“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.
We are dodging icebergs at twenty-five miles per hour. From the bow of our eighteen-foot Zodiac, I try to make sense of the ecosystem I’ve come here to investigate: northern Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coastline. But my customary visual bearings don’t seem to be serving me here in Alice’s Arctic Wonderland, where even the most fundamental rules of spatial arrangement have been upended. I see liquid lying over land, tundra hovering in midair, and chunks of ice floating several feet above the sea. I strain to delineate boundaries between water and sky, solid and gas, near and far. Where I expect borders, I find continuity—gradations of color, shifting shapes, and fluid forms. Reflections are sharper than the objects that make them, forcing me to question which way is up.
The morning was clear and the colors vivid: yellow brush, white ocean froth against cobalt sky. In front of me, dense gray volcanic stone appeared to consume the light. I stood in salty mist before an altar on the north coast of Rapa Nui, Easter Island. A single toppled moai lay in violent chunks on the ground. At 9:00 a.m. the sun still hovered tight at the horizon. Rapa Nui, which is part of Chile 2,300 miles away, is kept closer to mainland time than by geographical rights it should be. The sun rises gray and sticky at 8:30 in the morning, and sets late, too. This is not the only disorienting thing about Rapa Nui, but rather the most objective example.
Last year, I wandered through Greece, knocking on all the gates of Hades. I walked along the Acheron River, whose icy blue waters seemed colored by the spirits of the dead. Stalactites dripped onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves of Diros. I searched for the entrance to the sea cave at Cape Tainaron, scrambling over sharp rocks below the lighthouse as darkness fell. Sometimes I wondered if my search for the underworld tempted the Fates. I remembered Orpheus, the father of music, who charmed beasts with his lyre and descended into Tainaron to find his lost bride, Eurydice. With song, he implored Hades and Persephone to bring her back to life, and his words moved the deathless gods to tears. They granted his wish, allowing him to lead her out of the underworld on one condition: he must walk ahead of her, not looking back until they left the dark halls of death. Approaching the surface, the farthest reach of light, Orpheus feared his love’s silence behind him. He turned to look and saw her sink back into the depths, reaching out to him and bidding him farewell for the last time.
Leaving behind the clamor of Mexico City, I catch a bus and cross the wide altiplano. Behind the tinted windows are strewn the blackened remains of trees and cactus, upon which perch large, dark birds. Half asleep on the silent bus, which plows like an ocean liner across the prairie, I think about the birds outside, peering into passing vehicles from their watch-posts. I fall asleep and dream that the birds standing aloft the cacti are truly enormous, and that they have a name that no one can pronounce. Even the local people are confused because they cannot utter, or even remember, the names of these birds, which means, in their language, “those whose croak inspires terror.” It is not known, the people in my dream tell me, whence the name originated, nor have any of the birds been heard to croak; they all remain implacably silent. If one of the birds were to call out, it would signal the end of the current universe, the death of the sun, and the whole terrible process of regeneration would begin once more, following the previous cycles of destruction by (i) tigers, (ii) the winds, (iii) rains of fire, and (iv) water. The inhabitants of the plain, when they die, are roasted in a clay pit and eaten by their relatives and friends. Their livers and other inner organs are eaten by their closest kin. Their feet are cut off and left out for the birds whose name no one can remember, as it is believed that this will prevent them from making their dreadful sounds. Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Dead is in there somewhere, hovering in the debris of my dream.
I head downstairs and around the dark corner to spy my eldest son in his child bed, grey sneaker poking through the captain’s wheel footboard. The familiar angles of his shoulder and hip turned toward the lavender wall. Upstairs: a turkey half-cooked, speakers blaring Radiohead, collards on simmer, beers all over the counter. My wisdom crumbles when I try to comfort anyone. Oh hon, I’m sorry, I say. He sobs and pulls the faded deer blanket over his head.
I just don’t want anybody else getting hurt, he says.
No one else is getting hurt, I tell him.
And watch as he weeps, not knowing what to do. Hug him? Would he want me to? My body does not leap into a hug. Nobody in my family hugged. Earlier he had tried to tell me about this boy Karl, his roommate first year at college—Oh, I remember your dorm room, I interrupted—that he was dead. Suicide, I heard my son say and went on chopping celery. Heat coils in my cheekbones and sinuses. Oh, that’s too bad. Is that all I said? That’s too bad.
I was waiting at the top of the escalator, as we had agreed the night before by phone. The marble palace of the metro station Gorkovskaya, named after a Russian writer whose name means “bitter,” felt solemn enough for the occasion. I was peering into the face of every woman delivered by the moving stairs, as if each was a final product on a factory line reaching its destination. I watched their wandering looks, their wrinkles, the tensions of their mouths and speculated which one was my mother. Any of them could be.
The powerboat clips Scofield point and breaks away from my cabin toward the more serious waters of Lake Superior. My guide, Tom, cranes his neck to view the shore as if he’s never seen it before, though he knows these bends and inlets well. We pass the outer islands—Rabbit, Caribou, Cemetery—which lift like teeth from the blue-green water. The motor quiets as we turn inward and thread the eye of Moskey Basin, toward docks and wooden nets, remnants of a long-gone fishing industry cast along the shoreline.
On the Path from the Edison Fishery to the Moose Boneyard
The bulky figure coming towards me on the path has a stick in one hand, a small bag in the other, but I can’t make out his face because the dappled light that filters through the trees in the wood is playing with his features. As with most people, my mind drifts when I go for long walks and I forget about my surroundings until something like the cackle of a crow or a breaking twig or the heavy tread of somebody approaching, snaps me out of my reverie and, for a nanosecond, I am in the grip of a timeless uncertainty. I think of bandits, pilgrims, squires and ploughmen but, by the time we are a few yards from each other, I see the pleasant face of what turns out to be a maths teacher on a weekend break. His rucksack contains a plastic bottle of water, which he finishes off in a few gulps, and his stick is one of those Nordic walking poles.
Morocco has long been associated in the Arab imagination with magic and superstition, casting off mystical curses and exorcising jinn from the body. The word “al-Moghrabi” (“the Moroccan”) has itself become yet another qualification claimed by those who work in this parallel world, adding it to their names, some going so far as to christen themselves “Sheikh from Morocco.” These are the men one hears about from time to time, those who help ancient treasure-seekers get their hands on spell-protected troves, perhaps of the sort guarded by serpents.
An Orient Free of Orientalism: Magic, the square, and women in Moroccan short fiction