Still Life with Chair
A funny thing about a chair:
You hardly ever think it’s there.
Lately, I’ve been going batty at the thought of stillness. Even sitting by a window feels like being in asylum. The world outside, cycling through its seasons, is complicit in our human associations. When it rains or snows, we remember: birthdays, anniversaries, memorials. When the leaves change and fall, we recollect: an early lesson in death, the night I first believed in love. It is harder, perhaps, to ground our perceptions in the consistency of common things: a bed, a desk, a chair.
I stood among the boys, who had clustered in a huddle of Oxfords and low-slung jeans, in a second-story room at a campus house party. Each with a whiskey glass and a streaming cigarette, they stood in staged rapture. Ben had waved me into the room as I passed in search of a free bathroom. “Come,” he said. “We could use a feminine eye.” So I joined them, gazing at a painting on the wall.
The canvas hung askew. Thickly coated in acrylic, the painting bore the abstract depiction of a chair, singular and empty, in a room of three distorted walls. I didn’t recognize the painting, nor did I particularly care for it, but I appreciated the expressionist approach. The brush strokes echoed de Kooning; the bold primary colors resembled Newman or Mondrian—rich yellows, reds, an underpainting of blue. And it reminded me of the city I had recently abandoned for the Colorado mountains.
“The question is,” Ben began, gripping his drink, “what is the nature of a chair?” He glanced at me from beneath the rim of his newsboy hat and scratched at the thin beard skirting his chin.
I’ve been trying to find order in the disorder of memory. I wonder what it means that I can’t recall all of their names. Or have I tried to forget them? Most days their faces blend in a half-rendered backdrop, except for two ingrained and juxtaposed in the foreground of one night. The night we lost Ben; the night I found Joe. Sitting here, I can feel the seat of my chair hard beneath my body. The legs creak like dry branches or a slab of driftwood in the wind. I am alone with just an image becoming more and more singular, begging to be objectified like the myriad common things praised by Neruda’s odes—one chair, alone in the jungle.
Chair: a seat, with support for the back, designed to accommodate one person. The word originates from the Greek cathedra, a compound of kata (“down”) and hedra (“seat”).
Early evidence of chairs dates to 2680 BC in ancient Egypt, where cave paintings, carvings, and hieroglyphics depicted seated figures. Across the Euphrates, stone funerary carvings on monuments revealed the existence of chairs in Mesopotamia. The most famous ancient chair was in fact a throne (from Indo-European origin meaning “to hold or support”). Tutankhamen’s throne (circa 1333–1323 BC), built of wood and encased in gold, was excavated from the pharaoh’s tomb in 1923.
“Consider,” Ben continued. “Did someone just get up, or is someone about to sit down?” His grin widened. A friend of mine in the sophomore class, someone I knew from back home, had insisted I attend the party that night; there were people to meet. Ben was one of them. Hiphop beats and flirtatious laughter rose from downstairs as the boys carried on their charade, assuming theatrical gestures and affected accents of bohemian art junkies.
One noted the use of color while inhaling a cigarette. Another—long, lanky—leaned in until his nose nearly touched the canvas. Foreground brush strokes filled the surface with the color of saffron and cornmeal. Red sliced through the frame like rouge to form the angles of a chair, and a pool of blue added depth to the composition. Even now I’m not sure why the painting inspired such parody. But the image has ingrained itself in my card catalog of visual history—one I can’t help but pull from, looking for reference while sitting by a window.
In 1888, Vincent van Gogh painted two of his well-known works while in the company of Paul Gauguin at Arles. Vincent’s Chair, housed in London’s National Gallery, vibrates with van Gogh’s signature golds and blues and depicts a simple straw chair positioned on a wood slab floor. A crumpled handkerchief with tobacco and the artist’s pipe rests in the seat. Conversely, Gauguin’s Armchair, exhibited in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, is darkly ornate—a “somber reddish-brown wood,” as van Gogh described it in a letter to critic G. Albert Aurer, “the seat of greenish straw,” with a lighted torch and two strewn novels.
Plato’s Theory of Forms uses the example of a chair to suggest that a material object is merely an imitation of its ideal form. The ideal form, in turn, constitutes the object’s true reality. The essence of a chair is its “chairness.”
Maybe it was a riddle after all. “A trick question,” Ben said, his mouth curling at the taste of whiskey. I couldn’t help but indulge him. “So, what is the nature of a chair?” He linked his arm in mine. “Wouldn’t you agree that both are true? Someone stands, someone else sits down. Someone comes, someone goes.” His voice carried the scent of bourbon; its cadence seesawed between playful and profound. The other boy, distracted by his own amusement, rubbed his eyeglasses against his shirt and placed them back on the bridge of his nose, to offer: “like a glass half empty or half full.” I felt the wine I nursed in slow sips begin to flush and color my cheeks, and I chose not to prolong the discussion by noting that the perspective of a chair and the nature of a chair are, in fact, two different things. By then it hardly mattered. The boys broke character and began roughhousing over a bummed cigarette. The sight of them morphed into a tangle of limbs and choke holds.
The American painter Andrew Wyeth all but immortalized the Windsor writing chair when he placed the lone object in the center of a composition. Realistically rendered against the dark beige walls of a Pennsylvania bedroom, Wyeth’s Writing Chair, painted in 1961, is empty except for a dark captain’s jacket draped over one arm.
In Latin, the phrase ex cathedra, meaning “from the chair,” was once commonly applied to the Pope’s declarations on faith or morals as contained in divine revelation or, at least, intimately connected to something greater.
Why do we remember certain details? What is it about them that holds us? Before the window I assume the restive pace of a captive. Sitting again in this simple chair, imagining it otherwise—a throne of unkempt velvet . . . the plush of an overstuffed chair—perhaps I’ll find the calm sensibility and decorum of a lady. Either way, I will stay here long enough to call upon the archival instinct to reconstruct and conserve the mundane pieces of a moment: The way I wrapped a cardigan close around my chest as I waited outside the house that night. How earlier that day the campus grounds flaunted a palette of autumn where rusty hues mingled with blond cottonwoods and golden beeches. Or the fact that just before I saw Joe coming toward me, as I gripped the porch railing, trying to seem at ease, I noticed the toe of my tennis shoe dotted with a fresh stain of red wine.
