Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823
Boney Benson, a man obsessed with a singular quest, lived in a town where it was his job to flag the midnight trains with a red lantern. Wizened, scary, almost ghostlike in appearance, but gentle, he awakened the imagination of the town. The people would whisper his story, passing down what they knew to the younger generation. Some said he spent his days in the graveyard, sprawled on the earth over the place where Allie, his wife, and their unborn child lay buried. It was said that the baby murdered Allie, that in the last month of her pregnancy the child had risen in her body until it lodged beneath her heart and nested there, a kind of vampire, until Allie could not breathe.
Allie died in terror, fighting for air without knowing what was strangling her. It might have been her husband, for all she knew, for he often left her without warning, to pursue “a lighted shape, much like a scrap of light rising like a ghost from the ground.” They might be sitting at the supper table when the powerful urge to follow the light would strike him, and then he would rise, go saddle his purple horse, King, and be off, to wander over the countryside all night long, until, at daybreak, the light vanished into the ground.
In a fit of conscience, Boney turned against himself and mutilated his body; he buried his severed member in the grave with his wife and child. It was said that the child was born in the grave and lived underground, like a mole, but rose each night in the shape of a ball of light. Mexicans who lived at the edge of the graveyard first saw the specter. Fishermen and campers also reported an eerie shape of floating light. When Boney heard about the haunting, he attempted to seal the light in the dirt with a slab of slate, holding it down with the weight of his body. Finding it impossible to contain the light, he began to wait in the graveyard each night, mounted on King, for the light to rise. Then he followed it wherever it led. Three young men, who went with Boney on one of his nightly journeys, reported having followed the shape of light to a field of grave-children, and beyond, through a phantasmagoric landscape riddled with nursing mothers, martyrs, hermits, “wings and limbs of a lost son falling from the sky,” and lovers mating like strange insects. They followed Boney, who followed his light, into another country, where the wearied young men turned back, and Boney died. He was returned home and buried alongside Allie, but the destructive-creative light continued to rise for someone to give his life over to following it.
This skeleton of Boney Benson’s tale can be pieced together from the two sections of “A Shape of Light”: “The Record” and “The Message.” However, to exhume a plot from William Goyen’s poetic narrative hardly conveys the archetypal force of the story or its haunting effect. At the heart of “The Message,” in a city, long after the life and death of Boney, his image surfaces from the past, through the retelling and fabulation of his tale, to claim the imagination of a “kite-maker and kite-flyer,” addressed only as “you.” This character replaces the narrator of “The Record” and seems at times to be both author and reader, or a figure for a type of messenger-message relationship, like that of writer and story.
Boney appears, “his face, swimming and dipping and bowing and rising and darting, looking down at you . . . his kite face . . . send up a message! You had built kite and kite had taken his message and delivered it. Now you must shape him, like kite, and send his message back to him.” This writer’s story attempts to give shape to something essentially inexpressible through the quest of Boney Benson and the appearance of the light. It seems to have been written, in part, to exorcise ghosts of memory that would overshadow the artist if the story could not be told. Not only the kite-maker but also the kite itself, the artist must look down and confront his mooring, the power holding the string, which is his own past: “You turned and called out, man now and no longer child, speaker now and no longer listener, asking man’s question, crying man’s cry. . . . Now Boney Benson was all your question and all your pain; and tell it.” Out of grief and guilt, out of what has been forever lost to memory, out of the failure of language to communicate, the messenger must find the perfect vehicle for his message. The obsession of the kite-maker to shape a story out of the wreckage of memory and words parallels the seeker after the light who must surrender himself and live separate from the world in order to fulfill his quest.