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from the December 2009 issue

From Ball Lightning

The descriptions in this book of the characteristics and behavior of ball lightning are based on historical records.


I only remembered that it was my birthday after Mom and Dad lit the candles on the cake and we sat down around fourteen small tongues of flame.

The storm that night made it seem as if the whole universe held nothing but the rapid flashes of lightning and our small room. Electric blue bursts froze the rain into solid drops for an instant, forming dense strings of glittering crystals suspended between heaven and earth. A thought struck me: the world would be fascinating if that instant became reality. Through streets hung with crystal you would walk surrounded on all sides by the sound of chimes, but in such an exquisite world the lightning would be unbearable . . . I had always seen a different world from the one others saw. I tried to transform the world: that was one thing I knew about myself at that age.

The storm had started in the evening, and as it progressed the thunder and lightning quickened their pace. At first, after each flash of lightning, my mind retained an impression of the ephemeral crystalline world outside the window as I tensed in anticipation of the peal of thunder. But the lightning had grown so thick and fast that I could no longer distinguish which thunderclap belonged to which bolt.

On a stormy night you get a sense of how precious family really is, for when you imagine the terrors of the outside world, the warm embrace of home is intoxicating. You feel for those souls without a home, out there in the open, shivering through the storm and lightning. You want to open a window so they can fly in, but the outside world is so frightening that you cannot let even the tiniest breath of cold air enter the warmth of your home.

"Ah, life," Dad said, and downed his beer. Then, staring intently at the cluster of flames, he said, "So random, all probability and chance. Like a twig floating in a brook, caught on a stone or seized by an eddy—"

"He's too young. He doesn't understand this stuff," said Mom said.

"He's not young!" said Dad. "He's at the age where he can learn the truth about life!"

"And you know all about that," Mom said with a sarcastic laugh.

"I know. Of course I know!" Dad drank half a glass, and then turned to me. "Actually, son, it's not hard to live a wonderful life. Listen to your father. Choose a tough, world-class problem, one that requires only a sheet of paper and a pencil, like Goldbach's Conjecture or Fermat's last theorem, or a question in pure natural philosophy that doesn't need pencil or paper at all, like the origin of the universe, and then throw yourself entirely into research. Think only of planting, not reaping, and as you concentrate, an entire lifetime will pass before you know it. That's what people mean by settling down. Or do the opposite, and make earning money your only goal. Spend all of your time thinking about how to make money, not about what you'll do with it when you make it, until you're on your deathbed clutching a pile of gold coins like Monsieur Grandet, saying: 'It warms me . . .' So the key to a wonderful life is to be fascinated with something. Me, for example—" Dad pointed to the watercolors lying all over the room. They were done in a very traditional style, properly composed and lacking all vitality. The paintings reflected the lightning outside like a group of flashing screens. "I am fascinated with painting even though I know I can't be Van Gogh."

"That's right. Idealists and cynics may pity each other, but they're really both fortunate," Mom mused.

Normally businesslike, my mother and father had turned into philosophers, as if it was their own birthdays we were celebrating.

"Mom, don't move!" I plucked a white hair out of my mother's thick, black mane. It was only half white. The other half was still black.

Dad held the hair up to the light and examined it. Against the lightning it shone like a lamp filament. "As far as I know, this is the first white hair your mother has had in her entire life. Or at least the first that's been discovered."

"What are you doing! Pluck one, and seven will grow back!" Mom said, and she gave her hair an exasperated toss.

"Really? Well, that's life," Dad said. He pointed to the candles on the cake: "Suppose you take one of these small candles and stick it into a desert dune. If there's no wind you may actually be able to light it. Then leave. What does it feel like to watch the flame from a distance? My boy, this is what life is, fragile and uncertain, unable to endure a puff of wind."

The three of us sat in silence looking at the cluster of flames, watching them shiver against the icy blue lightning that flashed through the window as if we were looking at a tiny life form that we had painstakingly raised.

Outside, lightning flashed dramatically.

This time, it came in through the wall, emerging like a spirit from an oil painting of a revelry of the Greek gods. It was about the size of a basketball and shone with a hazy red glow. It drifted gracefully over our heads, leaving behind a tail that gave off a dark red light. Its flight path was erratic, and its tail described a confusingly complicated figure above us. As it floated, it whistled a deep tone pierced with a sharp high whine, calling to mind a spirit blowing a flute in some ancient wasteland.

Mom grabbed hold of Dad in fear with both hands, an action I have looked back on in anguish my entire life, because if she had not done that, I might now have at least one relative left alive.

The thing continued to drift like it was looking for something that it finally found. It hung about half a meter over my father's head, and its whistle turned deeper and intermittent, like bitter laughter.

