In the space
of an upturning
cupping the clear air
on the dusty autumn ground
The entire universe spreads itself
contained and unbounded yet
It is born
In the space
of an upturning
cupping the clear air
on the dusty autumn ground
The entire universe spreads itself
contained and unbounded yet
It is born
We left together that morning, the three of us, Michel, my blond friend and I. I remember ( although other details are gone) I had a rough khaki pack I had bought at the Puces in Paris along with the French Army surplus greenish-grey wool blanket roll I carried with me. I must not have brought much with me to France since I seem to remember carrying it all easily, along with the thick French translation of Faulkner’s “Light in August” I’d bought on a whim in one of the stalls on the Seine to see how southern America venacular translated into French.
We hitched a ride, if I remember, with a friend of Michel’s, southwest out of Paris on the A-10 toward Orsay. We must have had a ride out of Paris that morning since I have no memory of sticking out our thumbs in the middle of Paris. We were bound on an adventure to the south of France before Michel had to return to see his parents in Strasbourg at the end of the summer. Our tickets home from Paris in September left us plenty of time to escape the skeins of our parents’ concern in a time when the only communication back home was through American Express offices. What they didn’t know wouldn’t worry them. They would think we were busy in Paris or taking train rides together to places like Chartres. Dreams of my mother pulling up behind us on the road in her white convertible with the red interior pursued me for the first week and then faded into the background of our grand adventure.
By nightfall of the first day, we must have made it to Orleans or some small town nearby it on the Loire. We camped somewhere on a grassy verge of the rocky river bank, stretched out under a cloudy sky, grateful for the warmth of summer in our woolen sacks with rough sheet linings. We listened to the river and talked of the nearby chateaus we would never see, just as we had stood beneath the Eiffel Tower together, marvelling at the huge black iron girders, counting our sous and imagining the trip to the top. We saw nothing of the town that morning but stuck out our thumbs after eating bread and cheese from our packs.
Since the three of us had to stick together, hitching was slow. Drivers were not at all reluctant to pick up people along the roads, but most were pairs of women, single men or male and female couples. To “faire du stop” was an accepted way for people to travel, especially through the countryside, but cars were small and three at a time was hard to get. We took to having my friend and I stick our thumbs out by the roadside while Michel sat back somewhere slightly out of view.
We got a few short rides that day and made it to somewhere in the central rural farmlands. It was probably somewhere in the area of what is now the Department de Cher. It was getting quite late. Twilight had set in. It was likely our last ride had been in a truck that took us on a rather circuitous route. We found ourselves walking in the countryside where stands of trees still grew and inviting grassy spots under cover of trees clustered here and there beside a stream that ran behind the farmhouses. We were hungry and starting to feel more than a little tired and footsore. The shoes I’d brought with me had given me blisters and I had taken to walking barefoot when I could. The heat of the day had cooled enough to make the pavement tolerable but my legs ached. All we wanted was a spot to bed down safely for the night and a bit of seclusion. If I remember, we were somewhere near the towns of Theilley or Vierzon in the region of Cher. I will never know for certain.
Michel said he would go ahead a bit to check things out and find us a good spot to camp. In a few minutes, he came running back to join us.
“There’s a farmhouse and a barn just up there. I think we can find a spot there. There are lots of trees and a stream. I know the kind of people around here. They’re farm people like from my region. They’re okay about sleeping in barns.”
We walked together around the bend. By now it was fairly dark. Nightbirds called from the trees. He pointed to the little house just ahead to our right along the road. Quietly, we came up to the drive and stood together, looking for a dark opening somewhere in the trees. He motioned for us to follow him and whispered,
Behind him, my friend and I crossed a grassy yard only partially concealed by bushes from the front door of the little house. A ladder leading to an upper hay door was built into the side of the small barn. We watched Michel mount it and climb quickly up through the square opening. He turned and motioned for us to come up.
We ran the rest of the small distance and followed him up as quietly as we could through the door and into a loft strewn with hay. Hay bales we stacked on the far side in step-like fashion. We paused for a moment, watching Michel looking around for the best spot, feeling worried about what the farmer would do if he found us here.
“Are you sure this will be okay?” my friend asked.
“I’m sure!” he said. “People do it all the time in the country.”
Still feeling a bit like criminals, we helped him find a nice spot surrounded by bales and together, pulled hay from the floor and made a big luxurious bed for the three of us. We spread out our bedrolls and chose comfortable seats on the bales. Michel opened his pack and pulled out the bottle of wine he’d bought that morning. Bread, cheese, sausage and wine and maybe a cucumber or two we’d brought from the last epicerie we’d passed—each of us pulled some contribution from our pack. We drank from the bottle and feasted. Michel sang a song from Alsace with a little more gusto than we thought was prudent. To quiet him down, we tried to get him to teach us to sing it. We felt gay in this extravagant accommodation and somehow secure. After a while, we stretched out in our bags, sidling up to each other like puppies, talked softly until we were yawning and drifted finally into to a very peaceful sleep.
The sun took a while to reach us. When my friend and I finally opened our eyes, we discovered Michel was gone. We had a few moments of panic, quickly straightening out our hair and cleaning up the things left from dinner, thinking he had taken off in the night and left. In our flurry, it took a moment to notice that his head had appeared in the opening.
“I thought you’d never see me, you cabbages! Come on. Get up!” he said. “Bring your things. The farmer’s wife has breakfast for us. Don’t keep her waiting!”
We pulled on our packs, fastening them as we went, and followed him down the ladder.
At the bottom, a woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a long soft cotton dress of muted colors tied around the waist, stood with her hands softly clasped in front of her, following our progress down with her eyes. She spoke to Michel in an accent hard for us to follow. We looked at him with eyebrows raised in question. He interpreted for us, with a slight smile. “She wants us to come into the kitchen so we can tell her what we want. She has different flavors of fruit syrup for our water and she wants to know what you like.”
As we followed them towards the front door of the house, I noticed a tray laid out on a small metal table next to the stone path. There was a bowl of brown eggs, sausage, small misshapen peaches and a bowl of blackberries. Spoons and bowls were stacked on the other side of the wooden tray with a bottle of milk, ready for our breakfast.
Inside the kitchen was small and lined with shelves holding jars, boxes, glasses, plates and bowls. Near the rough sink was a line of bottles with spouts holding liquids of vivid purple, red and brownish yellow. She explained the different flavors to us, all homemade—cassis, blackberry, cherry and plum is what I remember.
She handed us each a glass and poured a bit of our chosen syrup in the bottom of each. She motioned for us to fill the glass with water from the pump at the sink and then told us to come with her out the door. She handed Michel what looked like a tablecloth which he put over his arm. She picked up the tray and led us down a path into the trees near a stream. Michel spread out the cloth on the grass and the three of us sat down together. She carefully placed the tray on the grass next to us and told us that the eggs were fresh from her hens and boiled. There was a homemade loaf of bread and a jar of jam. We motioned for her to join us and she shook her head.