I’d first seen Joe on his bicycle weeks before while sitting one morning by the library. With one hand on his handlebars and a book clamped under his arm, he pedaled effortlessly. And because attraction really does defy dimension and morph everything it knows, as he passed, his cool glance spanned the length of the quad. And then, like every morning since, his eyes (brown, docile, animal) reached across the lawn to mine (green, dewy, smitten). So when he stood beside me with his hands in his pockets, toeing at a stone in the grass, it seemed an inevitable moment. We fumbled through introductions. I tried not to blush when I noticed the gap between his front teeth. My arms clasped my body in a straightjacket hold because it felt impossible to stand still. He asked if I was cold. Even now I remember the ache in the back of my legs and wonder how odd it is that we say “weak” in the knees, when it’s so clearly the strength of the pulse running through the body.
In One and Three Chairs, 1965, Joseph Kosuth places a chair against a wall. To its left hangs a life-size photograph of that same chair. To its right, an enlarged photostat of the definition of the word chair. The installation, on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, asks viewers to consider how these three representations communicate the common fact of the object. We see a chair. We see the visual image of a chair. We see the etymological definition of a chair. How do they differ? Which representation constitutes the true nature of the form? Which has more chairness?
On Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau furnished his ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin with a bed, a table, a writing desk, and three chairs: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
Given the chance, the more sober minded would probably have known better, or foreseen the danger that night. But autumn was around us, fallen in leaves of gold, and in its death we were alive and young in that back-to-school-special sort of way, all promise and adventure. When Ben reappeared bounding from the house, he slung an arm around Joe and, glancing between the two of us, seemed to slow down for a moment—to come back to earth again, just long enough to say, “So you found him.”
The two of them jabbed elbows and laughed like schoolboys before Ben spun away singing a scat-style tune, waving and yelling alongside another guy that they’d meet us at the dorm. Their bodies held in shadow against the campus lights, the brim of Ben’s newsboy hat outlined in a sharp yellow glow.
Years ago, riding the subway in Manhattan, I watched a man offer his seat to an elderly woman. She nodded politely. Once seated, she turned to recognize that the woman next to her was a childhood friend. The two women reunited, tearing up with disbelief. Then the woman stopped short and looked around. “Where’s that sweet young man?” she kept saying. “Where’d he run off to?” I looked too, but he was gone.
Details are as relentless as they are invaluable. Memory is maddening. I want to stand and spin my chair like a prop in a musical. Sitting backward now, my thighs stretch wide to straddle the seat, my chest hugs the carved wooden rods of the straight back. Its curves and mine embrace, just for an instant. Then I am up again, swinging one leg over the side like Liza Minelli in Cabaret, because I cannot bear to sit still.
Later that night, as Joe and I walked east, away from the mountains, he explained the tradition of exploring the catacombs of campus—a grid of utility tunnels nestled below school grounds. I asked if it was dangerous. We bit our lips and laughed, and his laughter, somehow familiar, warmed the air around my cheeks. We continued across campus to meet the others, beneath the soaring contour of Pikes Peak stenciled against the indigo sky, above the underworld carved in the earth below, amid the dry leaves still whispering at our feet. In a way, I think part of us is buried in those whispers, the risk, the romance, the way we relished uncertainty and believed it could never harm us.
Presenting the chair as portrait, van Gogh may have intended his two paintings to evoke the artists’ contrasting temperaments. In art books or on the occasion they are exhibited together, Vincent’s Chair and Gauguin’s Armchair often appear side by side, facing away from each other, as if to suggest a volatile relationship between the two men. But much depends on how you look at it. Facing one another, the paintings may speak to a mutual, although grudging respect.
In the fifth grade, a boy in my class kept rocking back and forth in his chair. After berating him repeatedly, our teacher dragged him to his feet. “If you can’t sit still, then you’ll have to stand,” she said, determined to make an example of him. He stood, fidgety and shamed. I looked across the room and exchanged a conspiring glance with my friends. And as if by instinct—some act of fair-dealing bravado—we stood, wailing: “If he has to stand, then we won’t sit.” In minutes our loyal classmates followed suit. The scrape of wooden chairs on linoleum echoed through the room. In our small-scale triumph, it seemed as if the world had opened before us.
When we reached the dorm, it was nearly midnight. People filtered in and out of the confines of someone’s dorm room. I sat on the edge of a crowded couch and watched a couple dancing nearby: the boy’s rutted brow, the girl’s puckered lips, hips swaying in abstract circles, arms slicing through the air. I caught Joe’s stare across the room. The crowd around us began to thin, and I could see a faint movement in his shoulders. My hands grew clammy; my cheeks reddened as if I had stumbled upon the throne of lust and longing and was given a moment to sit—in a chair that embraces everything, the sound ground and supreme dignity of repose—before time continued, and I smiled. I remember the precise moment I smiled, too, as if it marked the moment of my concession, the surge of instinct when something inside me decided I would like this one above the rest.
In the second grade, I suffered a crush on a boy from my class who, one day, pulled a chair out from under me just as I bent to sit down. My bony ass, and then my hard stubborn head, slammed against the floor. The room erupted in laughter. I nursed bruises for weeks. The next day he told me that I had pretty hair, and then he said, “Sometimes it hurts when we like things so much.”
Now I am standing again. Nose to windowpane, breath whiting out the leaves outside, I’m thinking about how easily things grow hazy and obscured. Death carries its own dimension. Shock inevitably fogs the view. If I stood on this chair, circling the seat on tiptoes, and tried to peer into meaning or tried to unearth the epicenter of narrative, I would find little but a balancing act, wobbly legs and all.
I still wonder how we knew where to look that night, how we determined that something was wrong. I remember a shift in the nearby voices, which dislodged me from my reverie in the possibility of Joe, to recognize that most everyone had been ushered out of the room until just a few of us remained. Someone was pacing, saying, “They should have been here by now. It’s been hours.” We stood clustered in the center of the room silently, drunkenly, courting worst-case scenarios, until someone broke trance and volunteered to stay behind, “in case they show,” while the rest of us pivoted toward the door.
