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Apart from insomniacs and vampires, only a few ever see them.
Most glimpse them accidentally, with no idea what they are:
Deafened, dehydrated clubbers, weaving their way home through litter-strewn streets
See them shining through gaps in the trees;
Sleep-deprived shift-workers, their body clocks broken beyond repair,
Catch sight of them out the corners of their tired eyes;
Farmers, hauling open screeching barn doors, pause a moment
To look at them glowing in the east,
Dragging tendrils of silver over the still-sleeping hills
Before heading back to their sheep…

But some deliberately hunt them down.
Coffee-drenched, they dare to dream of
A northern sky sprayed a dozen shades of strange;
Fight to stay awake at the end of a tiring day, hungry to see
The fabled “mysterious NLC” shining above their streets,
Their hills, their town again:
As midnight approaches, Special Forces sky-watchers
Armed with cost-a-month’s-salary cameras,
Pockets stuffed full of ammunition – spare memory cards and batteries –
Creep out of their homes, leaving loved ones alone, to chase their prey.
Eager eyes scanning the dusk they rush to their favourite places,
Faces bathed in pale starlight as what passes for “night” in these summer months
Falls, a few distant suns flickering above as they plant
Their tripod standards on the ground –

And wait…

Most nights the sky around Capella remains beautifully blank,
And they wander home thanking the Universe for nothing,
Cursing it for teasing them, tempting them,
Making fools of them. Again.
But other nights….
At first they see mere whispers of light,
Pale blue-white lines scratched on the purple twilight by invisible cats claws;
Graffiti scrawled on the northern sky by some unseen hand
As the land below, aglow with a million streetlights, sleeps.
But then they grow, a soft slow-motion explosion pushing outwards
At the sides, expanding, blossoming, climbing higher,
All the time brightening, brightening,
Until eventually the sky from west to east appears ablaze
With a forest fire of cold blue flame;
Then, if the universe is kind, the NLC truly come alive,
And those watching in the small hours see a tapestry of curls, whirls and swirls
Stitched from the finest silver thread draped above the distant hills and trees –
Hard not to feel a sense of dread staring at that shining cobweb,
Imagining a throbbing, celestial Shelob squatting inside…
Now the work begins. Shutters click, again and again,
Frame after frame exposed as the NLCs’ glow casts pale shadows
Behind the few who braved the damp and dew
To pursue the elusive clouds.
Time slipping through their cold fingers like sand,
Their cold hands deftly swap lenses in the dark:
They know their favourite 18 mill will show the whole display
In all its glory, looking like a stargate opening above the Earth;
Their trusted 200 mill will pick out individual waves in the sapphire surf,
Rolling, roiling star-smoke blown by winds on the very edge of space.
…and then the inevitable Fade.
Yawning, the watchers can only stand and stare
As dawn’s golden fingers enviously tear their beloved clouds apart
Until nothing remains, and it’s time to head back home –
Not to sleep, as they know they should, but to load their photos onto laptops
And make them come to life, teasing out each subtle smoky line
Until RAW images and memories match.
Then their work will be done, another hunt will be complete,
And they will rest.

…until the Sun goes down, and the hunt begins again…


© Stuart Atkinson June 2014


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