It’s a conundrum—where to put the baby in the grime—how to remove him from his blanket and place him on anything in this room. This room is what my husband and I get for $99 a night on Trip Advisor at .2 miles from the Philadelphia airport. The hotel sits in a strangled urban desert—a place bereft of tree, water, flow—a sprawl of light and concrete. This is a hopeless place for trapped people, meant to curb the anxiety about the most unnatural of journeys.
I am a trespasser. It’s difficult not to be one when so much of the hills surrounding the Finger Lakes of New York are owned by so many, “somebody else’s.” Even the abandoned Tenny’s Farm, with its heaviness of barren barns and feral fields, is stitched with Posted signs. Nearly daily I hike, or ride my pony, along the top of Grimes Gully with its whispering waterfalls below, to the end of the the Old West Hollow Road: an echo of a carriage road overgrown and barely remembered. It’s not really the end though, it’s a path dismembered by a twelve-foot-high fence that surrounds hundreds of acres of private deer reserve. I press my face to the cold wire, longing for the wide trails that continue inside there. Just being here, though, I’ve passed numerous signs. I am trespassing.
I’d been backpacking solo for twenty days in the mountains of Colorado, only a biography of Mozart for company, when my feet finally got the message up to my thumb that they were tired—so blistered, and achy, and sun-deprived and tired. My thumb, being a crafty little digit, waited until the trail crossed a road, then sprang into action with all the springiness a thumb can muster. One minute I was a resolved nature pilgrim, the next a common drifter hitching a ride to junk food.
What pulled up beside me almost instantaneouslywas not so much a Suburban as a rumbling patchwork of rust and mismatched panels. The tailpipe, or the little left of it, screamed a warning of danger, but its cries fell on my feet’s deaf ears. I stepped to the lowered window, thinking of ice cream and nothing besides ice cream.
We stayed with your mother in a tenement made of metal and painted stucco during the high holy days of August, the little chapel of La Virgencita a vision from our bedroom window. Flanked by powerlines and pigeons, its white façade projecting shadows on pedestrians as they strolled past. Each day we woke before dawn to sip bitter coffee and watch men in stiff robes ring the chapel bells, tracking their steps as they ascended the tower. Together they tugged the ropes to rouse the townspeople—to check they were alive.
On my final day in Derry, a city barely inside the northwest edge of Northern Ireland, I hired a taxi to drive me past the city’s boundaries and across the United Kingdom’s border. Through the window, the Republic of Ireland was all endless rows of barley like coiled rosary beads. I wanted to see the Grianan of Aileach, a stone ringfort originally built almost fifteen hundred years ago by the Celtic king who then ruled Donegal’s hills.
The day is drab and cloud-soaked, the sky a quilt of gray. I take the dog to walk on a path beneath the power lines near our house. Although it’s the first of February, there’s no snow. Everywhere I see brown, tan, dull green. Overhead the lines buzz and pop, the towers that carry them straddling undulating hills.
You arrive at the scene to play your part. Actors fill the stage, bodies motionless.
Stage right: Metal barricades and a long row of riot shields outlined by helmets, batons, cans of pepper spray, guns. Bodies of men behind it all. One body stands atop a tank, bullhorn raised to his face.
Stage left: Costumes include robes, vestments, yarmulkes, collars, habits. Props include holy books, prayer beads. Arms are interlocked.
Soaked students trudge with their arms wrapped around one another, some toward their apartments to scrub the liquefied tear gas from their clothes, some to the nearby bars to wash away the stains they’ve gained on their souls. I am holding my weapon tight in both of my hands.
The wet warning shots have had the desired effect, dispersing a crowd that gathered in front of the Teatro Universidad de Chile to protest for the third time in as many days. A graying caribinero whistles low, and one of the stray puppers that roam the sidewalks of the Alameda runs up to nibble at some chorizo the green-clad cop produces from the pocket of his vest. I check my firing mechanism and center the old man in my crosshair. I can’t get a good shot; civilians in the way.
I found myself holding the rear hooves of an upside-down, dead deer while a large, gray wolf paced a few feet away. It was a clear and cold afternoon, ten degrees above zero under a bright Minnesotan sun. We watched the wolf and the wolf watched us. Peggy turned and walked back to a truck piled high with roadkill. A dead calf, donated by a local farmer, peered out from among the tangle of wild limbs. A live rat terrier perched on top of the pile like a conquering queen. She licked at frozen blood.
I was with this wolf, and this woman, and this dog, because I was fixated on the wolf as a cultural symbol of villainy, of evil. I was writing a paper for an academic conference. Peggy reached her arm in among the bodies. “You know,” she called over her shoulder, “after all these years, we still prefer Chicago Cutlery®.” Her arm reappeared with a green-handled chef’s knife.
It is only appropriate that I have no memory of my first journey to Siliguri—I have no memory of my journey to this world either. I make this equivalence without sentimentality—I have lived here, in this small sub-Himalayan Indian town, for most of my life. And even when I haven’t, I’ve been aware of its grainy centripetal force. I was three—I trust my parents, particularly my statistician father, on this. My brother was one—which means he didn’t actually exist, except in the laps of our parents. Three days after arriving from Balurghat, I left home.