Beginning in 1963, Andy Warhol revealed his darkest work to date with a series of screen prints called Electric Chairs. This series, housed in several museums including the Tate and the Walker Art Center, is part of his larger Death and Disaster period and offers a then rare glimpse into an execution chamber. In one purple-tinged print and another bathed in red, the word Silence appears in the top right corner of the room. The image evokes those that have sat there before and those who may follow. Yet it is neither condemnation nor celebration. Warhol, who often refused to discuss his work beyond elusive statements such as “There’s nothing behind it” or “I like boring things,” simply provides a representation. Interpretation lies at the mercy of the viewer.
It is difficult to find in language a worthy match for the euphoria of being young and high and falling in love. So much depends on the quickening pace of everything: breath, the air, everything propelling forward so there is little choice but to follow in oblivion. I remember how fast our feet moved as we looked for our friend that night. I could hear one boy’s breath heaving as, two paces ahead, he led us across the lawn and through the vacant parking lot that lay bathed in the vermilion glow of the campus security posts. Another boy trailed after him, trying to reason while keeping stride—“They must have lost track of time. What could have possibly gone wrong?” We continued, an anonymous crew of boys and girls parading toward a darkness we sensed but didn’t know. I heard Joe’s footsteps behind me. As we hurried, he took my hand and linked his arm in mine. I can still recall how his forearm pulsed against my own—so much life surging beneath our skin—and the sick happiness I felt amid the strangeness of running as we did toward red flashes wavering across campus.
As our breath shortened, the air felt peculiar. I could hear our feet heavy on the ground, the wind whistling around us. As we neared the library, the crimson lights of an ambulance churned through the dark like a flaming carousel but quiet—no doors slamming shut, no engine idling at the ready to rush toward help—just stillness. Red light. Silence.
Odd to think that a chair, an invention of such simplicity, is an artifact that we have come to take for granted. We see and touch chairs not with our eyes and hands alone but with our entire bodies. When we are tired, we sit. When we dine, we sit. When we read, when we write, when we confess our sins and ask forgiveness. The simple presence of a chair, like the unbridled promise of life when we are young, is a common assumption: we trust that the structure will hold us. But what if a chair is pulled aside, what if it breaks suddenly beneath you?
As I picked myself up, the sound of my chair against the floor must have startled the starlings outside. Back in my seat, I am trying to remain here, one leg curled beneath me like a girl, so I’m not so tempted to tip forward again to catch a better view. The breath on the windowpane has cleared and the details glow anew. I can see the lines of the leaves again, the composition of the branches, just before the sky turns—Bring me a chair in the midst of thunder.
Death by electrocution can be, but is not always, instantaneous. When Ben removed a manhole cover just north of the library and descended, not into the tunnels as intended, but into an unmarked electrical vault, did he know he had stepped into an accident? His feet were firmly grounded when his hand touched a live wire, and I wonder if he felt the eight-thousand-volt current through his body. Did he think of his parents, his first love, of sex or lightbulbs, of leaves and lightning, of the Rosenbergs, of Warhol? Or was there nothing at all but for the surge and the Silence?
Even the most common artifacts support multiple representations. Each of Thoreau’s three chairs served a different purpose. Warhol’s chair mainly served one. Kosuth’s three chairs, seemingly different, are one and the same; they question the notion of representation itself. According to Roethke, “to know a Chair is really it, you sometimes have to go and sit.” Ben’s definition of the chair in the painting that night was aptly ephemeral, embodying a transient duality of arrival and departure, past and future. Someone comes, someone goes. Death, yet life.
Am I trying with this recollection to compose a scene or paint a picture? One seems dependent on movement, the other on stillness. The racing adrenaline of tragic accident. The numbness of loss. The view from a window arouses and fragments the narrative of memory into images that resurface like a dream: The morning after, the sky carried the faint residue of siren light. Joe lay beside me, his breath steaming and cooling the back of my neck. I inhaled the smell of his hands: the balmy trace of soap and cigarettes, the steely salt he had wiped from my eyes. I felt for the small beating just inside his wrist—here, still.
During the Eighth International Istanbul Biennial in 2003, Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo filled a gap between two buildings in the city’s ironmonger district with sixteen hundred wooden chairs. Communicating both chaos and absence, what surreal moment might one discover—what twist of fate to stumble across a once-familiar alley filled with a four-story mass grave of chairs? How do they balance, caught in a still cascade? How do we make sense of such incongruous logic?
Sometimes I think the world is a crowded waiting room that we fill, sitting and standing, pacing and leaning, waiting for our name to be called, afraid of the crisp white coats and of the cool touch of a stethoscope against our skin, which will tell us just how alive we really are.
In just two days we would attempt to celebrate Joe’s birthday, and a week later, my own. When the arrangements were complete for a memorial on campus, we would plant a tree in Ben’s memory because that is what people often do. Each year the tree’s leaves change from pale to deep green to yellow and gold, and when the light shifts, as it shifts now, the saw-toothed leaves shimmy on their branches like gilded chandeliers, before dropping to the ground to spin beneath the feet of lovers and dreamers and freshmen and seniors, just trying to learn something, to outlive the years we all deserve.
And what if I were in some ballroom lit with gold chandeliers—or for that matter, an old gymnasium full of streamers and strobe lights, and walls lined with bleachers and color-schemed balloons—waiting for a boy to sweep me onto the floor? Forget about the electric chair, all that energy surging through a body, and raise a chair to dance the hora, or swing one overhead, tap its narrow legs against the concrete courts like the step dancers back home practicing for the homecoming show. Or a wrestler, flailing a chair into the ring, challenging the world to a brawl.
Hans Hofmann, an abstract expressionist painter, once said that “the whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color.” That night Ben and I and the other boys had talked about the abstract image of a chair, analyzing the brush strokes, mocking the philosophical nature of it all. I woke the next morning to an aching realization. I wished I could have shared then what I know now—that the nature of a chair exists in how we view it. And that if I had three chairs I would paint them the three primary colors from which all others can be formed: red for death, yellow for life, blue for love. I would have told Ben this before he dashed off through the fallen leaves, leaving the rest of us strolling in a bath of moonlight.
