I remember a cold winter morning when I was small and bundled in a layered goose down snowsuit, peering through the eyeholes of my miniature ski mask and seeing the unmistakable rise of three suns. Because I wanted validation of my sanity and the comfort of an adult in case I was witnessing the end of days brought about by the impact of three rogue planetary bodies hurtling towards us as humanity quietly slept, I lumbered toward the house as quickly as my chubby limbs -covered in thermal underwear, sausaged into waterproof pants, packed with filling- would take me.
Breathless, with snot running into my mouth, I tried hard to convey the baffling and disturbing sight. The sun, flanked by two fiery orange ghost planets low on the horizon. Imminent death. My mother was a fervent believer in the potential danger that loomed in every uninvestigated situation, so she followed my labored stubby thighed child run back into the snowy field, where my obviously imagined planetary crisis no longer existed. The triple threat was gone, chalked up to brain freeze, boredom, and an overactive imagination.
A few years later I was sitting in a crowded summer movie theatre with the rest of civilization watching Star Wars for the first time. I felt a jolt of validation as I watched the Tatooine suns set along with Luke Skywalker on Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s moisture farm. Maybe someone else had come in contact with this strange phenomenon, or perhaps, like myself, George Lucas was suffering from unfettered imaginative constraints.
Finally, during a school trip to the Hayden Planetarium, I got my definitive answer. With the 1977 space saga still fresh in everyone’s mind, someone’s hand shot up and they asked the question about more than one sun rising and setting on other planets, and BAM – we learned about the mysterious wonders of the parhelion. It was an optical illusion of course – bright planet shaped spots appearing on either side of the sun- a refraction of sunlight through crystals in the atmosphere, but to me it was real. I’d seen it with my own eyes. Three distinctive blazing hot suns coming up over the snow. It was real, and it was spectacular.
When I was seventeen, there was a gathering at the home of a friend whose parents had a long history of naively taking two-week vacations to distant destinations, leaving their place open for all sorts of bad teenaged soirees and potential lawsuits. The television blared as a group of us prepared to tap what was probably the tenth keg, and the narrator from a show I’ve long since forgotten began to explain the wonders of the arctic sunrise and the breathtaking rarity of the parhelion/sundog they’d encountered. Suddenly the working nature and urgency of the metal barrel filled with social lubricant became secondary as I launched into my parhelion childhood sighting. Of course I made sure to include a detailed description of the powerful visual certainty that the sun had splintered into three distinct and epic balls of fire and my breathless run into the house, the struggle to explain what I’d seen which was further complicated by a pronounced lisp left over from toddlerhood and inadequate powers of description. Like most of my fanciful stories, it was brushed off by my new boyfriend with a chuckle, a doubting look and a question about how I’d gotten rid of my speech impediment.
Years later I would tell someone about the odd sensation of knowing you saw something or someone in a certain way. Concrete, Absolute. Your eyes didn’t lie. And then the crushing realization that it was just a mirage filtered through atmospheric ice crystals insisting that the ghost figure it created was as real as the original. Your eyes said it was so.
I once had a guy in college accuse me of being a figment of his projected image of what he hoped I’d be like. Mind you, he told me this after I’d had my finger crushed in a metal door that slammed my hand during a fight he’d had with another guy about what a bitch I was for leaving his football game early. I suspect the imaginary parhelion versions of me he fantasized about involved a creature who sighed lovingly on the sidelines while wearing collegiate school colors and gripping pom poms.
Now I go outside my house, which is set back from the street on a desolate stretch of country road, at night and stare a the inky black sky dotted with bright stars and look for celestial mirages. A tightly packed cluster of almost unseeable stars, a falling satellite, a turgid red hued planet that looks too close for comfort, a creepy ring around the moon, and I wonder if my eyes are deceiving me. Too much screen time, visual strain from long days of driving and nighttime commutes, overactive imagination fired up by lack of wonder- all could be responsible for the silly things I drag my reluctant kids and dogs out to confirm. It’s like being gaslit by a deceptive and ever-shifting universe- who are you going to believe? Me? Or your lying eyes? So now I wait, quietly armed with my iPhone camera for the day when I encounter the gas ball reflection trifecta again so that I can capture it in low resolution through the lens of Steve Jobs lifestyle appliance. Proof to counter the absence of evidence that plagued the early sighting that will give validity to the claims of that small, warmly dressed lisping child who decided to go out in sub-zero conditions at the crack of dawn after a snowstorm.