time. But when you were knee-to-knee with your brother in the coat closet, hands over your ears, you had no idea how bad you’d miss it later, how your chest would ache like someone stepped on it.
Straining your eyes against the dark, you waited for light that never returned. You bundled up and stared at the sky until your neck cricked up and your feet went numb while you imagined what it might be like if the lights came back, if they carried you up and away into the thin, cool air like they’d done with the sheep. You wondered if the sheep were up there, somewhere, if they’d recognise you. Because not all the sheep had come back.
Your parents took you to a kind, soft-voiced doctor when you admitted you imagined all this. He asked you in private if they hit you, if anyone at school was bullying you, if any teachers had touched you where they shouldn’t have, like the only reason a girl might want something different from life is because someone’s abused her into it.
When it’s shearing time, you arm-bar the sheep and hold them down and go at them with the clippers. They wiggle and wiggle and you’re careful and this year you manage to only nick a couple. You do the smaller ones yourself. The bigger ones are your brother’s job. And when you twist your fingers through their wool and tell them it’s going to be okay, when your hands stink of soft lanolin and your arms quiver from a full day’s effort, you wonder if maybe the doctor and your parents weren’t right all along, if maybe there is something wrong with you, because this is normal again and normal doesn’t feel so bad.
But then your fingers scratch against the nape of one sheep in particular, a little one with prominent knees and too-quick breath and rheumy eyes. You touch it and it feels … different. Its fibres are softer, like a rabbit’s pelt, and the kinks in its wool feel oddly loose. You twist your finger through the wool, and in your mind’s eye you see the tangled, spiralled stalks of alfalfa, growing inward instead of upward, and you wonder.
The scorch marks on the trees fade. You go back to school. The alfalfa gets to half-bloom, and your parents cut it for the cows. You flip through your Polaroids and worry they showcase nothing but burnt wood and yellowed grass. You worry the papers won’t publish them, that the weeds of normal will overgrow it all and you’ll be left on the front stoop again, reading other people’s stories set in far-off places you’ll never go. Your last hope is the fleece.
You aren’t sure where your mother keeps the roving, the combed and drafted strands of wool ready for the frame. She’ll be spinning it soon enough, and up on the roof, you imagine what may come of it. That too-soft fibre, finer than the finest merino, spun into yarn and knitted into who knows what. How many sheep were touched by the lights, you wonder. Your parents only know how many were missing. It was impossible to count how many were taken and returned, and whether they were changed.
The sky above you is dark, but in your mind’s eye, you see a blue-green glow. An irradiated phosphorescence from the fibres of a freshly knitted sweater, flashing like the lights did when they first settled over the fields. Your mouth goes dry as you picture yourself, high atop the trees and clad in a shroud of glowing wool that pulses and twists and illuminates your ribs from within, a writhing woollen scarf that moves the way that living things strain against the wind. You see a predator’s eyeshine lit up against the void of space. No one would ever buy your mother’s sweaters after that, nor would the scourers ever buy your fleece.
It’s wrong to long for the death of your family’s livelihood. You were telling the truth when you told the doctor they never hurt you.
But try as you might, you never stop searching for the lights. You’ll never forget what it felt like to look up at the sky and know that something up there in the dark almost saw you.