Maybe I don’t have to assume the lens of a patient or prisoner, but there is a certain confinement to sitting by a window, a sense of internment reserved for the elderly, the housebound, or melodramatic children pining away for snow, something laced with longing, even a little boredom—just a chair by the window: straight back, timber legs, and the body. How could I not move restlessly, spinning and squatting like a burlesque dancer contorting over a chair? Its inanimate thing-ness, its quotidian inertia, instills an endless signaling to the brain—a single chair is the first sign of peace: remember, believe, grow unabashedly nostalgic, see in color, feel in motion, dance a little more.
Language has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.
In March 2005, I stood among a crowd in La Plaza Nueva, twenty- two, far from home, wondering where girlhood had gone and thinking how, if language were a party, a dinner table set for four or five with cocktails and caviar—we would have crashed its intentions long ago, invited ourselves and our closest friends to attend, knocking down flutes of champagne as we brushed through the door, and would have woken the next morning not remembering a thing. Because there is nothing more decadent or sacred, nothing more delicate or savage than to scrounge for meaning in our varied lexicon—the dialects we are born with, and those we never know.
At noon, the Seville center fell silent as people bowed their heads to honor the dead. Diego stood beside me. His hands shuffled in his pockets and through his hair. March 11 marked the anniversary of the Madrid train bombings nearly six hundred kilometers north of Seville, when a cacophony of explosions erupted on commuter trains during a Thursday morning rush hour. Nearly two hundred dead, hundreds more wounded.
As the sun rose above the plaza, roosters echoed from obscured posts on rooftop patios—the high-risen backyards of children, adorned with sun chairs and clotheslines—now otherwise quiet. A woman with creased skin and wounded eyes, carrying sagebrush, handed me two candles. I passed one to Diego to steady his hands. The smell of beeswax reminded me of home, of making candles with my mother as a girl. The woman whispered in Spanish. “It’s been a year,” she said. “But it seems like only yesterday.” She smelled of fresh bread and garlic, as she lit my candle’s virgin wick with her own, turned, and lowered her head in prayer.
I listened as the movement of her lips suggested sorrow—wishing I could hear the words she recited. Thinking how every time I hear the soft whisper or thick groan of an accent I want to find its roots. I want to trace the years of its migration, to follow the sound like a strand of Ariadne’s yarn leading through the labyrinth to a center where words, still damp with amniotic dew, first inhabited breath.
A week earlier, I had sat waiting for Diego in the café across from the community center where he taught English—the same center where I had studied Spanish during the first week of my stay. The crowd shifted, shouting orders of coffee and bocadillos. The shop owner paced behind the bar setting saucers, clearing teaspoons like a one-man xylophone act, china clinking against the marble countertop. Smoke rose and hovered in a faint haze above the bar. A couple nuzzled in a corner by the window. The man paused his banter to nibble at the woman’s ear as she exhaled laughter with the smoke of her cigarette.
I had been in Spain nearly three weeks, having temporarily deserted college and left behind the boy I loved. This, according to my mother, meant “my feet were cold,” but really I just needed space. Back in the States, though I had moved to Colorado and hadn’t been home to New York City in months, I knew nine-to-fivers still artfully avoided the lower Manhattan canyon where the Twin Towers once stood, which now has been filled in and stretches back toward the sky, but at the time felt fossilized like a chipped tooth or a chicken pox scar, which many of us have but all remember differently.
In Seville, my terraced flat lay among the clay-shingled rooftops of the Barrio de Santa Cruz. Once the city’s Jewish quarter after the thirteenth-century Christian conquests, Santa Cruz is a tangle of narrow alleys, cobblestoned squares, and ancient gardens. Galleries, guesthouses, and chic cafés are mere notions of modernity against the cerulean-tiled mosques, ornate cathedrals, and frescoed palaces—each bearing testimony to its own chapter in a once-harmonious religious past.
They say that as long as Seville has straddled the Guadalquivir River, the orange trees have held their juice. Like for most cities, its history is embedded in the skeletal framework of modern civilization—from which we extract language like marrow from bone, to make meaning, to build towers and cathedrals and palaces of memory.
I envy the way buildings, like certain bodies, bear distinct marks of their architectural identity. Unlike the in-between ambiguity that colors my skin, my hair, my voice: a little Manhattan where I was born, a little “outer borough” where I was raised, the slow laze I picked up when I was in love in the Pacific Northwest, the subtle brogue I stumbled upon in Ireland, the way I learned to use my tongue in Spain. Is the anonymity of speech an extraction of cultural identity? Is this my grandfather’s concept of “cosmopolitan” elegance? He, the man who fled a suburban middle-class life to run with the horses and study reservations out west, the man who took years to accept the way my parents’ marriage blended the border between black and white, the way they brought two children into the world, the way they named them.
At the end of the counter, two men in polished suits stood over a splayed newspaper, gesturing with twin cigars, their voices mere rumblings in the crowd. I glanced at my watch. Time in Spain is a loose abstraction. Still, Diego was usually punctual.
He was only a boy when Franco died. But Spanish history, every date and detail, ran through Diego like a bloodline. His father, who had recently passed, had left testament to Spain’s civil war and the years of state repression that followed. To Diego he had bequeathed his stories—of book burnings and disappearances, of mass graves throughout the country. “Es muy complicado,” Diego would say, pausing as he explained the “pact of silence” that had enveloped the country in an erasure of collective memory.
Finally, I saw him. He removed his thick-rimmed glasses as he entered the café and made his way toward me. I could see his odd expression, his crumpled brow.
“What is it?” I asked. “Un café?” I turned to my cup, pinching at the porcelain handle.
“Someone asked for you at the center,” Diego said, leaning in close. “La policía.”
The coffee singed my tongue. “The police?” I thought for a moment. “What could they possibly want with me?”
“I don’t know,” Diego shrugged. “They asked for you, by name. They wouldn’t tell me anything more.”
