Smaller, pale as skim milk,
sometimes they fade to translucence,
almost vanishing, especially
in the powdered light
on the surface of the moon.
Unlike their robust cousins,
they don’t migrate every year.
When weak, or in unsynchronized breeding,
they find some remote place on earth—
a windswept arctic island,
a rocky, ice-clenched mountain top—
where they fall deep into themselves,
letting their metabolisms approach zero.
Of all the lunar migrants, their torpor
is the most profound, yet on the moon
their glassy stares seem to grip
all the more tightly
the blue disc of Earth.
They often cut themselves,
landing in jagged, isolated craters,
and bleed a colorless fluid
which freezes in patches on their down.
Many of them succumb to stillness.
Time almost stops for them all.
Suddenly, after a season,
at some twitch inside,
they rise from the near-dead,
their wings push against the next-to-nothing,
and the polarized light of the moon
helps pour them back to earth.
Left behind are the tiny, bright spots
of those among them turned
most completely into light.
— John Philip Johnson
John Philip Johnson has had recent poems in or forthcoming from Rattle, Pedestal, Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, F&SF, Apex, Mythic Delirium, and elsewhere, including Ted Kooser’s newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.”
Editor’s Image Note: A 19th-century illustration of how the moon’s surface would look to a visitor from Earth. From the book The Moon by Nasmyth and Carpenter ( 1874). The B&W artwork was rendered in sepia to match a page out of Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis (1753) depicting an obsolete constellation, Anser, The Goose, in the jaws of Vulpecula, The Fox.