The Yale Herald
We are never just wandering; we are always wanting something.
It is not hard to want here. In a city like Moissac, in a country like France. At dusk the river is a milky glass. You could skate on it. A fisherman casts his line through the blue sheet of air, a light splash when he breaks the glass. He coaxes a fish to the shore. Its skin is a thick sheen of silver and you can taste it. Tastes like salt. These are things that make you want.
What do you want? You want a breeze just light enough for a white sweater. You want to wear the white sweater to one of the sidewalk cafes for dinner. Drink red wine and watch the church spire climb the black sky, chisel the icy crust of stars. You want to read from the Bible you brought because it’s been awhile since you read from the Bible. You want to forget that the brain cancer beat David and forget about the bullet inside your arm.
You want to lose yourself in place.
The next morning. Silver. The chill you wanted the night before is here but you didn’t bring the white sweater. Pack up your things. A pair of shoes for when your new hiking boots fail you. Euros and bug spray. Your Bible, of course your Bible. The pilgrimage, this daylong journey with your class, is a religious walk but you haven’t felt religious in a while.
Sit down to breakfast and drink your coffee from a bowl. A man offers you milk. Say non, merci and feel proud like you always do for taking it black. Ask Sophie, Why do we drink it from a bowl? Nod when she says, Because a bowl is bigger than a mug.
You are not a morning person so your motions feel wooden. Sophie and Mary and the other Sophie look loose and their cheeks are flushed. Wish you had gotten up when they did, before the sun and jogged along the shoreline. Wish you looked loose and wish your cheeks were flushed.
Walk with your class to the top of a lookout point over Moissac. The still white morning, dewy and cool. Watch the mist lace the trees. It wraps you. Katy pulls on her sweater and you think again of the white sweater, the one draped over the chair back home.
Everyone is nervous. A good nervous. They all have their reasons for doing the Camino but you? What are your reasons? It’s You, God. Try it on for size, roll the phrase around your tongue but know it doesn’t fit. You don’t believe it and neither does He.
Stand up as a group, stretch your arms and walk back down the hill.
Stop and look around. Realize you’re paralyzed by the fear of getting lost.
How do you lose yourself in place?
The night is still black in Moissac. You thought you wanted the sidewalk café but you get there and it’s all too much. Too much conversation and too many lights.
You decide that to lose yourself in place you must be in a place that is infinite. Martha Gellhorn says that “no boundaries, no end, is terrifying in the abstract and much worse if you are looking at it.” To lose yourself in place is to confront this fear head on.
You head to the river. This is what you’re aiming for, to melt, to drift, to bleed into the night. So you find a bench by the water, listen to the glass lap against the shore. Lie on the bench, let your feet dangle off the edge and look up. Arch your neck so that your vision is consumed by black sky.
Maybe you’re on the way to losing yourself. Maybe, for a moment, you bleed into the black. But then you see the moon, the faint outline of a cloud. The moon pierces this cloud, tears the cotton with ease. The cloud submits. You wish it would fight.
The moon becomes the bullet and the cloud your skin. That’s what happened, wasn’t it? It tore into your flesh and robbed your muscle and made your body its own. You sat there as it dictated your pain. You didn’t turn around and chase the silver truck and ram into its back and twist it, puncture it the way it twisted and punctured you. You didn’t rip the bullet out of your skin and throw it back at the truck and scream, This is yours, not mine. You didn’t scream at all. You drove home with one hand and let your mother cry for you while you stroked her hair.
You look up at the cloud and hate it.
It’s too deep to take out, would do even more damage. Someday your body will push it out on its own. The moon reemerges. Wonder if that’s what it will look like, if it will drift out like a ghost. Wonder if it is pale silver or slate or black. Maybe you won’t even notice it, maybe it’s already gone.
You have not lost yourself, only made the echoes louder.
Four hours into the walk, you are lost.
Silver morning is now champagne afternoon. Your group steps off the Camino for lunch at the highest point of a field. Straw glistens in the tall sun and red-roofed homes dot the horizon. A row of dollhouses. The six of you study the view.
This is how you get lost in place. You forget to step back onto the Camino. Where are you now? Does anyone have a map? You do but not the right one. You pull out your notebook whose cover is a map of Manhattan. Move your fingers over the white lines, the intersection of 82nd and Central Park West. Go back to the fourth-floor walkup and the tall trees. If you were there you would not be lost. You could lead your group to the C train on 81st and ride to 42nd, figure it out from there. You can figure out anything from 42nd and this, for just a moment, makes you feel safe.
You realize that being lost is not so scary when others, like your professor, are lost too. Professors never get lost and if they do they won’t stay that way because they are professors. People depend on them. It would be impractical to stay lost. Soon she will decide she no longer wants to be lost and then you can just follow.
But it will be a few hours before she decides this. Until then your footsteps carry you down steep hills and up steeper ones and through sunflower fields and along river banks. If you weren’t lost you might call these things beautiful. You might take pictures and take notes and meditate on the hands that made them. But you are lost.
Run away from the river, the cloud, the moon. To lose yourself in place is to acknowledge when you can’t.
You realize a piano concert is starting soon in the chapel, so you run there.
Slide into the mahogany pew. The chapel is small. You look up at the tall windows, see the moon. Tremble and look back down.
The pianist walks up the right side of the aisle. His steps are soft and unassuming. The black piano is expectant and folds when its master takes his seat. He lifts the key cover. There is no sheet music.
A deep breath and the music springs. High notes and low notes and fast notes and slow notes. A train thunders by and he grabs the sound, threads it into the keys. Matches the rolling and the shaking and the warning. You take out your notebook and write storms, sun, rain. Later you won’t understand what this means.
Look up and finally see his hands. This is when you start to bleed.
Silver morning to champagne afternoon to porcelain dusk.
Your professor decides she no longer wants to be lost. The six of you step onto the path again. It’s not the Camino but it is a path, to somewhere, to home. You are no longer lost.
Stop for water and see a familiar signpost. Valence, 4km.
Walk four kilometers and see another. Auvillar. Home. It does not say how far away it is but makes a promise. If you pace down this highway—careful though, on the shoulder, there are trucks—you will find it.
Pace as you are told. And suddenly there it is, the blue bridge. It lifts into view with the intention of a geyser. Did someone paint it when you weren’t looking?
The collective sigh. Lick the sweat as it drips down your lips. Promise each other to jump into the swimming pool when you arrive.
The pianist dips his hands in water.
The keys are a basin and the water gleams gray. The softness of the wrists, the hands, consumes you. They fall, relax into the liquid sound. You remember when you were ten and took the one lesson and left in tears.
Why are you so tense? Wooden, like the morning. Why can’t you relax your hands and feel the keys?
Here and now you feel them. You watch as the notes pool at his fingertips. Watch as the music lifts the chapel into the night. But the wrists, the hands, the fingertips are no longer his; they are outside of him.
He loses himself and takes you with him.
How do you lose yourself in place? You let yourself be carried.
You cross the bridge. The porcelain dusk and first sight of the swimming pool. You look up and see the moon but this time do not tremble. Open the gate, file inside behind the others. Shake off the hiking boots that didn’t fail you. The phantom white sweater and Bible verses you didn’t read.
Your footsteps quicken and lift and here you are, you’re running. The ripples dance and there it is and what took you so long?
One, two, three.
Take flight and fall into the glass. Feel it shatter and deep breath and now you’re under. Seal yourself in the liquid blue. Let it wrap you. Time slows into stillness and your body bleeds into the night. Rise back to the surface. Gasp.
The water carries you and you float.
Illustration by Claire Goldsmith for The Yale Herald