Memories are an act of creation. We piece them together from disparate fragments and imaginings until it feels like that’s how we always remembered it.
I’m a young boy, seven or eight, and I’m holding the red cord attached to the corner of the coffin as the men lower it into the grave. Around me an overbearing huddle of black and grey woolen coats, men with leather gloves and sombre Sunday-best hats: women go to the Kirk, but not the cemetery. I am trying to reconcile the pale wooden coffin with my grandmother, who, I am told, is inside it.
If I should tell you they come to this place,
those who’d written out their lying lives, that they move
languidly yet deft like butterflies, one by one they come,
a movement in the penumbra, each with a shimmering
shield or carapace on the back stretching from neck
to the fold of the knees,
In the flat uninhabited spaces, snow falls from an empty sky. Here and there, the bare branches of an oak are black against the steadily-falling flakes. When the air is thick with them, it’s not white, exactly, but a glowing bluish-white, shading to grey as evening comes on, darkness in tow. Snow accumulates like loneliness, one snowfall covering the last one, layering into snowdrifts that become the landscape.
This is an excerpt from a narrative about the last seventy-four days in the life of Vincent van Gogh. It begins in Paris on the morning of Saturday, May 17, 1890, when Vincent first met his sister-in-law Jo, the wife of his younger brother Theo. It ends in Auvers, northwest of Paris, at one-thirty in the morning of Tuesday, July 29, 1890, when Vincent died after wounding himself in the chest with a pistol.
The airport lights flicker below, and Sig and I part in silence. I creep towards the women’s cabin. Orange and pink bleed into my view of Juneau; the July sun has been setting since we snuck away from camp two hours ago. Sunset will run into the 3 a.m. sunrise; camp will wake promptly at 7:30. I undress in the semi-dark, climb the damp wood rungs to my bunk and listen for my seven sleeping colleagues. We are all geology majors, Class of ’03, in sight of college graduation.
Seen on a topographic map, the town of Port Jervis, New York, appears to be guaranteed some drama. It is situated at the point where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania come together at the banks of the Delaware River, where the riverbed takes a radical turn to the southwest (as if it had suddenly decided to avoid New Jersey), deepens to eighty feet, and begins to take on the grandeur that will come to it fully in the Water Gap some ten miles farther south. But whatever Port Jervis once was—a railroad and logging hub, a transport center for the produce from local farms—it no longer is. The town center seems exhausted and weakened to such a point that no expectation or promise could safely settle on it again.
Almost every child takes an object of particular affection—a stuffed animal or a blanket that they sleep with and drag around behind them in a state of increasing filth and dissolution, the way Christopher Robin drags Pooh. I’ve always wondered about the fates of other people’s beloved creatures: surely nobody is heartless enough to throw them away? When something—someone!—has been so loved, how can you ever stop loving them entirely? I’ve always had a tendency to anthropomorphize things—houses, cars, teddy bears—and retain a sentimental compassion for others who do so.