My mother and I are on a chlorinated river that’s somehow simultaneously the Amazon, Congo, and Nile, floating languidly so we don’t run into the boat in front of us and “don’t scare the wildlife”: the kind of joke the Disney guide, in his safari hat and over-pocketed explorer outfit, keeps making.
I could tell you, If I wanted to, What makes me What I am.
But I don’t Really want to— And you don’t Give a damn.
—Langston Hughes, “Impasse”
There are two cops from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. We are all gathered around the kitchen island silently negotiating the power dynamics. Two Black women, two White cops. The cops have come to collect the details for the report, but I’m doing most of the talking. Grammy bears witness.
I walk slowly, each step sinking a little into the ground. With every footfall, a puff of ash curls upward, dusting the top of my boot and disappearing into the soft stillness of the day. It is a clear day with no clouds, but the air around me has a gentle haze, a film that sometimes resolves into particles, pinpoints of ash in a slanting ray of sunlight. It has been two months since the fire, but the rising ash and the smell of smoke are strong, stinging the back of my throat and settling into a familiar ache in my temples.
I had one recurring nightmare as a child: I am standing in the dry bed of a creek looking upstream, the sun shining and the stones warm on the bottoms of my feet. Suddenly, a roaring wave rushes toward me around a bend and I have no choice but to be swept along with it. The water drags earth from the river banks until it is so thick with sediment it has turned the color of Swiss Miss.
“It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.” —Isaiah 40:22
In the cosmology of Patrick Burke, a flat-Earth believer, humans can spoon-eat uranium flakes like Cheerios.
The Hubble Space Telescope never existed, nor did dinosaurs. Hiroshima was dynamited, the Titanic sunk for insurance, and New Orleans flooded by government agents.
Earth—our sapphire speck, our pale-blue lifeboat in an ocean of dark—does not, after all, perch on a Milky Way tentacle. Earth does not spin like a Dervish; rather, its plane reclines and stretches beyond the thousand-mile-thick ice wall encasing us. The land reaches out, sprawling with undiscovered countries and unimaginable lifeforms. At some point, the world meets sky, earth bleeds into atmosphere, and God lives at that nexus of matter waiting for us.
You stare low on the horizon into the black sky and wait for the next tiny circle of light. A flash. You hold your breath. You listen to the high-pitched whir as each pinpoint shoots upward, and your eyes follow the undulating trajectory, one, two, sometimes three seconds and still you’re not really breathing. The light vanishes, and you wait, bracing yourself for one loud low boom, a series of pops and crackles, or a deep, hard blast that feels like a punch in the chest. And in that instant before each burst you hope for your favorite colors and shapes, for purple or green or one of those big white sparklers that puffs out like a giant dandelion cloud then hangs suspended, for just a heartbeat, before each shimmering speck flickers and falls toward earth.
For nearly two years of my life, I lived with a ghost. It was when my father, a civil servant, was posted in Sambalpur, a now forgotten town in northern Odisha, a state in India’s east. Newspapers then, and even now, always added the descriptor “India’s poorest state” whenever Odisha made the headlines. This happened in the late 1980s, when several hunger-related deaths were reported in a tribal-dominated district in the state’s west, and a decade later, after an Australian missionary was burnt to death, along with his two sons, by a group led by a Hindu fanatic.
He pulled up as I walked on the side of a busy Lyon road, the type that becomes a highway once it hits the outskirts of town. Ignoring the thick traffic behind him, he stalked me slowly in a compact car, beckoned to me through his open window, across the empty passenger seat.
“Name and fame,” Mohammad Sabir said in English, shouting over the noise of the traffic. Manager and occasional trumpet player for one of dozens of marching bands for hire in Kolkata, India, he was describing the glamor that once compelled families across the city to hire bands like his.
Fifty-year-old Master Sabir, as bandleaders are known, was sitting behind his desk in a pink, threadbare shirt. A goat was tied to the electricity box out front, barefoot children raced past, and, nearby,bidimakers sat chopping dried tobacco by hand. According to my phone, it was only 103 degrees, but the reported “feels like” had hovered between 118 and 125 for days, and it was sometimes hard to breathe. This was in May of 2019, halfway through Ramadan and an hour before iftar; Sabir had not eaten or taken a drink of water all day.
Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures. There was just so much loss all around me. Everywhere I turned seemed stabbed right through, constantly punctured by the outside world. The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deep I tried to bury it. So many different things—situations, times of year, people—made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it—any of it—stop.
The Bridge of Sorrows: An Excerpt From Thin Places