In my head, I inventoried the past few days for clues to what I might have done wrong. An assumed reflex, a defense I picked up growing up in the city, staying out too late in high school, trying to cover any number of offences—getting my story straight for my parents, my teachers. Which is not to say I was in any trouble with the law, but that as a young person testing out the extremes of the body, alive in the world, it’s easy to lose track of even the minor misbehaviors.
Diego paid my bill. I slid off my chair, neglecting my bag, which tumbled awkwardly from my lap into Diego’s hands. He placed it carefully on my shoulder.
“What do you think this is about?” I asked again.
Diego threw up his hands, “I don’t know. Vamos . . .”
If this were the night of a party—that allegorical party I mentioned earlier—this would be the anticipatory walk to the door, wondering what the evening would bring, if I would be welcomed inside, offered a drink, wondering if I had worn the right shoes, or what beautiful stranger might be mingling nearby, ready to catch eyes across a room.
Inside the community center, a broad-shouldered officer stood waiting, a manila folder clamped under his arm. His uniform was crisp, his hair silver as he tipped his cap. He spoke slowly, long enough to establish that my Spanish was fully conversational; then he seemed to relax. Still, when he extended the courtesy of a third person in the room, another native speaker, “to be sure I understood,” I accepted.
“Not you,” the officer raised a hand to Diego, who stopped short. I wondered what he assumed about our relationship, if we had somehow insinuated conspiracy.
Diego was, indisputably, handsome. He resembled Goya’s portrait of matador Pedro Romano. His dark hair fell in waves down to his cheekbones. His stoic expression broke eventfully when he laughed. In a short time we had forged an alliance of scholarly pursuit and an uninhibited love of dancing, awkward as we were.
But we each had our own preoccupations. Diego had lost his fiancée in a car accident just a year earlier. A detail he revealed to me one night, drunk from sherry, as we circled the Giralda Cathedral until dawn. He never mentioned it again. I offered little of my own crisis of commitment, as the boy I loved waited back in the States, and I half-wondered if he would still be there when I got home.
I remember telling Diego—perhaps that same night with the sherry and the cathedral—that one of the first words I learned in Spanish was the verb amar: to love. I may have tried to make meaning from this, see it as some preconceived lesson plan on the human condition, but it was little more than a loosely alphabetized eighth-grade vocabulary list. I remember, even now, how the word amar came just before amenazar, to threaten, and just after alzar, to lift, revolt, or rise above. On top of that, I was in the habit of watching Spanish soap operas late at night on Univisión, which is one a handful of channels we got growing up—and one of the few habits I have kept to this day. There is no greater indulgence in love and threats and convoluted plot lines than the telenovela.
Facing the officer’s hand, Diego lost confidence. His expression dissolved into a childish pout. My palms grew clammy, my breath unsteady.
“Rosa?” I said to Diego.
Rosa, a plump administrative matriarch, oversaw the community center with a nose in everything within a two-mile radius of La Plaza Nueva. I had befriended her instantly when I arrived in Seville, and she’d helped me find a cheap rental in a nearby flat. She often questioned why I traveled alone and, at such a “ripe” age, was not married—and regularly consulted God on such matters as if he were present in the room. This was a small price for telephone access and a steady tap into the local gossip—which shop owners were the biggest “swingers,” who met whom by the cathedral courtyard after hours—all unlikely dramatized scenarios adorned by Rosa’s gift for gab.
“Miss, please . . .” the officer extended a long heavy arm toward me while issuing a side-glance at Diego, who ran off to fetch Rosa. I felt the puzzled gaze of a few bystanders as the officer led me down the hall into a classroom. The open windows had left a chill in the room. I felt distinctly foreign, alone—the pulse in my chest soothed only by the balmy smell of orange trees and pipe tobacco wafting from the courtyard.
“You know, from the sound of your name, I expected, well . . . un hombre, no?” he said pulling out a chair and motioning me to sit. “But no.” He glanced down at me and his face softened as he spoke my name again, slowly. The sound clung to his throat then rolled easily off his tongue.
“Jericho. This is the name of a city, no?” he asked. “In Israel,” he said before I could muster a response. “Are you Jewish?”
I shook my head.
“What is your religion?”
I offered am ambivalent shrug, hoping to dodge further questioning about religious affiliation or the origin of my name, which was an inevitable conversation starter. But my bohemian parents’ 1970s art school romance, when they took to Eastern and Western religious texts to find “far out” references for their paintings, and later their children, didn’t strike me as a story that would translate. Or maybe it would.
“Your parents then—they were the hippies?” the officer asked, his eyebrows cocked, a smirk dabbed the corners of his mouth.
I might have wondered how he deduced this so quickly, but it wasn’t the first time since arriving in Spain that I had heard reference to the hippies with an off-centered trace of intrigue, even reverence, as if they were some iconic rock ’n’ roll band. This, I speculated, had something to do with the kindred parallel between the American counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s and the explosive cultural freedom that marked the dawn of Spain’s post-Franco era. I estimated the officer to be more or less of this generation. And I’m not sure why, but something about that gave me hope, as if we might get along better, as if—whatever this revealed itself to be—we might get through it somehow, together.
I was named after a city with improbably high walls, which, like most great walls, like the strongest borders, the tallest towers and richest empires, fell at the will of a people. Joshua led the Israelites to the city, and all they had to do was circle its boundaries and shout, their united cry bringing down the barriers. Maybe that is a lesson more in voice than in language, but I’ve come to think of these things as close cousins in the battles of survival, the one enabling the other, the other giving meaning to the one.
“Excuse me, sir, what is this about?” I asked, unsure from where I had mustered the bravado to question him for an explanation—and yet, this couldn’t possibly be about my name. My voice quivered through the words.
“I did wonder,” he went on, ignoring my question. “The handwriting was so elegant.”
“Sir . . .” I shifted in my chair. Though I had paused for an instant to consider my penmanship—years of obsessive-compulsive practice since we learned cursive writing in the third grade, copying word after word in my notebooks, rewriting sentences, entire paragraphs, until they looked just right—I tried to stay focused. I resented the distraction, the officer’s finesse. I realize, now, that he was likely biding time until Rosa arrived. Rosa: my witness—which is to say onlooker, or observer, someone who sees.
