I was born in the twentieth century. What I know of the infinite is a distant freeway wind. It’s easiest to climb through the woods at rush hour, when my straining breath is one whisper under the traffic. Deep in the city grid, deep under clouds, I struggle huffing up the trail. Through the dimming day, through your white noise and mine, an eagle cries—an eagle rips. Your car passes below, headlines turned up, windows sealed against the engines.
I am dusting my old trinkets, idols really, items I once believed in. So many things were vessels then, carrying love. We’ve both drifted from the worship of love, I to the sweet breaking world and he to the jealous god. We were overindulged children for so long, deeply in love and deeply strange, answering to no one but each other. I kneel, dusting the vessels, safe in the knowledge that he won’t notice them back in the corner behind my chair, won’t find the ribbon marked “Heart, 1999,” the note tucked into the zippered pouch, the braid his barber once handed back for my flowered box. I kneel, remembering the years we lost to rituals and hugging, preparing to forgive two overgrown kids who locked everyone out of their heaven.
It was our twenty-first New Year together, and he suggested the walk. I went out with dark glasses on my head, but the sun had already slipped behind the trees. What time is it? I asked. He said something about four. January! I laughed. I could have used some sun. There’s still plenty of light, he said, holding out his palms as if for the sun’s blessing, and the question in his voice told me: in his language there was no word for sunset. The sun that would have touched the cottonwood skeletons, the street, his hands, if I hadn’t gone back for aspirin and again for my monocular: he didn’t know it was gone. We walked on into the space beyond the day. He talked about iPhones. I took his hand.
For those four days, the sun braised me in sweat. Huffing up trails, thinking If you could slough your self at the bottom, walk into August till you were only breath and sweat and climb—, I’d inhale drops that beaded on my nose. Sometimes it scared me—did I have enough water? any salty food at all?—and I’d duck into the shallow shade of a scrub oak or toyon to let my t-shirt dry stiff and sour while I sat licking chalky salt from my calves. When I heard midday wind from the city, I’d head for the mountain front, lift my shirt to a warm gust rising from some glimmering windshield, and then, as it dried me, last night’s shade would drift up from deep inside a sumac. Once I came crashing down sun-slurred into the woods and found a man kneeling at the edge of a plunge pool, washing his face, and women pushing through the water with muscled legs, shrieking in Spanish at sharp rocks. I greeted them all, shucked my shoes, peeled my socks, slipped my feet between tadpoles and sloshed forward to give my sweaty neck and twig-snarled hair to the waterfall.
How can I convey that I loved it, scrambling up eroding canyons till my pants were torn and I stank with sweat and the smokehouse tang of black sage? That after the dirt beneath me gave way, I found myself grinning on the ground, hugging a pipe amid the clearing dust and clatter? That this was what I wanted—to stumble up this immensity, clacking holly-leaf cherry pits against my teeth, carrying barely enough water? That I relished it all though the wet heat was wrong and smog blurred downtown like a hangover?
There was breath between the butte and the full moon now, but the moon wasn’t brightening camp much. Not ready to head into my tent, I was plopped in the middle of camp on a fresh dirt mound, badger probably, watching the moon rise higher. Clouds were streaking mustaches and bushy eyebrows on its face and flowing on. I was thinking I’d like to curl around this mound, so soft, so cool, and stay all night. I was wishing I could sleep with moonlight pouring into my brain, wishing I could meet tomorrow’s demands if I failed. I was remembering friends from the protest camp twenty years ago, feral kids who slept where they fell, remembering them dozing on each other’s chests in the shade of early morning, the mist of childhood still clinging to the boys’ bristly faces. I was hearing the blood surge past my ears and wanting to trust all that Craig trusts—what if you could invite strangers to wake you at two in the morning if they happened to feel like talking?
They came galloping, legs through the grass, hooves received by grass and grass dirt. The burrowed ground shook; they were coming. I was ready to shout to fend off their trample, but I wanted them close, their terrible gallop, their animal weight on muscles and hooves. When they leapt the fence away, I wanted to follow, load my life on my back, learn to sleep in the path of the moon, of the deer, of the wolves running them hard, testing their strength.
This has always been her midday lullaby: close your eyes, bumblehummm, the bees will make you berries. Wind through the fir branches above her promises to scrape snowdust from ice-crusted fields – in time, in time. Today all the old promises calm her. She lets sunhot dust, the grindings of old fir needles, slow her breath. She knows the ants flowing over her ankle will flow on. With the whole afternoon ahead, why shouldn’t she doze in full sunlight, spread her arms to the drying wind, let her strong legs loll apart and brown?
(Here come four bites from last summer to sustain us through December.)
I want to store up more sleep against the day’s demands, but you can already see the sun from your hill, I know it. Eyes still blurred, teeth unbrushed, I pull my legs through the grass to join you, then climb, crunching the crust of sundried ground. Up at the top, Kim is lying curled toward the sun, her face warm with dawn. Colleen is facing the sun with her lens, and Craig with his flute. Last night Craig’s story was of a twisted-up canoe, of recklessness and rage, but now he pipes a song of tears and thanks for tears, of gladness for having known this world at least before we lost it. Jan is standing, new light on her legs, pointing south where the elk just left. Soon we will descend; the sun will strengthen; we’ll assume our midday voices. Let’s stay a little longer, friends, all nine of us. My years have been rich in sunsets, but companions learning how to meet the dawn—no, I never dared to wish for this.