In mid-May 1999, alone on my last morning in the Annapurna Sanctuary, I tramped along the moraine below Annapurna Base Camp. The sun reflected off Machapuchare, the distinctive fish tail peak, at the bottom of the valley. Tharpu Chuli flanked me on the left, its 6000 meter crown glistening with fresh snow. No clouds covered Annapurna’s summits behind me or obscured the immense sky. The trail meandered from 13,500 feet to 12,000 feet. The low-oxygen air, like a drug, rendered the sapphire sky in vivid contrast to the silver cliffs, the white snow, and the wild crocuses that burst from south-facing patches in happy pink dots.
When I’m back in the city and on the subway, I tend to look at my book or at my feet and the feet of other people. I note the different kinds of shoes, their colors and states of wear.
Today is December 23, so there are shopping bags by all the shoes, held fast between lower legs and sometimes kicked out of the way of people coming and going. Bags filled with brown boxes and shoe boxes and stacks of folded clothes.
I’m sitting down, and a man stands above me with his back to me. Under his left arm is a cardboard box that says 6H on the side in thick permanent marker. He never turns around, and I never see him, but I know that he lives in 6H.
When I heard ancient Iranians worshipped Mithra in subterranean caverns, my first reaction was: why would anyone worship Mithra in total darkness? Mithra, the god of heavenly light, who goes over the earth, all her breadth over, after the setting of the sun, touches both ends of this wide, round earth, whose ends lie afar, and surveys everything that is between the earth and the heavens. In Mithraic belief, the God Mithra slays a bull to move the world and enlighten it with love. Followers pray and purify their souls in order to ascend to their heavenly place of origin.
A black ant walks across the kitchen counter and I try to flick it away. It dodges my finger, but it’s miscalculated how close it is to the edge and falls off the cliff of the counter and into the dog bowl. It struggles to swim. The ant is dying the way I always die in my worst dreams. In nightmares I sink to the bottom of the lake near my childhood home.
Couchville Cedar Glade State Natural Area, Davidson County, Tennessee
My mom has moved to a “senior community” a long drive from my house, but a short drive to my favorite cedar glade. Last night, I slept on the sofa so I could start a hike before dawn. Her new key takes some fiddling, but I sneak outside to meet black sky.
A Dodge pickup tails me hard on new asphalt for new subdivisions (so many) and old pasture (not so many), but when he turns toward the Interstate, I turn away. Pink begins to glow through my open window.
The story of the Immovable Ladder is this: it was left on a balcony of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem by a careless mason in 1750 and has sat there ever since. The six orders of monks, in whose ruthless stewardship the church is kept, have divided the church into blocks of turf, which they guard with fervor, and sometimes with fists. It’s unclear to which sect the balcony (and by extension, the ladder) belongs. Any attempt to answer that question would be a threat to the delicate status quo that keeps the monkish violence at bay. And so the ladder sits. Undisturbed.
Sandy showed us how. She placed the shovel’s tip a few inches from a tuft’s base. Angled the handle back a bit, just enough to loosen the grass before she lowered, hand-pulling. This way, she explained, down to the source. Awards went to the biggest pile, longest root (you cannot burn grass off the dunes; the network just shoots back again), cleanest area too. Tawny tips waved in small breeze from the lagoon, off the lip of sea. But the grass is pretty, C said, and somebody murmured, agreeing. He traced the rake in arcs, looking down, but couldn’t swirl it far. European beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria) grows in clumps from rhizomes that spread four meters each year, so it’s no surprise beachgrass defines large stretches of Pacific coast. Pretty till you get a spine in your glove, E admitted, wincing. Until you get down close.
St. Joan of Arc classroom and cloakroom revisited, 2018
Queens, New York
The very sound of it was foreign to our ears. Who wore cloaks? Vampires. Stealthy spies with hidden daggers. And men in top hats who appeared in movies and old-fashioned story books. Certainly no one we knew as first-graders at St. Joan of Arc—except, perhaps, for the nuns whose sleeveless black capes swirled in their hurried winter walks through the schoolyard to the convent. But their habits covered every inch of skin up to their necks; even their brows were partially obscured by fabric stiff as cardboard and white as their bony hands—the only other flesh exposed. So, on second thought, we couldn’t really say we “knew” the nuns when their very bodies were concealed and their lives outside the classroom a mystery.