The Pigeon Cove Festival Of Lights
It was the winter of light, that Christmas in the Pigeon Cove cul-de-sac when we filled our street with wattage, with joy. There were six houses, six families inside them and we spent the better parts of our lives mirroring each other’s steps. New cars were bought at the same time, the drive from the dealership back home like a funeral procession, a line of brand new shiny cars, all following each other to the same place. We became happy and safe in our group, our wagon-train of houses circled around to keep out everything wrong, to preserve something unspoken and pristine, almost holy, on our street.
That winter, the Christmas season, my father came out of the attic with a box marked X-MAS DECO, like some kind of designer scheme. He had noticed the other men all carefully hauling boxes of decorations out of their garages and onto their front lawns. We were the newest family to Pigeon Cove, our first Christmas there, and my mother was worried that a lot of lights were thought of as tacky, something not done. My father said he’d be damned if he was going to let anyone tell him how to celebrate the holiday season. He then stepped outside into the slowly increasing glow of light, the other husbands already on the roofs of their houses, design plans and staple guns in hand, testing each strand as they tacked it to their house. My father looked down at the box of lights he held, the heft of it too light, inconsequential, and he got into the car and drove away. Our house suddenly seemed dim and quiet as the other houses flickered and brightened with each tested strand of lights, the glowing circle of electricity broken only by our family.
My father returned from the store with enough bulbs to illuminate a baseball field, strand after strand that he produced from the car like a magician trailing colored handkerchiefs. We stood in our driveway and watched the Christmas lights pile around our feet and rise, football field lengths of filament and glass. The other men in the cul-de-sac looked away from their own work to stare at my father, wondering how much more was stuffed in our car. “What are you doing honey,” my mother asked him, “what is all this?” The car finally emptied, he began untangling the strands, carrying them over to the front yard. “This,” he told her, “this is getting in the spirit, dear.”
The men worked all night. We children ran from yard to yard while they yelled at us to “be still. Don’t move. Watch out you don’t step on any bulbs.” I stayed close to the Stewart girls, all six of them, and I fell in love with each one as we wandered through the cul-de-sac. They wore sneakers that flashed red as they walked, a quick flicker of LED with every fresh step. They had red hair in varying shades of fire, from slow burn to four-alarm blaze, and freckles that ran across their noses like Braille, tiny dots of information. I sometimes wanted to trace my hands across their faces, to learn the secret each one would whisper on my fingertips.
There were the other kids as well, the McAllister twins, silent and knowing, always nodding their heads in unison. They seemed constantly aware of something the rest of us were not. The Roland kids were older, the brother and sister in high school already, sitting on their porch steps and reading, oblivious to the construction going on around them. The Markowitz boy had nearly drowned in the lake that summer and was still water-brained, what would later become his normal demeanor. He was wide-eyed and surprised, as if still trying to figure out how he passed out in the water, slipped under the surface, and managed to end up here, back in his normal life. Julie, the Breckenridge’s child, was blond and pale. She was what I imagined when I thought of winter: pure and even and blinding. She never spoke, talked with her hands and eyes though her parents kept taking her to speech therapists who all said the same thing, “she will or she won’t.”
We were all quiet though, for children, all amazed into a hushed reverence for where we were. It was a place we knew was not quite real, had the smell and feel of something plastic and artificial but we did not complain then. We stayed silent and awed as we ran in ever-expanding circles, like objects trying to break free of a planet’s pull.
The women peered out the windows of their houses, waving to each other. They shrugged their shoulders as the men and children stayed out into the night, their dinners all collectively getting cold, congealing. The wives finally came out into the street as the now-finished men smoked cigarettes and drew more designs on their already pencil-scratched sheets of paper. They whispered and pointed at the houses, trying to figure out what spaces they had neglected to cover in lights. The houses sat unlit and dark as they waited for the final unveiling, humming with potential.