Finally she materialized breathless at the door. Her dust-colored hair billowed at her neck, having slunk out of the tortoiseshell comb that secured the coil perched atop her head. She huffed over to a seat next to mine, lowered herself, and tapped my knee. Smoothing the creases of her apron dress, she settled with her hands folded in her lap.
The officer began. “Are you familiar with this?” He placed a small notebook in the center of the table. I recognized it instantly—the spiral binding and faded blue cover—as my own. I hadn’t realized it was gone, but was relieved to see that everything seemed more or less in order—various loose-leaf notes remained neatly folded, tucked into the pages among postcards I had yet to send home, a pressed stem of sage an elderly woman had given me after foretelling my future. I saw the edge of an old photograph I kept nestled in the back cover, the boy from back home and me stopped on the side of a road somewhere in Montana, smiling into the camera during the summer we drove from Seattle to New York.
“This was recently found at El Corte Inglés,” the officer said.
The previous day’s grocery shopping appeared like a slide show: the woman at the checkout line fidgeting with her brightly flowered head scarf, eyeing me as I calculated enough Euros to pay and finagled an armful of groceries; the couple behind me briskly pawing, like all couples in Spain who seemed just minutes away from making love; my notebook left forgotten on the counter.
I fielded the officer’s questions. Where was I born? Why was I in Spain? Are you aware of the terrorist factions that operate in this country?
My body stiffened around the pounding—as if miles of steel and concrete were falling—in the center of my chest.
“You have extensive notes here,” he said and flipped to an earmarked page where annotations from my immersion class appeared in ballpoint ink.
Suddenly I understood.
He read aloud. It was from the day we discussed “las noticias”—bombings in the capital, September 11, el 11 de marzo, the Leganés Siege, the plots and politics of ETA, names, dates, landmarks. This, I remember, gave me some relief—just class notes, after all—easy to explain. But then the sound of the words, first in English and then the Spanish translations, contorted and sliced through the air as the officer glanced from my eyes down to the page: los bombardeos, los secuestros, atentado terrorista, atentado suicida, la guerra santa.
All at once, the room was buzzing with the sound of the words, which filled the space like careless teenagers, gossiping socialites, reveling and extravagant boozers, none of whom belonged.
The officer paused his recitation and asked if I had anything to say.
But where to begin? One could certainly explain the contents of my notebook—terms and expressions that had against my will taken on the essence of brutality. Read aloud, what I had hoped was accurate reportage played back as violent vocabulary, a recipe, a blueprint, a wish list. It was all wrong.
“You must understand,” the officer began again, placing his hands flat on the table as if to steady himself. “In these times we must take precautions against any and all potential threats.”
I wanted to tell him that I understood—I understood Spain’s long-standing history of violence. This is what I had come to learn about, what Diego had taught me—about the past thirty years, about the various manifestations of the Basque militant ETA, of the assassinations in the 1980s, and yes, of the March 11 bombings in Madrid that added yet another point of conflict to a country long unable to agree on much of its history. “It’s all very complicated.” This, I understood. But the words knotted and collapsed in my throat. My stammers piled up like debris between us.
“Señor,” Rosa began. “There must be some misunderstanding—”
I sat numb, except to Rosa’s glare, and then composed myself enough to chime over her and assure the officer that my notebook was not a blueprint for terrorism but simply a journal. I was in his country as little more than a rogue romantic, a journalism student gone AWOL. I had nothing but admiration for Spain. I thought I might live there one day.
A burning blush filled my cheeks and I knew my frustration had by now settled into a stubborn contortion of features, the same sulking grimace I bore as a girl when I knew I was misunderstood, when I couldn’t conjure the right words.
“Please, speak candidly,” he said, perhaps, sensing my unease.
Maybe it was the professorial tone in his voice—the refined dinner host controlling his table, making his guests comfortable despite their awkward party fouls and blunders—that I registered as an opening. My nervousness dismantled into indignation. I found myself, without forethought or restraint, embarking on a minor rant, debunking the flawed politics of the “war on terror.” How remembering my father stuck in the subway tunnels beneath Wall Street while others jumped from buildings above, through the pink dust, through the scent that would linger in the air, still didn’t explain why our neighbor who owned Mike’s Candy Store on the corner disappeared, was detained for months because his real name was Mohammed, because his wife wore a veil. Which led me more or less to the present absurdity regarding my notebook, which was by then an obvious mistake and an unfortunate waste of the officer’s time.
“It’s ridiculous—I mean, don’t you think it’s ridiculous?” I felt a pinch on my thigh and Rosa’s eyes again.
“Ay, Dios . . . Señor, she doesn’t know what she says,” Rosa pleaded.
The officer raised a hand. Rosa slumped into silence, biting her lip.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
And I was sorry. It had been a spotty monologue at best, and he was not the appropriate audience. He seemed a kind man and, I suspected, a fine officer—no more deserving of misdirected anxieties than I claimed to be. I felt the sting of my own hypocrisy. Worse yet, I could only imagine the officer’s disappointment that he had spent the afternoon in pursuit not of a threat to national security but merely another heart-bleeding, entitled American.
But again, I couldn’t find the words. The truth was that I didn’t know how to describe my admiration, or what I perceived as the humbling effects of Spain. I didn’t know how to explain the asymmetry between the popular response of Spanish citizens to their government and what I had seen back home in the States. That in a way, the events of the previous year marked not a blind rallying point, but an affirmation of the nation’s democracy. Three days after the bombings in Madrid, the Spanish people voted to repudiate the Popular Party government’s erroneous accusations as to who had been responsible for the attacks and elected the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party to lead the country. I had longed to witness this type of citizen reform in the States: “people power” that, like a suspension bridge, could transform our collective human narrative into a poetry of action.
“Señor, por favor. Will you have to take her away?” Rosa was fanning herself.
