THE BABYSITTER: Donald Hornig, physicist

October 8, 2014

The cradle rocks

ten stories up: a corrugated metal shed

bolted to a surplus Forest Service tower.

Lopsided, swaddled in wire,

a bomb’s blunt muzzle snuffles

the electric air.

Martyr,

Kisty called me when the mock-up

failed and Oppie flared.

A dummy weapon with a real

spare spark gap switch

I never should have volunteered.

But it was gorgeous work,

and I was proud: the long shanks

of its axial electrodes

sealed in glass—a flower

only meant to open

once. Then everyone

thronged round with cameras,

timing circuits, tampering

and testing till it failed.

All faulted me.

 

That cloud hung overhead for days.

No sleep. Not even after Oppie

called his hot shots in: the muckety

muckiest group I’ve ever seen.

They wouldn’t let me touch

the botched X unit—cracked

it open like a corpse

and found it had been fired

three hundred times and more

before it funked. No fault of mine,

they might have said.

 

The wet wind wails and sucks

air from my lungs.

The steel-lipped doorway

mouths a black sky stitched

with white-hot tungsten sutures.

My heart ticks faintly

counting down.

 

There’s me—and then there’s Oppie.

I say: when a thundercloud sweeps overhead

the shadow of 100 million volts

will crawl across the desert after it;

let’s build a ladder for the lightning

with a bomb on top. Madness.

So I thought he ought to think. Instead

he nods, says it’s a go. Of course

it goes. And I go up one hundred

rain-slick rungs, his Isaac,

sacrifice to sleep-starved fantasies

of sabotage. The desert’s underwater,

roads are muck, trucks

mired in gullies, swamped and ditched.

Our patchwork Armageddon’s safe—

from tampering, at least.

The real threats, I can’t stall:

where our own error strikes

or massed electrons fall.

 

Lightning smacks the ground,

scars earth, pocks rock, cauterizes

like a fallen star. I count the miles

by fifths, too few, until I hear

untold, untellable atoms

bully back into the vacuum

panic left. Seared sagebrush

spices air. Creosote and cinders.

Beside me, our beast slumbers

fitfully, its heart

a metal fist. Half mine,

its brain revolves in vacuum,

a glass capsule cupping nothing

but expectation of a swift

electric surge.

I play the odds

of pleasing Oppie off against

my death. Or do I give devotion

to this bud of my ambition

that will bloom in thunder soon?

Either way, I call it love.


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