|Oct/Nov 2013 Nonfiction|
Electronic artwork by Phillip Stearns
I was starting again—it was the mid-1990s. I'd left my New Orleans haunts and settled temporarily on the East Coast—Richmond, Virginia. I was going back to the university, the big decision to finally finish a college degree and find a new life.
Fall. The cold had not arrived. The crisp afternoon lingered like the glace of a secret admirer. I was driving my 1975 Plymouth Valiant, headed toward a rendezvous with my newly found poet friend. The Valiant had a deep-brewed, coffee-colored body and a creamy, vanilla roof. My vintage beauty was known as Carmen because of her fickle automotive nature. Carmen once saved my life by stalling at a green light. The speeding red-light runner never knew how close death had brushed his shadow.
I roll down the windows and let my hair fly in the sharp, free air. As I reach Old Cary Town, I find myself trapped in rush hour. I try the radio searching for a clear signal. This time the FM is strong, and the PBS evening news is just starting.
The news is ominous: "Ozone gas levels have reached high levels in the city. The federal government has told state officials that funding for roads will be withdrawn if emissions are not reduced by the first of next year. Individuals who are sensitive to pollutants are advised to remain indoors during the hours just before sunset."
The traffic moves a few inches and then the light changes again to red. Maybe I should roll up the windows.
"And now on to Health News. Officials deny that the Shenandoah Virus escaped from animal testing labs and may be related to the often fatal Hansa Virus that is affecting so many areas of the Western United States. "
I'd heard evidence of this Shenandoah Virus. The deep, unearthly cough and congested lungs—breathing became an agony.
"The Hansa Virus kills its victims within 48 hours. Only two of the 86 people infected have survived."
Can you really believe these reports? Rumor was that the Shenandoah Virus had also killed some people. Hands gripping the steering wheel, eyebrows crunched together waiting for yet another traffic light to change, I feel a state of psychic turbulence as I intently focus upon the red signal that holds me together with humanity. Even with my newly found independence—graduation is near and I still have no plans—do I really want a world of rush hour traffic? Electric wires strung haphazardly to the traffic light twist and turn like tangled vines. I look for a distraction. The gaudy shop windows glare back. Trying to buy my attention. I feel suffocated, stifled by truck and car fumes—the noise of the cars and buses racing past the intersection of the boulevard and the congested side street. Roll up the windows. My captive body is crying out for release. I can't focus on the sky that is turning into a fiery sunset. With reluctance I look back to the traffic light.
As I stare in submission, the entire traffic light box starts to move slowly toward the sky, as though being pushed by an invisible hand—until it is resting sideways in mid-air. Hallucination?
Then the force of the wind is upon the intersection—barreling up the wide boulevard from the east, rushing through with a vengeance. Cars rattle and shake, traffic signs vibrate with a swoosh of music caught in the wind, pedestrians cling to each other for safety, mouths open in silent cries as the wind scatters packages, lifts skirts and twists hair into wild tangles. Then, like a band of giddy gypsies late for a twilight rendezvous—the wind vanishes to the west.
The poisoned air disperses, the once rigid, noxious atmosphere now clear and fresh. I inhale deeply, dizzy from holding my breath. A sense of relief and calm takes over. The light changes; the ugliness no longer captures my eyes. Enchanted by the brilliance of the sky, I cross the boulevard, following the gypsy wind with a sense of hope.
If only I could just get away for a few days. Escape the city—escape the foul chemical air, the ozone that makes lungs freeze up, that no one seems to notice. Escape the flu and viruses, the ones that evolve, the ones that escape from animal testing labs.
That night a clammy sensation envelopes me as I drift into a troubled sleep. By the next morning my chest is heavy and the fever takes over. Days go by. I can hardly make it to the doctor. Concerned, she asks me to return several days later for special treatments.
"Could you get away for a few days... maybe to the seashore? I'm worried you might not be able to fight it off if you stay in the city."
"I don't know... I'll try." I am so weak I can hardly drive home. My brother is headed back to New Orleans after his short visit; my best friend—the Bavarian Princess—is away on a camping trip with her family.
I am passing the same intersection where I had regained faith in the power of nature. As I approach, I notice work men busily unveiling a rigid, metal traffic post. Its shiny newness stretches across the street menacingly, daring any wayward wind to test its steel heritage. Rigidity is the ultimate demise of every civilization. I feel alone and frightened.
The telephone is ringing as I open my apartment door.
"Hello," I whisper.
"Hi!" It's my cheerful café poet—calling to complain about his new wife.
The silence that follows tells him there is something wrong.
"I am... very... ill."
The conversation is short, and I collapse afterwards into a hallucinogenic drift somewhere between sleep and death.
The telephone brings me back to semi-consciousness.
"Are you ready for evacuation?" It's him again. More serious this time. He must be thinking about his first wife, how she died in the night—so young.
"Let's go to the ocean."
"But... this could be contagious... it might be the Shenandoah Virus. Are you willing to take the chance?"
I don't answer immediately. I try to think, but all I really do is try to remember how to breathe. Finally, some logic seeps through.
"What about your wife?"
"What about your life?"
On the road to Kill Devil Hills. We enter the wide gashing highway. A death marker—red and white carnations entwined upon a cross, a monument to the ones who did not manipulate their escape so well. The open road, release…away from the city…toward the sun, the ocean. Dazed by my illness and vaguely hopeful. I will be healed, heal myself. I am almost able to blur the inner vision of the compromise that makes this trip possible. But he is just a friend; it doesn't matter if he is married.
As we pass Kitty Hawk and the huge sand dune where the Wright brothers made the historic flight, I think about flying. I am suddenly seized by an overwhelming desire to fly a kite. I bug my companion until we stop for supplies, and I find the perfect basic kite—a red one and 500 feet of string.