He studied my face then looked down. For a moment he became lost in the grain of the tabletop. On the surface, the afternoon light tossed arabesque shadows through the iron shutters in the window and spilled onto the floor set with richly glazed Moroccan tiles. It was the hour when teenagers sauntered through the streets. The Giralda Cathedral would be brimming with tourists as the shops and cafés closed up for an hour or two. The children would be out soon, peeling off their Catholic school uniforms. I wanted to grab my notebook—even just the photograph barely peeking out of the page with the top corner of Montana sky—and join them, running alongside the children, shedding off years in the sun.
The officer sat silently, paging through my notebook. I watched his lips move faintly over the words. I wondered how much he had read, to what extent he knew my manic insecurities, my stubborn sense of autonomy and desire for commitment. I wondered, too, if this would be the strip search that might expose my greatest fears, a failure to be young and in love, the deep cavities I kept crammed like a piece of baggage in my chest. Suddenly I felt naked before this man, who looked dignified in blue and whose hands, though rough-knuckled, I imagined to be smooth. I wanted to meet him in the café across the street and share a cigarette while we laughed about “that time” he questioned me in an empty schoolroom. I wanted to know what he thought, what he felt. Did he have a wife at home? A mistress somewhere? I wondered how my name must have looked to him, strange, foreign, the way it has always looked to me except on the rare occasion when it has been made beautiful: when the boy back at home would escape our bed at midnight, the deep rattle of paint cans in his pack, to bomb boxcars by the highway, bridges along the river. Bomb: which is to say tag, which is to say paint quickly, with subversive grace or a spy’s anonymity. I wonder who might have seen the letters of my name passing throughout the western states like urban love letters, smitten telegraphs from old-school b-boys throughout the alleys and tunnels of the city. Sometimes he’d paint all seven letters of my name, as if each were composed on a separate day of the week, sometimes my initials, a nickname, blocked out in six-foot letters beneath a bridge, that stayed up for weeks before the city painted over it and only a black box remained where my name once was, and every time I walked across that bridge there was a little emptiness, the echo of frantic joy—
Did he know that feeling? Had anyone ever broken his heart? I wanted to ask the officer, but I held my tongue as I noticed Rosa stealing a glance at her wristwatch.
“Señor?” she said regaining his attention, her concern now laced with impatience.
“There’s no need,” the officer said with a certain geniality I had to assume was more for Rosa’s sake than my own exoneration. “Minor paperwork should put the whole thing to rest.”
The officer rose. “This, I believe, belongs to you,” he said, handing over my notebook. “You may want to keep a better eye on it. An old lady caused quite a scene at El Corte Inglés when she found it.”
I looked at Rosa. She stood quickly, thanked the officer, and with a hard pat on my cheek, left to tend to her busy work.
In the main hall, the officer made a photocopy of my passport. Over the buzz of the Xerox machine I heard old men milling about the patio, their lazy talk and throaty laughter stirring the orange trees.
“So, the young man in the photo,” the officer looked over at me without turning his head, “where is he?”
“And the young man who brought you here—the one who wanted to remain with you?”
“A friend,” I said.
I felt he wanted a more distinct word to apply here. But what can words do? I could be a terrorist, a tourist, a tortured witness of human lore. I could track twisters on the plains or turn tricks in foreign cities. I could travel to La Grotte Chauvet and stare into the markings without ever knowing that the image of a horse’s running legs means “love” in an endangered language or “home” in a dialect now extinct. How often do words hold us hostage, tortured in the unjust war of trying to understand the world? The world: which is to say, each other—which is to say, everything. I would rather lean into the body of misunderstanding than be nailed down by language, held captive by labels. I would rather lurk within the labyrinth of bewilderment, stumbling in circles as if under a spell, woozy and swaying between indulgence and intimacy—my staying power for the one, my flight risk for the other. Amenazar: to threaten. Amar: to love.
Thankfully, the officer did not pry further. He simply tipped his hat—all gentleman, no judgment—and, with a wink toward my notebook, handed me my passport and said something about “him” being a “lucky boy.”
The Xerox machine issued a final sputter. I watched my face emerge upside down, get stuck halfway, and then shoot out into the paper tray, the U.S. watermark an opaque highlight over my grainy forehead. And then I was gone, tucked in a folder, filed away in a dusty cabinet of inconsequence, bedding down with countless carbon-copy testimonies and blank reports—all of us characters in untold tales and insignificant leads.
Before then, I had been a peripheral citizen in a small borderless world with endless stories reaching toward the sky, swabbing heaven for fingerprints to see which ones might be a match. An ancillary character in the handmade chapbooks of boys and men: Book of Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, John, narratives of confounded tongues. And though the canon is incomplete, I wonder if it matters that I never really understood the things they said. So many words are lost to exquisite affairs, so many metaphors and similes get buried beneath the sentimental language of love. Before then, I had been the objective narrator in the chapters and testaments of identity—those of my parents and the racial boundaries they struggled to overcome; those of my Muslim neighbors forced to account for their livelihood. Now, I picture the file cabinet where my name resides in a stiff metal drawer like the chambers of a city morgue. I imagine my file, in the absence of my body, lying down on the cold metal platform beside men and women with odd names from odd cities, that no one can identify, that no one has come to claim.
The following week, I stood in the plaza. An occasional breeze flickered the candle flames and filled the air with the scent of beeswax and citrus, smoke and sage. I leaned toward Diego and lit the wick of his candle with my own. In another week, I would travel toward the southern coast, to the city of Cádiz. Diego embodied what I had come to understand as the great paradox of Spain, a country with an unparalleled instinct for pleasure and festivity and the innate understanding of loss. It was hard to imagine continuing on without him.
Maybe, instead of being named for a city known for its walls, I should have been named after Babel—another ancient town with an infamous tower, from the Hebrew balal, meaning to jumble, or lebalbel, to confuse. The place where brick was forged for stone and a tower built, where once earth was of one language, until those same words were irrevocably scattered. Where language became so confounded that the city, intended to unify humanity, was left as an abandoned thought. Babel—unconventional to be sure, as far as names go, even for my parents, the hippies that they were. But is there any narrative that better explains the phenomenon of language, the multiplicity of meaning, human existence, or desire?
