I have resolved. This time, this now, will be about sunlight. I will drink the warm glow of autumn like a hot and buttery soup.
Running in the morning along the island coastline at dawn, the sound of waves (waves! Liquid, crashing, rolling, exploding up into the air in cascades of shimmering droplets), the faint rustle of the breeze in the foliage. Everything drenched in sunrise. Heart, pounding; air, crisp and cool; landscape, dying a fragrant and luxuriant death, donning its last vermillion finery only to find it fracturing and spinning away into the morning air. I feel the soft breaths of spiderwebs breaking against my skin. I feel my own heat building beneath my jacket, too warm. I feel my pupils trying, trying to shrink further down in the brilliant sun, but I don’t look away. This land is on fire in the last victorious cries of autumn, but in the early morning I smell frost in the air.
He told me on the phone. Live in the sun. This is your last chance. The surface of the lake glitters and undulates in great circular reflections and refractions, and I make a photograph of my own shadow in the dancing light-patterns of a real and temperate forest.
Sometimes I would marvel at how small I am. Alone in bed at night – cold at first, always – I would run my hands over my body, a sort of fatigued embrace after a long and tiring day. I could feel my ribs through the thin skin of my back, the concave ridges of my hipbones, a body warm and worn and tired. “Soon, you’ll be as thin as me,” he once remarked as we lay side by side, consolidating our warmth. I would pull my knees to my chest. More so now than before. It must have been all the time at sea, all the time in transit.
That little warmth, that flame carried inside, flickers in the cold. In the Arctic summer – aboard the Sea Explorer- I would stand with Val and the other women at the marina deck, waiting for a zodiac to come pull us away, into the waves. Bundled, nearly to the point of ballast, we trundled around like clumsy flightless birds, itching for the agility of the sea. Under our layers of packaging, through the eye-slits between our hats and our scarves, we would look each other in the eye, shimmy a little, and smile, feeling the bulk of our float coats sliding like a shell over the bones in our backs, wrapped in layer after layer of wool.
“I’m little! I’m so little, somewhere under here!” Val would exclaim softly, giggling with delight, as if sharing a treasured secret. And then we’d be off in our own boats, tillers at our backs like parts of our bodies, skirting around on the surface of the ocean. Alone, facing that horizon, you would trust deeply in those clothes, insulating that little flame keeping you alive. And when the chill seeped in anyway, spiraling into crevices on wild winds and surging rollers, I would always turn to my memories. Rigid and tensed, I would pull the blanket of a warm summer around me, and wait it out. Later in the shower I couldn’t stop myself from crying out, in the privacy of my own bathroom, as my skin, my bones were shocked back to life.
Little women, we were. Out there in the Arctic seas with boats and bear rifles. As humbling as the landscape weighs upon you, it also firmly places you as the competent navigator of your own life. Things fall into perspective, out there, and that sense of smallness lingers in your thoughts. Now – months later, warm on a couch in fall sunshine, I sometimes think, I cannot possibly be this body; am I not only the ephemeral sum of a life’s experiences? For all the dreams, all the momentum and things I have seen, my own reflection in the mirror catches me off-guard. I think, then, that I must be only a listener, a participant in some revolving current of energy. And I – as you will know if you have spent hours floating alone in a sea that freezes over at night – am just a spectator in it all the earth’s grandeur, nothing more. Perhaps, at times, a vessel.
Outside the sun is at high noon, and eight days remain until my long-awaited journey begins. I have purchased fourteen boxes of film, and I am reading Roland Barthes.
“For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches – and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.”
I watch the time pass.