It happens every day, the pulse of the universe, the pulse of the planet. The waves of water meet the land, the solid state of being confronted with the crashing of a liquid, flowing ebb. The cottage is shaped like a ship washed up on the beach. Some of the windows are actual portholes. We unpack, each to our separate rooms. As I organize the kitchen, I glance toward the wall above the sink. I am amazed. Carved into the darkness of the cabin—a picture window looks out on to the ocean—silent, glistening waves wash across the darkness. Then from the silence of glass, waves suck the sand upward toward a crystal, blue crest—I can feel the movement before I hear the sound. Then the foam webs on the edge of a hollowed swell—etches itself into the emerald transparency—an arching tunnel that teeters for one quivering moment before falling into the crashing, pounding finale.
Then it all happens again. Stunned by this consistent regeneration of form, I gasp, "And this happens every day!" My companion appears, magically at this moment. He echoes my words, "And this happens every day."
The most extraordinary thing—I find the surf annoying. I can't sleep. I wish it would stop. It is so close to the cottage. I find it noisy.
Enchantment. I remember the enchantment of the Fisher King who was so ill. Only the holy fool could lift the enchantment. The waves are relentless. They pound the beach in the moonless night. They are here to help lift the evil enchantment from my body. I need to be close to them. I sleep looking up to the porthole window, a clear night with vague flashes of refracted light that dance in my window. I wake up from a restless sleep just before sunrise. A sharp crescent moon is traveling toward the land in a black ink sky—a brilliant white star follows close behind. Along the horizon a wide band of yellow light is forming. I feel exhausted and crave silence and sleep. I remember my earplugs and close the porthole window. I protect my slumber by draping a red and white Bedouin scarf against the rising sun.
The sea is calm. I hear a whisper of water, a long slow rhythm that gently nudges me awake. The earplugs have fallen out. The light through the scarf over my porthole causes a pink glow that spreads over me like rose petals of shimmering light.
Vacation meditation on the verandah. Coffee and bleary eyes. Feeding the birds—basmati brown rice and fish flakes. There is a theory which postulates we are always in the right place. Evolutionary theory states that whenever there are great environmental changes, the species must migrate or perish. One day the sun simply stops shining or the climate becomes too hot or too cold. If there is no way to migrate, you might find a way to survive, but could you say you were in the right place? I think about Dr. John's take on this eternal question. His gravelly voice sings in my head: "I was in the right place baby, at the wrong time."
In illness you are completely identified with nature. Your body has become a host to microbes of destruction. With severe disease, you cross over into wildness and prepare for recycling. I think about vultures and realize these birds are carnivorous, but being sick around other people is what truly frightens me. Illness separates you from society.
I finally make it to the beach. I don't feel completely in nature. I am still looking for entry, scuffling off tensions of civilization. My body is cradled in the dunes and sun shine, feathered wisps of clouds brush across the sky in high crosswinds. The Phoenix rises in the form of high pressure meeting low pressure. I knew that spirits come with the wind. I forgot.
Now I remember in the moment as the sea breeze gently pushes past the obstructions in my lungs. Let go. The wind breathes for me. It is effortless. I am so weak. I surrender completely. I wrap myself in my sleeping bag, between the sandy embankments. The material of this temporary shroud is the same color as the sea foam and deepest ocean. I am able to imagine that I am floating and rocking with the water. There is so much light, it is tinged with the winter spectrum, the season of the long shadows.
I think about illness and imbalance, Chinese medical philosophy, angels. Birds inspect me all day long. The same ones I have fed on the verandah? I don't know their names. Some chocolate-coated winged confections hang out with iridescent black birds. I name the brown ones "Bon Bons." They remind me of a box of chocolates. I wonder if the black ones are related to midnight Ravens who pester impoverished poets. They look like wounded warriors with tattered tails and wings. Must be the survivors of the Northeastern wind that the locals talk about. Modern myths evolving on the beach. One bird—I recognize it from the morning brunch on the veranda—is a rather disheveled sea gull. It appears somewhat listless, as though it might be ill. I feel camaraderie and hope the brown rice and fish flakes will help his condition.
A black and white bird swoops close to my head. I name it Two Tone.
Nomad birds bobbing on the shallow waves, surfing sideways—sailing the swells with hidden, webbed rudders that navigate the crests and peaks. These must be ducks; the brilliance of the sun obscures their identity. They appear to be perfectly tranquil, not feeding, only rocking gently, moving slowly down the beach, sideways on the current—going with the flow.
Out rageous waves. I light candles and start to play with words in the tradition of ancient Kabbalah—transforming the words into light, talking in tongues. Haght neigh Irekolt.
I find entry with my kite. The birds are impressed. I reach 500 feet—the end of my string. I want to go higher, but can't bear to go to a store. I can't leave the beach, or even speak to anyone. I sense a thermal just at the end of my line. I want to catch it. A Two Tone—could it be the same one that has been flying so close to my head?—visits my kite and catches the thermal I cannot reach—it sails out and up until it disappears beyond the reach of the human eye.
I anchor the kite on the beach. It is still flying, but I know the wind will shift direction. Storms are on the way. Will my kite still be there in the morning?
My companion calls me away from packing. Out on the beach. Overcast, soft, gray velvet sky—the ocean a slate mirror—chalky white clouds—barely moving. My kite has disappeared toward the south—the string stretched out on the tide-washed sand—the frayed end points the direction. I will go this way. I will go home.
A breeze and the faint sound of a boombox playing an old song from the Rolling Stones—"no colors any more, I want it painted black." I see endless days, tanned skin, girls dressed in summer clothes. There are porpoise feeding in the shallows, the flat gray surf. I could join them. I could stay here forever.