I could see inside the thing, into a translucent red blaze that seemed infinitely deep, a bottomless haze from which a cluster of blue stars streamed out like a star field as viewed by a spirit passing through space faster than the speed of light.

Later, I learned that the internal power density was as much as 20,000 to 30,000 joules per cubic centimeter, compared to just 2,000 joules per cubic centimeter for TNT. And while its internal temperature might exceed 10,000 degrees, its surface was cool.

My father lifted his hand, more to protect his head than to try to touch the thing. Fully extended, his arm seemed to exert an attractive force that pulled the thing toward it like a leaf's stomata absorbs a drop of dew.

With a blinding flash and a deafening boom, the world around me exploded.

What I saw after the flash blindness lifted from my eyes would stay with me for the rest of my life. It was like someone had switched to grayscale mode in a photo editor: instantaneously, the bodies of my mom and dad had turned black and white. Or rather, gray and white, because the black was the result of shadows cast by lamplight playing off creases and folds. The color of marble. Dad's hand was still raised, and Mom still clutched at his other arm with both hands. On the faces of these two statues, there still seemed to be life in the two pairs of petrified eyes.

A strange odor was in the air, which I later learned was the smell of ozone.

"Dad!" I shouted. No answer.

"Mom!" I shouted again. No answer.

Approaching the two statues was the most frightening moment in my life. In the past, my terrors had mostly been in dreams, and I was able to avoid a mental breakdown in the world of my nightmares because my subconscious was still awake, shouting to my consciousness from a remote corner, "This is a dream." Now, it took that voice shouting to me with all its might to keep me moving in their direction. I reached out a trembling hand to touch my father's body, and the instant I made contact with the gray and white surface of his shoulder, it felt like I was passing through an extremely thin and extremely brittle shell. I heard a soft cracking sound, like the crackling of a glass when you pour boiling water into it in the winter. The two statues collapsed right before my eyes in a miniature avalanche.

Two piles of white ash settled on the carpet, and that was all there was.

The wooden stools they had been sitting on were still there, covered with a layer of ash. I brushed away the ash to reveal surface that was perfectly unharmed and icy cold to the touch. I knew that crematorium ovens heat bodies at 2,000 degrees for thirty minutes to render them to ash. So this was a dream.

I glanced absently around me and saw smoke issuing from a bookcase. Behind the glass door, the bookcase was full of white smoke. I went over and opened the bookcase door, and the smoke dissipated. About a third of the books had turned to ash, the same color as the two piles on the carpet, but the bookcase itself showed no signs of fire. This was a dream.

I saw a puff of steam escape the half-opened refrigerator, so I pulled back the door to find a frozen chicken, cooked through and smelling delicious, and shrimp and fish that were cooked as well. But the refrigerator, rattling as the compressor started up, was completely unharmed. This was a dream.

I felt a little weird myself. I opened my jacket and ashes fell off my body. The vest I was wearing had been completely incinerated, but the outer jacket was perfectly fine, which was why I had not noticed anything until now. I checked my pockets and burnt my hand on an object that turned out to be my PDA, now a hunk of melted plastic. This had to be a dream, a most peculiar dream!

Woodenly, I returned to my seat, and although I could not actually see the two small piles of ash on the carpet on the other side of the table, I knew they were there. Outside, the thunder had let up and the lightning had slackened. Eventually the rain stopped. Later the moon poked through a gap in the clouds, beaming an unearthly silvery light through the window. Still I sat numbly in a fog, and in my mind the world had ceased to exist and I was floating in a vast emptiness. How long it was before the rising sun outside the window woke me, I do not know, but when I got up mechanically to leave for school, I had to fumble around to find my book bag and open the door because I was still staring dumbly into that boundless emptiness . . .

A week later, when my mind had basically returned to normal, the first thing I remembered was that it had been the night of my birthday. There should have been only one candle on the cake—no, no candles at all, because on that night my life started anew, and I was no longer the person I once was.

Like Dad said at the last moment of his life, I was fascinated with something, and I wanted to experience the wonderful life he had described.

1. College

Major courses: Higher mathematics, theoretical mechanics, fluid mechanics, principles and applications of computers, languages and programming, dynamic meteorology, principles of synoptic meteorology, Chinese meteorology, statistical forecasting, long-term weather forecasting, numerical forecasting.

Elective courses: Atmospheric circulation, meteorological diagnostic analysis, storms and mid-scale meteorology, thunderstorm prediction and prevention, tropical meteorology, climate change and short-term climate prediction, radar and satellite meteorology, air pollution and urban climatology, high-altitude meteorology, atmosphere-ocean interactions.

Just five days before, I had taken care of everything in the house and set out for a southern city a thousand kilometers away to go to college. Shutting the door for the last time to a now-empty house, I knew that I was leaving my childhood behind forever. From now on, I would be a machine in pursuit of a single goal.