“J’ai encore manger. Bon appetite!” she said and turned and went back to the house.
I watched her go down the path, crossing through the shadows made by the morning sun. I still see her in my mind’s eye.
My friend and I looked at each other with delight. Michel was more blasé.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it. This is what we do in the countryside.”
We sat together, leisurely eating until we had consumed every crumb and talking comfortably about the road ahead. The interweaving of French and occasional English was now familiar. I remember how my friend and I, after feeling the isolation of inadequacy, had now begun to feel a re-emergence of our familiar selves, able to communicate more of the subtleties of our thought. I remember my delight when I began dreaming in French and then when I was able to understand some threads of the quips that passed from one person to another with the speed only the French seem to possess.
Filled with the beauty of the countryside and the various tastes of the food on our tongues, we stacked things on the tray and followed the path through the bushes back to the farmhouse. The woman was doing something in the yard and came to us when she saw us approach. She took the tray and firmly refused our efforts to help her clean up. We followed her into the kitchen where she and Michel compared notes about life on a farm, brief phrases intelligible through the thick argot. My friend and I asked about the various things we saw around the kitchen in jars and bottles, curious to find out more about the life of this woman here in her little house. She explained each one, Michel trying to find ways to explain the names that seemed unfamiliar.
It was almost noon when we finally waved goodbye and set off back to the main road with more boiled eggs, cheese and bread stored away in our packs.
After such lavish accommodation, it was natural that the day that followed would have to be one of the more challenging. Car after car passed us by on the autoroute. Trucks whizzed by. We made it from one village to the next small town in the Centre-val-de-Loire.
Our next ride took us a short way to a turn off to a farm. We walked for a while on the highway as the afternoon turned toward evening and the light began to really fade. It had been raining on and off all day and now it was cooling. Cars were speeding by, on the way home with no thought of stopping to pick someone up. We realized we had to find a place to get off the road and bed down. But where? As with some American roads, there were fences along the roadside and fields beyond with no cover.
Up ahead a kilometer or so, we could see the lanes part to start a divided four-lane highway. There at the division was a patch of grass with a few trees. We walked along down the right side until we were close. Waiting for a time when there we no oncoming cars that could see us, we dashed across the two lanes to the island, ducking behind the bushes we’d seen from a distance. An empty bottle and a few wrappers indicated that we weren’t the first to think this was a decent spot to camp.
We spent a cold and noisy night on the grass and gravel, making sure that the first to wake up woke the others. Just before dawn, we rolled up our bags, changed into dry shirts and ran over to the other side of the highway.
As the morning dawned, it was clear that things would go better. The first car didn’t take us far, but it took us to a small village square where the cafe was just beginning to open. We waited for awhile on a bench while the man who swept the streets did his job and the cafe owner rolled up his metal door, put out the round metal Richard ashtrays on the tables and put out the chairs that had been stacked for the night. As soon as he was ready, we crossed the cobbled square and went in to order our cafe au lait and baguettes with butter. Satisfied, we went back out to the road and once again, stuck out our thumbs.
The next car that stopped was a nice little dark blue Renault with a young couple. They let us pack into the back with our bags with no fuss. As we drove off, we were already chatting about our trip, where we came from and where we were headed. They lived close by and were out on an excursion to the market and lunch, but it was “le weekend” and they were up for anything. They asked us if we had time to see something in the countryside, a bit of the beaten track. They promised to take us there, have lunch with us and then drive us to the turnoff to Lyon at Clermont-Ferrand. They had friends there and would have a drink with them that evening.
Of course, we had time! Chattering as we went, Michel helping us to understand some of the quips and jokes, they turned off the highway onto the two-lane secondary roads. After some time driving through pleasant countryside full of the vistas of fields and roads lined with Plane trees, coming through village after village, they turned off the road onto the grounds of a small ancient stone church.
“This is what we wanted to show you,” they told us as they stopped the car. We piled out.
“It’s one of the oldest existing churches in France. The original monastery was built in the ninth century. There are catacombs under the church. Come, we’ll show you. It’s wonderful.”
As we approached the entrance made in the ancient way with arching mortared stones, I remember the sense of enchantment that we would be led to such a place where clearly very few tourists ever came. They lead us through the cool echoing nave with a few rows of wooden benches. I remember only a simple altar in the transept and stain glass window of a simple figure of Christ behind it in the small rounded choir. They went ahead of us to the side of the transept, opening a small door. As we followed them, we could see stone steps curving downward. We climbed down the spiralling stairs to a stone area below.
There, with the only light from a few bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, we saw the rock partitions that once formed some part of the walls of monks’ cells. We wandered through the whole underground warren which seemed to extend out behind the actual walls of the church above. The couple explained this had been the original monastery, built in the Ninth Century. In that beginning time, there had been a small Romanesque chapel above. The church had been expanded and rebuilt in the Twelfth Century. Renovations had begun and then stopped in some more recent time. Now without a congregation, it was maintained somehow by local people and government funds.
We stood there for some time, each in separate spots in that enclosed space. Clearly, our thoughts were given wings by the place. There was something in the confined air, the cool stone that provided me a peaceful, pervasive sense of the centuries of meditation, the endless hours of chanting that had reverberated here and in the church above. It seeped in through my skin into my bones, sending a shiver through my spine.
We left quietly, with a reverence for a place of worship neither my friend nor I had absorbed growing up with modern intellectual American parents. To this day, I don’t really know where we had gone or whether I could find that place again.
The couple drove us to a cafe in a village square in their little blue Renault. I’m sure we shared a carafe of local wine and some ham sandwiches on lengths of baguettes, but I have no real memory of that meal or of the rest of our time with them. They must have dropped us off as promised.
I think it was late that afternoon that a large car with a middle-aged man at the wheel stopped to pick us up. We climbed in with a bit of hesitation, exchanging glances, as he was a fairly large and burly guy who gave off a sense of authority and the habit of power. He was going to all the way to Marseilles and would drop us off when the road diverged to Cannes. A long way. Michel motioned for me and my friend to take the back seat as he went around to the front passenger seat, but the man said,
“You and your girlfriend can have the back,” and he motioned for me to sit in the front, next to him.
We drove and drove, taking occasional bathroom breaks at small gas stations. At a seeming truck stop somewhere before Lyon, late at night, he turned to me as we were headed back to the car and said, “You can drive, right? I’m tired. You drive now.” It was clearly stated more as an order than a request.
Fear immediately gripped me like a sickness in my stomach. I had never driven a stick shift. I’d never even driven in France. I had little experience driving in any unfamiliar terrain, let alone another country whose regulations I didn’t know. I had no international license. When I tried to explain, he simply brushed me off with a shrug and a little gesture toward the passenger door.
“I’ll help you shift until you learn. You’ll figure out the rest,” he said.
Michel put his hand on the man’s shoulder and tried to pull him aside to talk but the man just turned away.
“I’ll drive,” Michel said.
“No,” answered the man, “I want her to drive. It’ll be good for her.”