Finally, in the pitch-black of night, past all our bed times, we gathered in the middle of the cul-de-sac, in the street and watched as each husband flicked the power to his own house. They came on one at a time, moving around the circle in a steady burst of light. We had to shade our eyes from the concentration of brightness, of the sheer power of the Christmas lights that burned out at us. And we could feel the warmth on our cheeks from the glow of our houses, even in the cold of the winter night. The men gathered again in the middle of the street and shook their heads. It was on all their lips, passed quickly like a breath, in unison. Brighter.
They took off work, cleaned out the stock of Christmas lights from every store, made diagrams of parallel circuits to get the most out of every light. Mr. Roland tossed the Santa Claus and Reindeer plastic figures from the roof of his house. “Too much space,” he said, “it’s taking away from the lights.” In fact, everything except the lights were taken down, wreaths and hollow plastic snowmen. The Markowitz’s menorah in the window was replaced with a new model that used bulbs instead of candles. “It’s the festival of lights, sweetie,” he told his wife as she protested, “tradition can only do so much.”
We loved it though. We watched our fathers pin more light to the houses, adding rows and rows of brightness, finding places we didn’t know existed to illuminate. We sat in the middle of the road on an old mattress we hauled out of the Breckenridge’s basement and stared at the lights. We squinted into the glow until we made the lights dance, made them blur and move and jump around inside our brains and it was wonderful. We huddled close to each other, our cold skin pressed against each other, watching our houses burn from the inside out.
We had to stay out of the road once the people started coming, driving in slow, creeping lines that snaked all the way back to town. They followed the dim glow of our houses until it got brighter and brighter. Once they arrived, they did not want to leave. They hesitated, turned off the engines of their cars and just stared until the cars waiting behind them would honk their horns, wanting their own turn to see. Our mothers dressed us up in our church clothes and made us stand on the porches and wave to the cars, which we’d do for hours until we finally had to go to bed. They made hot chocolate and candied fruit and gave them out to the motorists who lingered a little too long, not wanting to leave. It seemed to us, staring out the windows of our bedrooms as we fell asleep, that the string of cars’ headlights in either direction seemed like only an extension of our houses, of the lights. We went to sleep thinking Pigeon Cove was somehow bigger than it really was.
The news reporters started to come, even from outside the state. They interviewed our parents but the fathers would only grunt, look away from the cameras, and say something about getting into the holiday spirit. They did not want to talk about it. It seemed almost disrespectful to discuss the need for the lights anymore, like something deep and intangible that had no reason to be spoken of.
The Power Company allowed the electricity drain because the town had never seen tourists like this before. The diners and hotels were filled to overflowing every day and all because of the lights of Pigeon Cove. Other subdivisions rotated nights where they were without electricity so we could keep running, keep burning. The school rented out buses to take people to the cul-de-sac as traffic had become too backed up, was not allowing everyone to see the lights. People waited in town for a bus to stop by and pick them up, take them to the place they could already see, shining like gold as the houses around us sat dim and cold, as if abandoned.
The men started adding more, setting up wide sheets of aluminum to reflect the light even further out, as if propelling it at you like bolts of lightning. My father found a way to create a connection of lights that held bulbs as big as floodlights, lights that could signal planes down from the sky. They covered our lawns with a netting of bulbs, rolled out lines of Christmas lights onto the grass and tended to it more than they did when it was an actual lawn with growing grass and weeds. They spent hours every day changing the bulbs, keeping the connections flowing.
They had outlets running everywhere so as not to overload the power. We were not allowed to have any lights on inside the house once night arrived. It took away a degree of brightness from the outside lights. We started spending the nights at each other’s houses, away from the fathers and their planning and the mothers and their disbelief. We saw stars in our heads all the time, little pinpricks of light that never seemed to leave us. We looked at each other and saw our bodies glitter like precious jewels, the lights always around us. We were slowly falling in love, becoming iridescent, melting into each other.
One man was being interviewed by the major networks, tears rolling off his cheeks, after seeing our houses. “It’s like staring into the truth, like everything else has burned away and only the most important single thing in the world is left.” And the reporters asked him what that one thing was, leaned closer with their microphones. “I don’t know,” he told them, “it was too bright.”