Looking over the list of courses that would occupy me for four years, I felt a little disappointed. Many of the things on it I had no need for, and some of the things that I did need, like E&M and plasma physics, were not. I realized that I may have applied to the wrong major, and perhaps should have gone into physics instead of atmospheric science.

So I plunged into the library, spending most of my time on mathematics, E&M, and plasma physics, and going only to the classes that involved those subjects while basically skipping all of the rest. Colorful collegiate life had nothing to do with me, and I had no interest in it. Returning to my dorm room at around one or two at night and hearing a roommate mumble his girlfriend's name in his sleep was the only reminder I had of that other mode of life.

One night well after midnight, I lifted my head out of a thick partial differential equations text. I had assumed that at this time of night I would once again be the only student left in the night-time reading room, but across from me I saw Dai Lin, a pretty girl from my class, who had no books but was simply resting her head on her hands and looking at me. Her expression was unlikely to have enchanted her scads of admirers; it was still the look of someone who has discovered a spy in camp, a look directed at something alien, and I had no idea how long she had been looking at me.

"You're a strange person. I can tell you're not just a bookworm, because you've got a strong sense of purpose," she said.

"Oh? Doesn't everyone have goals?" I tossed off the question. I may have been the only male student in class who had never spoken to her.

"Our goals are fairly vague. But you, you're definitely looking for something very specific."

"You've got a good eye for people," I said blandly as I gathered my books and stood up. I was the one person who had no need to show off for her, and this gave me a sense of superiority.

When I reached the door, she called after me, "What are you looking for?"

"You wouldn't be interested." I left without looking back.

In the quiet autumn night outside I looked up at a sky full of stars, and my Dad's voice seemed to carry on the air: "The key to a wonderful life is to be fascinated with something." Now I understood how right he was. My life was a speeding missile, and I had no other desire than to hear it explode into its target. A goal with no practical purpose, but one that would make my life complete once I reached it. Why I was going to that particular place I did not know, but it was enough simply to want to go, an impulse that lay at the core of human nature. Oddly, I had never gone to look up any materials related to It. It and I were two knights whose entire lives would be devoted to preparing for a single duel, and before I was ready I would neither seek It out nor think about It.

Three semesters passed in the blink of an eye, time that to me felt like one uninterrupted span, because without a home to return to I spent all of my holidays at school. Living all by myself in a spacious dormitory, I had few feelings of loneliness. Only on the eve of the Spring Festival, when I heard the firecrackers going off outside, did I think about my life before It had appeared, but that life seemed like it was a generation ago. As I spent those nights in a dorm room with the heat turned off, the cold made my dreams especially lifelike, and although I had imagined that my mom and dad would appear in my dreams, they did not. I remembered an Indian legend that told of a king who, when his beloved consort died, decided to build a luxurious tomb the likes of which had never before been seen. He spent the better part of his life working on that tomb until finally, when construction was complete, he noticed his consort's coffin lying right at the center and said: That doesn't belong. Take it away.

My parents had long since departed, and It occupied every corner of my mind.

But what happened next complicated my simple world.

2. Strange Phenomena I

The summer after my sophomore year I took a trip back home to rent out the old place so I could handle my future tuition.

It was already dark when I arrived, so I had to feel around to turn the lock and make my way in. Turning on the light revealed a familiar scene. The table that held a birthday cake during the night of the thunderstorm was still there, with three chairs still sitting around it, as if I had left just yesterday. I sat down exhausted on the sofa, and as I took stock of my home, I felt that something was not right. The feeling was indistinct at first, but as it gradually took shape like a submerged reef coming into view during a foggy cruise, I could not avoid it. At last I discovered the source:

It was as if I had left just yesterday.

I inspected the table: there was a thin layer of dust, a little too thin for the two years I had been away.

I went to the bathroom to wash the dirt and sweat off my face. When I turned on the light, I could see myself clearly in the mirror. Too clearly. The mirror should not have been that clean. I distinctly remembered going away with my parents during one summer break when I was in elementary school, and although we were only gone a month, when we came back I could draw a stick figure in the dust on the mirror. Now when I made a few strokes on the mirror with my finger I could not draw anything.

I turned on the faucet. After two years, rusty water should have issued from the iron tap, but what flowed out was perfectly clear.

I went back to the living room after washing my face and noticed something else: two years ago, just as I was about to leave but before I shut the door, I looked over the entire room on the off-chance that I had forgotten something and had noticed a glass sitting on the table. I thought about turning it upside down so it would not collect dust, but with my luggage in hand it would have taken too much effort to go back, so I dropped the idea. I distinctly remembered that detail.

But now, the glass was turned upside down on the table!

Just then, the neighbors came over to see why the lights were on. They greeted me with the sort of kind words one addresses to an orphan who has gone off to college, and they promised that they would take care of renting the place. If I could not come back after graduation, they would help me get a good price for it.