The three of us managed quick glances back and forth and Michel whispered,
“I’ll stay awake. Don’t worry,” and opened the driver’s door for me.
The man got into the passenger seat and showed me the controls, running through the gear stick and how to shift with the clutch pedal.
“Now go ahead,” he said, “Start ‘er up and I’ll help you shift to get on the road. Once you get going, you can stay in fourth for a while.”
I turned the key and put my foot on the clutch as he instructed. With his hand on the gear shift, he instructed me about when to depress the clutch and when to release. As we lurched forward he yelled,
“Gently up on that pedal! Feel it engage!”
Once we were on the two-lane highway, he sat back in his seat and said, “When we’re approaching a town, let me know. I’ll help you.”
He must have dozed for a while. I felt Michel’s hand on my shoulder even so often as he whispered,
My friend slept next to him in the back, waking when Michel leaned forward. Stiff with anxiety, my brain on constant alert, I managed to gauge my speed, feeling very lucky that our car was almost alone on the road.
Signs began to tell me that we were approaching Lyon. I could see the yellow of the sodium street lights in lines near the horizon, reaching inwards towards in other in the distance like a study in perspective. I said,
“We’re coming to Lyon.”
The man woke and stretched, his arm muscles evident, yawning loudly. He said,
“Slow down a little. I’ll tell you when to put in the clutch and when to shift.”
I suddenly felt his big hand on my thigh. “I’ll guide you,” he said.
As we approached Lyon I was almost frozen with fear. His hand was creeping further towards my crotch, gently massaging. I tried to pull my right leg over towards my left, making it harder for him to reach. It did no good. His hand just followed. My mind, half concentrated on navigating through stop lights, traffic signs and instructions from the man to do things like turn off the headlights through town, and half on keeping him from groping further without infuriating him, we somehow made it through the city. Now I was really worried. His hand was still there. What would be his next move? Would he make me stop the car and get out? I seemed to remember that at some point he had mentioned a knife he kept somewhere in the car, maybe the glove box.
After leaving behind the lights of the city, he suddenly said,
“I have to pee. Turn into this next station.”
I slowed the car and turned in to a parking lot, his hand alternately helping me with the gear shift and going back to its anchor on my leg. We came to a stop and he opened his door and got out. Thinking he would go towards the building, I was appalled to see him going around the front of the car, clearly headed towards my door. Panicked, I tried to sidle over to the passenger seat. As I tried to manoeuvre, I caught a glimpse of Michel opening his door behind me and lurching out of the car. He stood in front of the man, blocking him from reaching for my door. He put turned to me through the partially opened window and said,
“Go. Get out!”
My friend in the back seat was opening her door as I made it to the other side, opened the door and slid out.
My friend and I looked around wildly to see where we were. Over to the side of the parking lot was a group of men, standing around talking and smoking. A couple of tractor trailers were parked near them in the lot. In the blur of the next minutes, there is a haze in my memory, but it is likely that Michel, having lived in the rough section of Paris, was used to carrying a knife and used it to keep the man where he was near the car. He was suddenly with us, pushing us towards the group of men, putting one of us on each side of him, his arms coming up around our shoulders. As we came up on the men, Michel glancing behind him, he said,
“Who can give us a ride south? There’s a little money in it.”
Them men looked at each other, one looking down, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out on the pavement.
“I’ll take you. How much?” he said.
Money changed hands. The driver motioned for one more bill. Michel peeled it off and arms still around us, said,
and pulled us quickly over to the cab the driver had indicated. He boosted us up the high step. The driver motioned us through the door and opened the curtain behind the seat to show us the bed behind.
“You can ride in there,” he told us.
The driver’s partner climbed up into the other side, we got through into the little loft behind the cab and the driver got in, pulled the curtain closed and started the big engine. Michel parted the curtain as we began to pull away, looking into the lot.
“He’s still there, standing by the car,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll try to follow.”
“God! That was too close!” said my friend.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes. Too close.”
My heart pumped wildly in my chest as if feeling a rushing thaw after being frozen in my chest for hours. Michel pulled out a bottle of wine from his pack, opened it and we passed it around until it was gone. The driver’s partner handed us back some packets of nuts and we began to relax. I think we laughed together at Michel’s gallantry, I hugging him around the shoulders in relief. Michel leaned over to the driver and asked how many hours to Cannes. Since it was quite a few and he was going all the way, we stretched out on the bed and dozed off, the driver’s partner snoring in the front seat.
(To be continued.. More about the journey to Greece in the time of Joanie)
We had flowed into proximity somehow
in that enormous space
full of goods, full of desires.
We were waiting, chocolate bars in hand
to pay the cashier.
Her skin was dark.
to some resonance of this
“What is this noticing?”
The flavor of this mixed
with the flavors
of a young man/woman
I could see
standing beside that display
of Swedish Fish
but not, certainly
association with it.
covering a muscular chest.
the light chocolate skin.
Tight braids covering the roundness of head
Intelligence twisting itself
through those eyes.
Strength sending out waves
around that body.
They had stood together, talking.
Now one on line behind me,
with the taut patience
of a tiger.
Mother? Sister? Aunt? This woman behind me,
chatting to a friend
then touched me on the shoulder,
vibrating warmly through my shirt,
That chocolate any good?
was the question,
spoken plainly, as to one
And in reply, I, laughing,
said I didn’t know.
I’ve never been here before.
Never tasted it,
but figured since it’s not American chocolate,
it must be good.
she said, Yeah,
And I’m not even getting it for me.
It’s for my husband,
Yes, and mine’s for a friend.
was my reply.
What generous people we are!
brown eyes smiling
Yes, we are.
that opening in my chest.
Turning to take my place again in line,
looking ahead to a blond woman
behind a metal counter,
heart still open to her eyes
Friends had found each other for those moments
now passing with reluctance.
They are everywhere.
We have come here somehow
and flow into each other
in this marketplace where we find ourselves,
trying to remember.
I am the king from another place. I don’t know where it is. Maybe I’m lost. I remember what happened many years ago when I was very young. When I was still in school and lived with my parents and my brother. We lived on the farm. I felt an explosion in my head one morning just after my mother called me to get up. An explosion of light. Then I felt this warm feeling in my chest like when my mother put the breakfast on the table in front of me and ran her hand through my hair. I knew everything had changed but I didn’t know, I didn’t know what had happened. That was when they started talking to me.
I felt an explosion in my head one morning just after my mother called me to get up. An explosion of light. Then I felt this warm feeling in my chest like when my mother put the breakfast on the table in front of me and ran her hand through my hair.
I knew everything had changed but I didn’t know, I didn’t know what had happened. That was when they started talking to me.
One voice was huge. It came from that same place in my chest. It was the one who told me about being king. But that was later after the other voices came and got me all worked up. They didn’t like me. They kept whispering hateful things and sometimes they shouted. The first time, it was just a huge voice. I couldn’t quite make out what it was saying. I just kept trying. I had to pay attention.