We all watched the buses drive by our houses, saw the popping of people’s flashbulbs as they took pictures. They never seemed to understand that none of the photos would come out, that there would only be blurs of light, overexposures, but perhaps that was what they wanted. We stayed away from windows after a while, wore giant sunglasses like the kind they give old people after cataract surgery when we walked to each other’s houses. We set fire to tissues in a metal trashcan and watched it burn down to ashes, lifting up in the air as the heat carried the particles away from us. We wondered what would happen if we caught the house on fire, if anyone outside would even notice, be able to tell the difference.
It was twenty-four hours of daylight for us that winter, and the nights became even brighter than the days, the lights clicking on the minute the sun fell behind the horizon. We had no sense of time, would lie in a single bed, bodies draped over each other and it felt like we would sleep for days or not at all. There was no way of telling anymore. Even our mothers gave up trying to remember time, would keep watch over us during what they assumed to be the night, very much afraid.
Our fathers added more lights, attached spotlights to the roofs that would swivel back and forth in the sky, crossing over each other. When they all met at one point, it would illuminate the sky so much that we thought we could see through the atmosphere and into the cold, blank face of space. A crew of Russian Cosmonauts radioed back to earth that they could see a white ball of light coming from the United States, something smooth and bright and warm. They pressed their faces to the windows as they circled the earth, waiting for the next chance to stare at it.
We talked even less now that the lights were around. Even the parents ceased to communicate in anything other than gestures, faint movements of eyes and mouths. It seemed like there was no room for anything else other than the brightness, that whatever we said would be rendered unnecessary by the lights, total and pure.
If you stood in the middle of the road, equidistant from all the houses, there were no shadows of your body. The light enveloped you and there was nowhere for your shadow to lie down, to rest. We would stand in this circle while the travelers would move past us, not even seeing us, and we would pretend that we were the only people in the world, that this light was all somehow for us, and we would return to our homes with our skin browned almost to red, our faces warmed like fever.
We didn’t even remember Christmas that year; it came and went without us thinking one thing of it. Another news reporter asked Mr. Miller about the purpose of the lights, what it was all about. Mr. Miller replied angrily, tired of having to give reasons for what we were doing. “Well, it’s about the goddamned baby Jesus and all that, the birth and the star in the sky and the shepherds and all…all of that.” And when the man told him that Christmas had been three days before, Mr. Miller ran back into the house and wrapped up his children’s old toys in newspaper and placed them beside their beds while they slept.
The Power Company told us they could no longer give us all the power we were using. They needed it back. People were still coming, some for the fourth and fifth time. One woman went blind from staring at it for so long, simply burned her sight down to nothing. We had not been out of Pigeon Cove since the end of November. We did not really believe that there was anything actually out there beyond us anymore.
Our fathers cursed at the power company, said they had purchased giant generators for just this occasion, gasoline-fueled monsters that hummed and rattled to keep the lights going. Still, we all knew it would not last. The police started creating detours to keep people away from the house, would let no other people come by anymore. We all sat in our houses and waited, stared at the brightness and wondered how long it would last, how much longer we could depend on gas and metal, wire and filament.
All of us went to our own house the night the generators all began to wheeze, to give up. Each family sat together in their living room and waited, saying nothing, not remembering how. We only sat and listened to the noise of the generators, but something else too, the ever present hum of the lights. The tiny sound of electricity moving, being changed into light, hummed inside our bodies like our new hearts.
Then the rattles came, the cha-chunk sounds of the generators finally losing power. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, the lights outside dimmed, lost wattage an increment at a time, in spans of five minutes it seemed like. And finally, though we could not tell how long it had been, we noticed the darkness, what we had given up for over a month. The blackness surrounded us, filled up the space outside our houses and our fathers hung their heads as if they had somehow failed. Our mothers cried and we only ran to the windows, to see what we had not seen for so long.
And then, together, we left our parents inside our houses and stepped out into the night, into something that felt completely removed from everything we had ever known. It was like being born, finding yourself in this new, strange world. As we walked around our yards, listening to the hiss and pops of the dead bulbs, we could not yet imagine if we had come to a place that was better or worse than before.
Originally appeared in the New Orleans Review.