"The environment seems to have improved quite a bit since I left," I said casually as talk turned to how things had changed over the past two years.

"Improved? Get your eyes checked! That power plant over by the distillery just started up last year, and now there's twice as much dust as when you left! Ha! Are things improving anywhere these days?"

I glanced at the table and its thin layer of dust and said nothing, but when I saw them off, I could not help asking whether any of them had a key to the house. They looked at each other in surprise and said they most certainly did not. I believed them, because there had been a total of five keys, three of which still worked. When I left two years ago I took all three, and one I had with me now, while the two others were far away in my college dorm room.

After the neighbors left I inspected the windows, all of them tightly sealed with no evidence of break-ins.

The remaining two keys had been carried by my parents. But on that night, they had melted. I will never forget how I found those two misshapen lumps of metal among my parent's ashes. Those keys, melted and re-solidified, were sitting in my dormitory a thousand kilometers away as mementos of that fantastic energy.

I sat for a while before starting to get together the things that would be stored or taken back with me once the house was rented. I first packed my father's watercolors, one of the few things in the room that I wanted to save. I took down the ones hanging on the walls first, then got others out of a cabinet and packed as many as I could find into a cardboard box. Then I noticed that there was still one more painting lying on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, face down, which was why I had missed it. When I glanced at it before putting it into the box, it seized my whole attention.

It was a landscape painting of the scenery visible from the door to our home. The surrounding scenery was dull: a few gray four-story walk-ups and several rows of poplars, lifeless from the dust covering them . . . As a third-rate amateur painter my father was lazy. Rarely going out to sketch from the real world, he was content to paint the muddy scenes that surrounded him, but he said that there were no flat colors, only mediocre painters. That was the sort of painter he was, and these flat scenes, which gained another level of woodenness as interpreted through his lifeless copy-brush, actually managed to capture daily life in this dingy northern city. The painting I held in my hand was like so many that were already in the box, with nothing in particular to recommend it.

But I had noticed something: a water tower that was a little more brightly-colored than the old buildings surrounding it, standing tall like a morning glory. Nothing special really, because there was indeed a water tower outside. I looked out the window a towering structure silhouetted against the lights of the city.

Except, the water tower had not been completed until after I went off to college. When I left two years ago, it was half-finished and covered in scaffolding.

I trembled, and the painting slipped out of my hand. A breath of cold air seemed to blow through the house on this midsummer night.

I crammed the painting into the box, closed the lid tightly, and then started packing other things. I tried to focus my attention on the task at hand, but my mind was a needle suspended on a filament, and the box was a strong magnet. With effort, I could redirect the needle, but once I let up, it would swing back in that direction. It was raining. The raindrops tapped softly against the windowpane, but to me the sound seemed to be coming from the box . . . finally, when I could not stand it any longer, I raced to the box, opened it, took out the painting, and carried it to the bathroom, taking care to hold it face down. Then I took out a lighter and lit one corner. When about a third of the painting had burned up, I gave in and flipped it over. The water tower was even more true-to-life than before and seemed to poke out of the surface. I watched as it was consumed by flames, which turned strange, seductive colors as the watercolors burned. I dropped the last bit of the painting into the sink and watched it burn out, and then turned on the faucet and rinsed the ashes down the drain. When I turned off the faucet, my eyes were drawn to something on the edge of the sink that I had not noticed when I washed my face.

A few strands of hair. Long hair.

They were white hairs, some completely white, so they blended in with the sink, and others half-white, the black portions catching my attention. Definitely not hair that I had left behind two years before. My hair had never been that long, and I had never had any white hair at all. Carefully, I lifted up one long, half-black, half-white strand.

. . . pluck one and seven will grow back . . .

I tossed the hair aside like it burned my hand. As the strand drifted gently downward, it left a trail: a trail made up of the fleeting images of many strands, like a momentary persistence of vision. It did not land beside the sink but fell only partway before vanishing into thin air. I looked back at the other hairs on the sink: they too had vanished without a trace.

I ran my head under the faucet for a long while, and then walked stiffly back to the living room, where I sat down on the sofa and listened to the rain outside. It had turned heavy, a storm without thunder or lightning. Rain pounded on the windows, sounding like a voice, or perhaps many people speaking softly, as if they were trying to remind me of something. As I listened, I started to imagine the meaning of the murmuring, which became more and more real as it was repeated:

"There was lightning that night, there was lightning that night, there was lightning that night, there was lightning that night, there was lightning that night . . ."

Once again I sat in that house until dawn on a stormy night, and once again I numbly left home. I knew I was leaving something behind forever, and I knew I would never return.

Copyright Liu Cixin. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2009 by Joel Martinsen. All rights reserved.

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