Sometimes the government talked to me from the TV to tell me how terrible I was and that they were coming to get me and everybody else like me. They didn’t let me go to school. My mother got scared of me. They kept taking me places. I ran away. I lived rough. I had people who liked me and then people who hurt me. It’s been a long time.
They kept taking me places. I ran away. I lived rough. I had people who liked me and then people who hurt me. It’s been a long time.
One day the voice in my chest came back and told me about being king. I’ve liked that. It’s a good job. Now I’m in this place in a house. There are other people who live here. There’s one old woman I know from somewhere but I don’t tell her. Each morning I get up. I wash my face in the sink in the room I share with a man I seem to know but whose name I don’t. He seems like a nice man. He hardly speaks. Sometimes he looks at me. Sometimes he looks at the floor while we’re getting dressed. He’s pretty old. He grunts at the floor after he’s buttoned his last shirt button and reaches for his walker. I sleep in my shirt and underwear. They protect me. I just put on my pants with the belt I got in another time from the bag at that place where they let us sleep. That place where people scream and sometimes fight. Where demons are allowed to come and go. The man who sleeps in my room lets me go out the door of our bedroom first when we go to breakfast. He’s not one of those guys trying to get me from inside the walls, part of the gang. I think they don’t like it when he’s sleeping here with me.
Now I’m in this place in a house. There are other people who live here. There’s one old woman I know from somewhere but I don’t tell her. Each morning I get up. I wash my face in the sink in the room I share with a man I seem to know but whose name I don’t. He seems like a nice man. He hardly speaks. Sometimes he looks at me. Sometimes he looks at the floor while we’re getting dressed. He’s pretty old. He grunts at the floor after he’s buttoned his last shirt button and reaches for his walker. I sleep in my shirt and underwear. They protect me. I just put on my pants with the belt I got in another time from the bag at that place where they let us sleep. That place where people scream and sometimes fight. Where demons are allowed to come and go. The man who sleeps in my room lets me go out the door of our bedroom first when we go to breakfast. He’s not one of those guys trying to get me from inside the walls, part of the gang. I think they don’t like it when he’s sleeping here with me.
Each morning I get up. I wash my face in the sink in the room I share with a man I seem to know but whose name I don’t. He seems like a nice man. He hardly speaks. Sometimes he looks at me. Sometimes he looks at the floor while we’re getting dressed. He’s pretty old. He grunts at the floor after he’s buttoned his last shirt button and reaches for his walker. I sleep in my shirt and underwear. They protect me. I just put on my pants with the belt I got in another time from the bag at that place where they let us sleep. That place where people scream and sometimes fight. Where demons are allowed to come and go. The man who sleeps in my room lets me go out the door of our bedroom first when we go to breakfast. He’s not one of those guys trying to get me from inside the walls, part of the gang. I think they don’t like it when he’s sleeping here with me.
I sleep in my shirt and underwear. They protect me. I just put on my pants with the belt I got in another time from the bag at that place where they let us sleep. That place where people scream and sometimes fight. Where demons are allowed to come and go. The man who sleeps in my room lets me go out the door of our bedroom first when we go to breakfast. He’s not one of those guys trying to get me from inside the walls, part of the gang. I think they don’t like it when he’s sleeping here with me.
I’ve been here a little while. It’s a nice place. The lady here most mornings likes me most. She calls me Mr. Moon because my face is so round she says, and shines like the moon. I like that name. I don’t tell her my real name. She’s pretty short with a black hair down to her shoulders. I think she’s from China with those eyes but she speaks our language. She has a different laugh from other peoples’. I like it. It kind of tinkles up high and then goes down low and then it keeps going for a while like the water that drips from our faucet. It tickles me in my chest. Sometimes it makes laugh a little. Sometimes though I wonder if she’s trying to get inside me. Then I get worried.
I take the medicine she gives me in the little white cups, two orange long ones, two little white ones and a bunch of big ones white and blue and pink. I count them and see if I’m allowed to take them today. The friends will tell me. I listen. Sometimes they tell me not to take the orange ones. Sometimes the white. The lady says I have to take them so I can go outside today.
Sometimes I have to fight with my friends. I tell them I’m king. I have to go outside. I take those pills. Then she gives me a plate with breakfast on it. I put my head down and look at the food on the plate. I decide which part I can eat and I stick my fork in and just put it right in my mouth and chew it. Sometimes it’s good like the pancakes. They let me put lots of butter on them even though they say it’s not good for me, for my heart. It feels good.
I keep looking at the plate until I only see food the man in my head says I’m not allowed to eat then I get up, pick up my plate, shove my chair in with my foot and take the plate over to the sink to wash it off. I put it in the dishwasher like that lady showed me to do that day when the taxi dropped me off from that big hospital.
Then I look outside to see whether the sky is blue or grey. I can see from next to the kitchen sink. If it’s blue I’m ready. If it’s grey I go back into my room and get the sweater from my top drawer and put that on. I’m dressed in my sacred clothes. I’m ready.
They’re telling me now. You’re almost too late. Some of the most important people have already gone by. You’re the king. You have to greet them all or they will know. They’ll send their invaders through the night air right in and suck on your brain. I’m a little scared. I run a little out the door, over the ramp to the end of the driveway. Now I’m calm. My day has begun.
They’re coming by in cars, little ones, big trucks, those big black things with windows you can’t see through. Some on bikes. Some on motorcycles with hoods that hide them. Most of them are kings and queens like me. Some are Satan’s evil creatures. I think he sends them mostly in the big trucks with dark windows so I won’t see.
I greet them all. They told me how to greet the other kings and queens. I’ve known for some time. I’ve practised. You put out your left leg. You look up to see them. They want to know you’ve seen them. Then you bow your head down with a long sweep of your right arm over your head. Then a wave.
I do it just right. They know who I am. I know who they are. The ones who have practised, who were taught, who really know, look at me and wave or bow their heads. It’s good then. It feels good inside me.
Some are afraid. Maybe they don’t know who they are. All day. I never get tired of it. It’s good to greet them all. To see them. I forget about the brain suckers until a dark window goes by. Then there’s that sound in my ear. Sometimes I have to put my arms over my head. But mostly I just look at everyone and bow. To see. I go in to lunch when that other man comes out and calls my name.
I haven’t told him my real name but I know when he calls. Sometimes I lie down and take a rest after lunch. It’s tiring being king, but they tell me I have to do it. There is danger. Sometimes I don’t feel good, I feel sick in my legs and my body and I just can’t get up, but they tell me I have to or I will be sent away. So I go out. When the man calls me, I go back in for dinner. The people aren’t coming by this place much by then, out on the road.
After I’ve put my dinner dishes in the dishwasher, I start my other job. I sit in the chair by the door and watch to make sure none of the gang comes in. They’ve told me that’s my job. Otherwise, the people from the gang will get in. The really bad ones. The ones from the cars with the black windows and other ones. Sometimes in other places they’ve attacked. I screamed and I fought but they got me and took me away to some big hospital. I don’t have enough people to see there. Just sometimes one king or one queen. I have to be here.
