Normally along this straight back road in Idaho lay only quiet flatlands stippled with clumps of yellow grass, but today the prairie was bustling with cars and RVs and people gathered around camping chairs and telescopes. We were all here to see the Great American Eclipse of 2017—not only the first total eclipse of the sun to cross the country from Pacific to Atlantic in a century, but the first to grace the mainland at all in thirty-eight years. Since thirty-eight happened to be the median age in the United States, this meant roughly half the people readying to see today’s eclipse hadn’t yet been born the last time, and half who witnessed it then, in 1979, had since died. My husband and I, driving down the road in a blue compact, were a man and woman on the sadder side of the median, but only by a few years, so we weren’t used to it yet. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t decide how much this was worth, witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. I feared I might have lost the ability to distinguish true excitement from an admirable effort to keep life exciting.
The shadow tall and lean, inspired by a lighthouse, squints at the Merlion. My morning behavior skips breakfast just to tell my body to overcome the effects of the Merlion. People at the pet store are quitting their jobs only to watch the Merlion spurt water from its mouth like the tunnels of human love. The newly admitted patient who is seen from the open window waves at the Merlion. Clairvoyants finally predict a winner with the face of Singapura tattooed on the mythic scales of the Merlion. Lovers split, fully convinced about the Mertiger calling itself no more as the Merlion. Children down 10,000 bottles of Yakult so they can help the Merlion save this lion city and the sea overflowing with centillion neon. The televangelist reports about a new miracle and how it takes advantage of the daily shifts of the Merlion, spatial to temporal, particle to plexus. Accountants give celebrities free hugs, their palms are sweating, after taxing the civil case of the Merlion. But hold on there, youngster. What is the color of the Merlion? Does it speak a foreign language like Resilience? Does it roar, swim, walk aimlessly around the Central Business District? Will it quit water and start eating poetry? I know a place where it can go when it’s alone. Through its mouth, a tunnel: right where it starts it ends.
The motorized chair arrived, and Berger left it unwrapped in the middle of the living room. He circled it—keeping to the walls and the furniture to recover his balance—as if the chair was prey. He almost needed it, but he had the walker for the moments he grew tired. He imagined these new fixtures—the oxygen tank, the shower stall, the protein shakes—as gifts. Every day something new arrived on a delivery truck. He wanted the boxes to come wrapped in paper and ribbon, but then again, the boxes didn’t represent a future, and so he no longer turned his head at the sound of the doorbell.
A wooden chair, washed up on the beach between Nauset and Wellfleet. All drawings by the author.
“We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue: that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.”
—Henry David Thoreau, July 1842
The idea to follow Henry David Thoreau’s walks came plainly while I was standing in the shower at dawn one May morning, listening to the water drill my skull and lap my ears, wondering what I could do to stop the dreams of my past girlfriend. This was some time ago, when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, sadness, and pain that had arranged a constellation of grief around me. In this last dream, the one that got me into the shower at sunrise, she was in labor. Her husband—my dream had rendered him with dark hair in a cowlick, wearing a red shirt rolled to the elbows—stood bedside, holding her hand while she took deep breaths. I stood against the wall, touching a white handkerchief that I wanted to offer them. She looked up at her husband. He closed his hands over hers, something I must have seen in a movie. Though I wanted to leave the room, I stayed, because my legs weren’t working just then. I kept touching the handkerchief. The baby came. There were three of us in the room, and then there were four.
Amos C. Martin Ltd., Wallenstein, Ontario, Canada, circa 1960. Photo by Clarence Martin
I think of him now the way I saw him last: my grandfather, seated on the edge of his hospital bed with the pale shanks of his legs angled to bare feet on rubber floor. He was thumbing through a Maclean’s when I arrived at dawn. Despite the catheter tube and the IV drip at his side, he wasn’t taking this one lying down—not yet, anyway. On that December morning, his eyes sparkled with unspent energy.
In the early morning, when pink Oklahoma dawn crept over the sturdy single-family bungalows and strip malls, Abu Khaled al Shimeri wrapped his left arm around the taut belly of his pregnant wife, Fatima, and had a troubled dream.
A dimly lit maze of unpaved streets ended in front of a tall limestone wall. The sky above the wall was luminescent blue, but no sunshine reached the crepuscular base where he was standing barefoot. Behind the wall were the sacred streets of al Quds. Abu Khaled knew that the gilded dome of al Aqsa Mosque was only a few hundred paces away. He could hear a busy market on the other side, peddlers hawking live chickens and honey, women bargaining over the price of lamb. But no matter how hard he looked, he could not see a gate, not even a crack in the wall through which he could squeeze his wilting, middle-aged body.
“God!” he pleaded. “Please let me into the blessed city!”