The man at night wants me to come play cards with the other people from the other rooms but I just tell him no. If he bothers me too much I go to the bathroom and come back. I don’t talk to anyone, even if they talk to me. I’m just quiet.
When he comes to lock the front door I go to my room, take off my pants and hang them on the bed. I can’t take off my shirt or my underwear. They’re sacred. They protect me. I lie down.
Sometimes I sleep. When they’re not banging on the walls and roaring at me. I need some sleep. For tomorrow. The others need me to see them. To greet them properly so everything can flow through me. Like butter on those pancakes. Like the light that comes into my eyes through the window at the kitchen sink. I am the king. The sound from my chest tells me. The warmth from the middle of my chest.
The rain has returned, moving from downpour to rainbow and back again. The season has shifted as it does, suddenly, from the season of sun, dry grass, desiccation and heat to the season of water and cool clean air. The sun pierces the dark grey clouds and spreads brilliant light for a moment at a time, sparkling all the drops within its range, creating fleeting holes of blue through the layers of dark and lighter grey cloud.
Two days ago, the day was filled with the presence of blue sky. That morning as I stood between the rows of drying sunflowers behind the barn, near the arching vines dripping with the intricate obloid shapes of their hops, I heard a flight of geese flying behind me from north to south. As they veered east, I watched two hawks fly into the tops of two tall trees across the mown field in front of me. Then, as the enormous Vs of calling birds made their wide turn across the sky, one hawk spread its great wings and lifted into the air, flying in its own arc toward the north. The other hawk remained in its perch in the treetop, in the alert repose of the raptor, unmoving.
As the flight of geese swept around high behind its treetop, the air between vibrated with an unseen waft of the finest energy. This is the element beyond air, beyond fire, beyond water, beyond earth, made of infinities. I stood for that long moment, my breath having gone with it somewhere beyond.
I have come all this way and no distance at all to this spot where the sun warmed me, just as it warmed the intricate beauty of each fruiting hop hanging near my arm, my hand, these appendages that hang from my own erect trunk.
Just as the season shifts suddenly and then retreats for a moment, I am shifting, my body becoming more of ether than earth, more of dry vibration like the stands of fireweed, where, just moments ago, the last purple-red flowers flamed briefly at the tops of the stalks and where today the puffs of white seed sway in the wind, dancing on their brown stalks. I begin the process of drying, a transaction both of concentration and of emptying. The water drips from me, hardly wetting what is left, filling my cells with the purest knowledge of delight.
Now it’s a waiting game is waiting for the moment to return. Meanwhile– taking care of family. As they say in France, “Je m’occupe de vous”. We are occupied with each other. There can be nothing more important with which to be occupied.
Death is an opening. It can break the hearts of those left behind. When the heart is truly broken, it stays open. Then there is no difference between one and the other one. Sometimes it is our own heart that is smashed. Sometimes we are the observer of the annihilation, the one standing by to represent life. There are places in the world where this breaking of the heart is still truly honored.
Sometime on Monday of last week, my son-in-law’s deeply cherished mother died in Tichy, Algeria, a small coastal town of the Kabyle region. Although she had been very ill for many years, she had lived on in their family home, the beating heart of a family of great dimensions, living both near and far.
My son-in-law was the child who had reluctantly ventured furthest, of necessity. He is the youngest son. Each year he traveled back to see her and his family, no matter the obstacles. Each weekend, there are hours spent on Skype, talking with family in France and, when their internet is working, in Algeria. Their conversations are woven into the mornings spent at home, keeping company as naturally as if they were in the room together.
Family for him is the core of everything, whether they grapple and disagree or act as best of friends. His plan had been to leave for his annual trip at the end of this week. Suddenly on that Saturday, he began getting calls from his siblings in the middle of the night. His mother had had some sort of medical crisis. It was hard for my daughter to piece together exactly what had happened from the flurries of intense conversation mostly in Kabyle, partially in French.
By Sunday night he could no longer sleep. He was trying to figure out how to get there quickly. His American passport was still at the Algerian Embassy in New York with an application for the visa he needed. His Algerian Passport had just expired. Calls were going back and forth across the huge expanse of geography. Nothing was clear. Then Monday early in the morning the call came amidst wailing and crying. His mother had died.
He was beside himself. I received the call at 5 am. “I’ll come right away,” was the only possible response.
Good fortune allowed me to drive in the one crack in the streams of morning traffic going from my place in the country towards the city. I was able to get to their apartment in Seattle before the crushing morning rush hour. My daughter, hugely pregnant, was already deeply absorbed in the process of trying to book a ticket to get him there the next day. My four-year-old granddaughter was playing quietly on the floor.
The funeral had to be held before the end of the second day. The family would be gathered at the house, grieving there together the entire day. The body would have to be buried before they slept. My daughter had already been on Skype pleading with his brother to postpone it one day. He couldn’t do it.
The only flight that would connect with Algeria on time to get him there left around 2 pm that day. It was now almost nine in the morning. She had already been working with a friend of his at the Algerian Embassy in New York to figure out whether the passport had already been sent. She had booked tickets the day before to New York so he could pick up his passport and visa at the embassy and then travel from there.
Now it appeared the visa had been sent on Friday by two-day mail. What time it would arrive was the mystery. Without the answer to this question, she couldn’t book the ticket. The friend at the embassy was able to get us the tracking number. It appeared it was at the local post-office, waiting to go out. If it were delivered with the regular mail, it wouldn’t arrive before the flight. I would go to the post-office just as it was opening and try to intercept it.
There I was, in the parking lot of the local post-office. A uniformed carrier was walking past me, on some final errand before leaving for the day. I called out to him,
“Can you help me?”
I hurriedly explained the situation, imploring—the sudden death in the family overseas, the passport and visa being sent from New York, the emergency.
“How can I catch the carrier who delivers to their address?”
Sweetly, he had stopped, packages in arms, to listen. He tsk-ed sympathetically and said the carriers hadn’t left yet. He motioned to the building and suggested I go in and talk to the people behind the desk and see if they could help.
I dashed in the front door. There was already a small line of three or four people and two staff behind the desk. My ancestral mother, born and bred in Brooklyn, was coaching me through from beyond the grave. I called out to the staff, brazenly,
“Can you help me catch a carrier before he leaves? I have an emergency. A passport. A death in the family overseas. Please?”
The woman behind the counter asked what I wanted them to do. Loudly I replied,
“I’m hoping we can intercept it before it leaves the building. If it gets delivered with the regular mail it will arrive too late to make the flight.”
She pointed to the people waiting and said, with finality,
“We have to take care of them first. Then we’ll try to help you.”
The two people at the front of the line pointedly tried not to look at either me or the woman behind the counter. The man, forth in position, called out,
“Can’t you just help her?” and turned to me to say,
“The post-office! How hard they make things!” but made no move to step aside to let me go in front of him.
After waiting while one woman spent time telling the clerk a long story about a lost item of mail in an empty envelope someone had picked up on the street and brought to her, complete with commentary about the effrontery of certain people, after which the clerk disappeared into the wilds of the mail room behind her and while a man picked out the kind of stamps he wanted from two different batches the clerk put out on the desk, it was finally my turn.
She pretended to know nothing about what I wanted. I began my plea again from the beginning, patiently, calmly. She said,
“Well, is the package addressed to you?”
I said no, but I could have my daughter come with ID in moments if she found it. She looked extremely dubious. I gave her the tracking number my daughter had texted me and she insisted on looking it up again, although I had told her the system already had indicated it had arrived at the post-office. After much checking and re-checking and disappearances into the mail room, she told me that it had not, in fact, arrived yet, but was on its way. Since it was two-day delivery. It would go out as soon as it arrived. She had no idea when and the manager wouldn’t either.
Desperately, I called my daughter who had been on the phone to the central post-office number. They had insisted it had already arrived in the building and the manager would be the only one able to handle the situation.
I went back into the building, calling out once again that a central manager said it was in the building. Disgustedly, the woman behind the desk pointed a finger to the back of the line. This time I waited just a minute or two. The other clerk, a man, had the first opening. Although he could not have helped but hear the whole story as it unfolded, he, too, acted as if he had been in a sound proof bubble.
“How can I help you?” he asked.
Starting again from the beginning, I added the bit about the central manager and firmly asked to see their internal manager. He replied, “I’m the only one who is authorized to do this here. I’ll go check. The system still says it hasn’t yet arrived.”
Then he disappeared for a long interval.
Meanwhile, my daughter called again.
“It just arrived at our door! I don’t know how, but it’s here!”
“The passport?” I asked. “The visa?”
“Yes, yes, I have them here in my hand.”
“Buy the ticket!” I said. “I’ll be back in ten minutes!”
I stood, peering into the back where I could see tables and cubbies in the mail room, and called out once
Nothing. I turned to the women, still behind the desk. She shrugged.
Suddenly, he reappeared. Shaking his head.
“Just as I thought. Not here yet.”
Before he was finished, I was already shaking my own head and saying,
“It just was delivered to their door. Don’t know. Must be a miracle! Thanks! Bye!”
I pocketed my cell phone and dashed out the door, crossed the street and jumped into my car.
That was just the beginning. For another hour or so, my daughter and I compared flight paths from Paris and Amsterdam, Marseille and Lyon, arriving in Algiers or Bejaia. She spoke several times in the process to her brother and sister-in-law in France. Once to her brother-in-law in Tichy, Algeria. All in the slightly accented French of the Kabyle. Politely and patiently, she spoke to airlines and booked, canceled and re-booked tickets while my son-in-law spoke in Kabyle to his brothers in Algeria, eyes streaming, periodically rising to go to the balcony and smoke. Their four-year-old daughter somehow played quietly and happily in the midst of it all, going every once in a while to hug her father’s leg.
By the time we had the right combination all ready to go it was time. The process of getting everything together and getting out the door, usually a long one, happened quickly. Four-year-old shoes on, ready, passport, visa, keys, phones, ticket numbers, bag, all in the car. He, knowing the streets best, was able, even after several sleepless nights, to be his usual self long enough to drive. Somehow missing the exit at the last moment, we re-grouped quickly and lost only a few precious minutes.
We found parking, got everything together and made our way to the ticketing area, running where we could. There was, of course, some problem with getting the boarding pass at the machine, but my daughter somehow worked it through while I entertained my grand-daughter and kept my son-in-law from wandering off in search of a place to smoke.
Then the mad dash to the security lines. We were cutting it close. Too close. My daughter went off to find a security guard. When she returned, a uniformed man was following her. We ducked under the guide ropes and followed him at a run, me with grand-daughter on hip. He guided us under other ropes near the front, explaining briefly to the people waiting and moved us to the place where a guard was checking passports in front of the security machines.
Two families stood ahead of us, passports open, expectantly. My daughter asked the guard if her husband could be checked next. He indicated the people in front of us with a slight nod. She turned to them,
“His mother just died. He has to get on this plane to make the funeral. Please!”
After a moment’s hesitation, wife and husband exchanging a quick questioning glance, they made way for him, bowing their heads and gesturing.
My daughter and grand-daughter embraced my son-in-law, his daughter saying,
“Daddy I’ll miss you, but you’ll be with your family. I love you. They love you too.”
We all cried.
His passport checked, he moved into the security lines. Before he vanished on the other side of the TSA machines, he turned and waved. His plane was already boarding, moments to spare. My daughter called him to make sure he was heading directly to the plane, not distracted by his pressing need for a cigarette in the midst of all his sorrow and worry.
We drove back to their apartment, picked up the pieces, canceling tickets booked and now not needed, going on with the day of a four-year-old. There were calls to his brothers and sister-in-law to update plans. There were intimate moments sharing the grief my daughter had had to hold in check–memories of the time months she had spent in Tichy helping take care of his mom, the visits since–her beauty, her goodness, her wisdom.
It seemed he would be able to meet his brother, who was flying from France, at the airport in Algiers. From there they would take a taxi across the desert, infamous for its bandits, to the shores of the Mediterranean at the foot of the purple Atlas Mountains, to their small town, their parental home, to join their family of eight other siblings and countless grandchildren, cousins, uncles and aunts all in the throes of grief for this woman who had been the heart of it all.
We slept finally, at first a sleep of real repose after a seemingly impossible task was completed. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by the sound of a cell phone in my daughter’s room and the beginning of a conversation. She emerged, my grand-daughter miraculously still asleep.
It was two am and he was finally at the airport in Amsterdam, his plane from Seattle somehow having been delayed by four hours. The computers at the service desks at the airport were not operating well. He had to someone re-book his connections to arrive by the end of the day in Tichy. They were trying to get him booked on a flight to Marseille that would get him into Algiers in the evening. From there, it would be impossible to get to Tichy on time for the burial, but it seemed to be the only option. He had reconciled himself to the fact that his mother knew he was doing all he could to get to her. If he could not make it, she would understand.
We started up our computers. After several calls to agents of Air Algerie in France, who were used to the fact that it was mostly impossible to book tickets through their website, we were able to purchase him the ticket from Marseille to Algiers. He called back. He was booked to Marseille, but the flight was going to be late. He wouldn’t make the connection. The agents at the airport were trying to find other connections but their computers were still giving them trouble.
My daughter and I, with dueling laptops, set about finding all the various routes from Amsterdam to connecting cities and on to Bejaia or Algiers. After being on the verge of giving up several times, I found a link through Lyon to Bejaia that would actually get him there in the early evening, about a half-hour’s drive from his family home.
Madly, he worked with the agents there and we on our computers to book the tickets. Just as we had completed the purchase, the agents there told him he didn’t have enough time to make the connection in Lyon. We despaired. Back to the computers. Was there something to Algiers we’d missed? Would he just have to get there the next day and miss the funeral entirely?
After about a half an hour, he called again. They thought he could make it. He was boarding the plane to Lyon. My daughter and I embraced. Maybe he really was going to get there on time. She called his brother in Tichy where people were keening and wailing in the background. They would be able to postpone the burial until he arrived if there were no other delays. She called his sister-in-law in France with the change of plans. We embraced and went back to our beds for a short hour or two.
In the morning, we had not heard from him. My daughter, after several calls, discovered that he had made it to the house just in time to see his mother’s body. His brother from France had arrived at almost the same time. The grand-daughter who was left at the house confirmed they had all gone to the burial in the mountains just above the house. They were returning the body to the place where her life had begun, tending goats in view of the endless expanse of the turquoise sea.
Connections to Algeria can be very spotty. Internet service is sometimes available, sometimes not. My daughter wasn’t able to contact him for several hours. We spent the time canceling flights, buying flight insurance, taking care of my grand-daughter, cleaning and cooking, and talking together about his family and the things they’d been through.
After her nap, I took my granddaughter to the playground. On our way back, my phone lit up with my son-in-law’s name. Calling me from Algeria? I answered. He hadn’t been able to reach his wife. He was okay. I gave the phone to his daughter. She told him she loved him and missed him and she had just been to the playground. I took back the phone.
“Are you okay? How did it go?” questions that as soon as they were uttered felt totally inane and inadequate.
“I got to see her. I got to embrace her. I was the one who buried her. It was right. I got here.”
Soon he will travel back from that world to this. The flow of love does not cease with death. It breaks open the heart. It can transform those still warm with breath, awake to greet their grief. We have known this since we all began to see the thoughts that form in that space of our mind, those thousands and thousands of years ago.
A few days ago it was my daughter’s birthday. Somehow we old women delight in thinking of the adults we still call our children as the babies they were, bald and plump, eyes shining. Even now that these same adults have extraordinary interiors about which we gain only a clue now and then, we love to think of the very beginning, the seeming essence of what they are now, their very beings.
All those years ago when I was five years younger than she is now, I walked with her most evenings, she tucked in against my chest in one of those demin Snugli carriers, then a novelty, through the streets of our new home in Long Beach, California. I left the house almost every day in that interlude an hour or so before her father came home from work when she was a bit fussy from the fatigue of being alive and I, restless.
It was autumn in Southern California, still hot in the afternoons, every morning a bit grey until ten and then clear blue until sunset. The Camellias were still blooming. Annuals of all kinds still grew in the gardens of the old part of town where we lived. Lemons still hung on trees. The air was fragrant, soft and clear. On the weekends, we would still go swimming in the warm water of the bay and lie in the sun on the beach.
It was all still so improbable that only a few short months before we had lived in the fast pace of Washington DC where the heat of the summer was oppressive, everyone worked seventy hours a week and walked ardently from office to car and drove home late in the evening to Maryland or Virginia to watch an episode of the Jeffersons or Dallas, go to bed and repeat. Here, actual adults lounged on the beach or in outdoor restaurants dressed only in shorts, tank tops and flip-flops at all hours of the day. They appeared to have incomes of some sort since their clothes were stylish and they could afford a high-priced hamburger at two o’clock but there was no visible evidence of employment. Were they all living off royalties from screen plays or did they work only a few hours in the morning?
That afternoon, I walked with her in the pack down a now-familiar street past small older houses with gardens and lawns, the streets lined with Jacarandas, Crape Myrtles, Palms and Eucalyptus trees. Her cheek resting against the middle of my chest, from time to time I drew in breaths of the warm sweet scent of her head as she watched things go by. The small ecstasies of having a baby were still fairly fresh, everything in the world now new because of her presence in it.
We had crossed the street and were in the middle of the block, heading towards the ocean and the pier. There I’d take her out of the pack to see the waves and the sea gulls and we’d talk to the old people and kids fishing over the railings. As we approached a grey stucco house I’d seen many times before, I was curious to see what could be called by no other name than a perambulator standing on the sidewalk in front of the house, complete with woollen baby blankets draped over the edge, ready to receive a baby in great comfort.
The shiny black buggy had big metal wheels, hefty springs and a big cave of a sun shade from the top of which hung some kind of bunny toy, dangling down where a baby lying on its back could reach up and bounce it. Even back then, the anachronism of this wonderful contraption was captivating.
Just then, a tall woman with dark hair walked came out the front door with a baby in her arms and closed the door behind her. As she turned to come down the stairs to the walkway, she caught my eye. She sparkled. I can’t say what sparkled. It could have been her eyes, but it seems that something traveled through the air.
“Oh! Hello!” she said, with a rare kind of gaiety. “You have a baby, too!”
Her sound of her voice, something that would become familiar over the next years, was novel, clear, with a slight upward lilt that was hard to place in any geography of accents.
We walked towards each other, joining on the sidewalk next to the baby buggy, remarking on each others’ babies with that ease of two new mothers. She put her daughter down in the “pram” as she called it and excitedly gave me a run down of the features of this marvel of a vehicle.
It was evidently the Rolls Royce of prams, with exquisite suspension provided by heavy-duty steel springs, a mattress that would have delighted royalty, an adjustable handle and many other features now beyond recall but wondrous nonetheless. She asked if I’d like company on my walk and we set off together toward the pier.
As we walked, conversation flowed with charming ease, her ready laugh light and warming. We learned enough about each other to cement a friendship. She was originally from England. The pram had been a gift from her father who still lived there. She and her mother had come over on the Queen Mary when she was a child. She had a four-year-old daughter in addition to the new baby, now happily playing till dinner at friend’s house across the street. Her husband was a doctor with a specialty in oncology who worked in a big hospital in Los Angeles. She had been a nurse but hadn’t practiced since she was pregnant with her first child. She was an “older mom”, in her mid-thirties. I gave her a sketch of my own life. We told a couple of our important stories, laughed together and listened seriously.
When we reached the pier, she bounced the pram over the boards to the end where we took out the babies, bought a ice pop each from the tiny store and sat on a bench with babies on our laps, watching people perched on their ice chests, fitting bait to their hooks.
As the babies grabbed at each other and bounced on our knees, we kept up an easy flow of conversation about the fabric of our days as mothers, what the babies were doing, talked about pediatricians and friends. Still talking, we walked back along the pier and over the sidewalks back to her house, where, now fast friends, we hugged good-bye, promising a walk again the next day, she going across the street to get her older daughter and I to walk the few blocks back to the house we’d rented with an olive tree in front and oleanders along the driveway.
That evening I was content in a way I hadn’t been since the move across the country. The acts of making dinner, sitting in the back garden in the cooler evening air and putting the baby to bed now fit into a flow. The delight of finding a friend of like mind and temperament, the prospect of all the connections that might branch out from this encounter and the knowledge of what went on in one of those other houses I’d passed every day grounded me in a way I hadn’t felt for years. The only-child always present in me felt whole again.
It wasn’t until years later that she told me that our first meeting, seemingly so serendipitous, had been planned. She had been watching me go by her house with the baby for a few days in a row and thought that I looked like someone who could become a friend. She had kept watch that day out her big front window in order to spring out when she saw me coming, hoping to appear, as if by chance, at just the right moment to join me on my walk.
We’ve been friends all the years since, even though I left for the Northwest when those two babies were just three years old. We call and share the important events in our lives, talking hungrily about details no one else would love to hear.
We were pregnant with our last children at the same time. There’s a photo of us somewhere in one of those old photo albums with PVC pages that I can’t take with me to France. It shows two tall women, one in her mid-thirties, one forty, facing the camera and laughing, their two huge bellies touching in the middle, belly button to belly button.
The smoke blew down from Canada. In the heat of the summer, fires were burning in the forests of British Columbia. For a day or so, people went about their business, wondering a bit why the sky was grey when the sun seemed hot behind it. But grey was a familiar sky.
A dawning realization spread towards the end of the day, moving from person to person. Those who were spending the day working inside began to hear it from those who were outside. These were not the grey skies of the often cloudy northwest, but skies filled with a cover of smoke. There was no real smell of smoke, no real choking sensation, no sharp sting in the eyes to let you know it was there. Many people continued living their lives without real awareness. Perhaps they noticed a dryness in their throats and a cough when they settled down to sleep, wondering if it were some new kind of summer allergy.
As the days of grey skies went on, day after day, even those ignoring the signs began to feel an uncertain, inchoate longing for the blue skies of July, the white of puffs of clouds in the openness. They longed for vastness. Although they might not feel a choking sensation in their throats, something within them seemed to be gasping for expanse. Their spirits were confined, dulled, a bit desperate. Each day they woke up to a hazy white sun, each evening watched the globe of that same sun, now still high on the other side of the sky, turned red and a bit blue. Each night, they thought certainly they would wake to a sun rising in the light blue sky of early summer morning, but the grey and the strange light went on.
They began to look for signs in the sky, some small opening into the blue beyond. They pointed out to each other some thinnings in the cover, places where it began to look as it does when a fog that has blown in from the sea begins to burn off in the sun of late morning. For a few moments, the thick haze seemed to be slowly dissolving, becoming blue. Then the layer of grey closed over again.
The air seemed dead and quiet. The sounds of chirping birds and the choruses of morning and evening were all but gone. Even the roosters seemed silenced. It was a restless stillness, cooler than July should be. It was a Sunday quieter than Sunday, no lawn mowers, weed whackers, no grindng tractors. Only one or two motorcycles zoomed down the road during the day. Even those seemed muffled.
Even in the dullness of the days as they stretched on one after another, in the pervasiveness of the yellowish-green light, many seemed oblivious. Perhaps it was a kind of optimism, perhaps a dullness in their own spirit that matched the haze hanging over, a shade of compatibility. Exercise outside became taxing, contributing to the dullness. Occasional shadows on the grass, summer light penetrating briefly, produced moments of joy, sudden and fleeting relief from the dinginess and the luminous gloom.
There began to be murmurings that the much anticipated solar eclipse, approaching in just two weeks’ time, would prove to be an anti-climax, a disappointment after all this daytime darkness. From somewhere in the subconscious a nagging worry began to gnaw its way through into some part of awareness that the rest of the summer would pass away without the blue of the skies. This strange greyness would just blend into the long, familiar greyness of winter without the needed dose of sun, cheated of the storing away of the light.
There had been times before this, once the year before I was born, when, for a day or two at a time, fires from Canada had blanketed parts of the US and even Europe with darkness. This, then, was rare, but not unique. In addition to the burning of hundreds or even thousands of square miles of forest, the intensity of the smoke that summer long ago came from burning grasslands and the intensification of slow-burning peat fires in British Columbia. Street lamps came on in the middle of the day as far away as Florida. The plume of smoke may have been carried all the way around the globe by the patterns in the wind. Communication was spotty in those days. Since, as now, the smoke plume was high, there was no smell of smoke as darkness descended during the day. People thought perhaps it was Armageddon or nuclear blasts or both. It was uncanny as this grey is uncanny. Eight years later, the fires of 1958 burned over 3300 square miles of forest by the end of the fire season. So far, the fires now burning to the north in British Columbia had consumed about half that and it was not yet mid-August.
These days of sombre summer leave me restless, as if gathering energy to burst out above the haze to somehow bathe in the blue again. It is the same energy that fuels the desire to break through the fog blanketing so much of the human spirit.
As with the shifts in the wind and weather that are sure to come, I sense there is a deeper shifting that has already begun. We will have to ride skillfully on that wind and see what haze it can dispel, what skies it will reveal.
He lay on his back, hands, rising and falling gently, one on top of the other, resting on the middle of his chest. He was not sleeping and not awake. His mind was empty, open, free.
There had been visitors. They came to sit with him. As each came into the room and looked into his face, he briefly opened his eyes. Each found themselves stretching out beyond the confines of physical form and world, gone, nothing but the blue of his eyes. Each friend sat down next to the bed, each, through the flow of their natures, sending out waves of love. The waves lapped through him, reverberating, pulling to the shore with their tides.
When each left, the waves began to subside, lapping gently across the uppermost surface, the depths still silent, calm. But even when no one was present, waves of emotion came washing through him, pulling from somewhere out in the world where friends moved through their lives, longing for his presence, aching. He breathed from the silence and met them, gently as ocean meets shore and touches air.
Some could feel the breath moving through them. Others dreamed of him. Others were washed by thoughts of him, images of their time together, the magic of walking alongside him, looking into his eyes, playfully running down city streets, being pulled along, hand in hand with a compact, neatly dressed man with sparkling blue oceanic eyes, round, crinkled yet young face, cropped white hair, still vigorous in his eighties, headed somewhere to talk to someone important or maybe just to go feed the ducks at the park.
He had been prepared for these moments since he was a very young man. He had wandered from Norway to the Himalayas at the age of sixteen. He had studied with great mystics in the East and the West. He had lived and worked in over sixty-five countries, served during WWI, worked with MI6 during WWII, helped hatch a master plot to kidnap Hitler in 1944 (which was rejected by Roosevelt), was captured towards the end of the war by the Nazis, miraculously released with a visa. Author, economist, mystic, so much more, he had spent the last thirty years devoted to Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, a benign system of bringing solar energy from the sea.
Until his body was stuck down, he had continued his daily work to bring OTEC to the world, communicating prolifically with other engineers, presidents, presidential candidates, US Senators and a wide circle of friends. He went to the beach and bathed his legs in the ocean, his mother. Now even the unending flow of his letters had stopped.
There had never been any boundaries. Now that was becoming more and more evident to all those who loved him.
There was one heart holding him, despairing of the loss of him. He travelled to her in a dream and smiled and winked. There was nothing but ocean. He was nothing, as he had ever been.