I wonder how much of our disorder lies not in the limitations of what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, but in the mishandling of words: what we speak but do not mean; what we write but cannot say. What is the difference between a traveler and a tourist? Between a native and a local, to be of a place, not merely from it? To ensure safety, to protect security, which to some might mean to engage—which is to say, wage impossible war.
At the far end of the square, a group of uniformed officers of the Guardia Civil stood clustered. I recognized the silver hair of my officer among them. He seemed uncomfortable in the heat. I watched him adjust his collar and noticed, for the first time, the decorations on his uniform.
As the cathedral bells resonated throughout the city, hundreds of people stood in prayer. Again, my eyes found the officer. A week earlier I had been in an empty classroom, fielding his questions as he determined whether I was a threat to his country. Now we filled the same space of mourning, the same body of loss. He looked foggy and distant, like one of those faces that inevitably looks familiar in the morning when you wake up remembering little of the night before, except how at one point the pace of the music changed and how you may have shared a slow dance with a stranger—yes, the way you let your head rest on his shoulder, the way his voice whispered your name—and how odd that was, and how perfectly sad. The officer glanced up and for an instant I caught his eye squinting into the sun before I looked away. Later, I wondered if he saw me, one face in a crowd, lips moving in my own silent prayer: amenazar, amar, alzar—to threaten, to love, to rise above.
The balmy smell of fish wafted through the air before the waiter reached my table. He set down a bread basket and a plate of grilled sardines. “For the lady,” he said and winked. When I arrived to dine alone, the same young man had fumbled the silverware as he cleared the extra place setting and slid a small vase of wildflowers into the void.
A television, set in the corner by the ceiling, broadcast updates on a missing girl from England. She was barely five years old. Outside, the humble exterior of A Igreja de Santo António stood tall.
On my plate, the sardines lay in trinity, their eyes like black onyx, their bodies still, radiant, silver. Silver like the subway cars back home. Silver like the antique hand mirror passed down from Grandmother to Mother and then to me. And though I haven’t yet mothered my own, I will pass it on again, one day.
My mother is a fish, I think. The words sound as litany in my head. That same trip, in a Lisbon bookshop, I found Faulkner and his infamous five words. My mother is a fish. It’s her hair, I think. It must be her hair. Once a blonde flower-laced bob, my mother’s hair is silvery gray now against the marine blue of her eyes.
By the tail end, I plucked a sardine from my plate, placed it atop a wedge of bread, and peeled back the crisp layer of skin. Scales fell from my fingers like flakes of muscovite.
Sardines are the fish of Saint Anthony—Anthony of Padua—who, I learned, was not Italian but Portuguese. He was also a seaman. While visiting the Adriatic coast, he preached to the fish. Large fish and fingerlings lined up at the shore, heads buoyed in the water, gills ajar, bowing in reverence. The townspeople, hearing the commotion, ran to witness the miracle at sea. And now, the opening of the local fishing season coincides with the Feast of Saint Anthony in June. Patron of sailors, of ocean voyages and safe travel, Saint Anthony is most invoked for the recovery of things lost.
I remember a sign for the missing girl on the window by my table. In the Algarve, home of her disappearance, every street post and storefront bore her photograph. The paper had faded but the photograph captured the wide, glassy coves of the girl’s eyes. People were searching for her. They combed the countryside as far north as Lisbon and south to where the land concedes to sea. On television, the girl’s parents addressed the press. Their voices fell mute against the waves of café chimes. I watched the girl’s mother. Her face was pale and sullen; her movements held taut an invisible line of hope. Her lips outlined her pleas. But words, too, go lost in the current.
The Portuguese use the word saudade for the things that seem unspeakable. In English, we have no direct translation of the word, perhaps because its complexity of emotion is unmatched, at once beautiful and heartbreaking—an essence suspended between remembrance and longing, nostalgia and the buried knowledge that what we long for may never return.
We fought before I left home, my mother and I. We still fight the way we did when I was a girl: with the catch and release of silence. She worries when I leave, even now. I ignore her concern, recasting the lines of my adulthood. There is an inevitable sense of loss, of leaving things behind that comes with traveling—a loss that perhaps also comes with growing up. I know no words to translate the feel of pressing my cheek against the smooth surface of my mother’s arm. Saudade. My mother is silver and turquoise in Mexico, a pair of shiny castanets in Spain. There in the Algarve, my mother was a trace of scales, mere glitter on my fingertips.
I cradled a sardine in my hand. The brine and oil bled into the bread just as the light shone through the window, through the poster of the missing girl, which thinned like a gauzy curtain. A group of schoolgirls passed by, saddle shoes clipping in a hopscotch rhythm along the church steps. Two of them stopped at the window. Their eyes hardened for an instant. One girl tugged at a strand of her hair. As they skipped away, their navy skirt pleats pinwheeled behind them.
And there, along the rim of my plate, flakes of skin and frail bones had dried translucent, gray. As I awaited my bill, I wondered after Saint Anthony, how in a matter of days the locals would celebrate him as they did each year, praying for miracles, offering bread, grilling fish like the ones I ate that day: fish with silver, crepe-paper skin that sheds to expose a tender, sea-salted meat. Tender, like the flesh of a mother’s arms, still waiting for her child to find home.
If it were not for landscape, I would know nothing of faith. Every year, thousands flock to Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday in July, making the twenty-five-hundred-foot trek to hear mass on the summit, where Saint Patrick fasted and prayed for the conversion of the Irish nation. I arrived at the mountain, just east of Westport in County Mayo, during the second week of an extended road trip through Ireland, traveling not alone, as I often did, but with my mother, who, while gazing up at a stone statue of the devoutly Catholic saint said to have conquered Celtic belief, seemed to remember that it was the twenty-first of June.
“Today is the solstice,” she said. “The longest day of the year.”
I am unnerved by the recognition that when I arrived in Ireland, I was happy, at least in part because of the misconception that yet again I was moving, traveling far from things I knew—the everyday actions like riding the subway or stopping at the grocery store—the routine reminders that I was living in my mother’s apartment with no money and no job, trying to get my mind right after having come out on the other side of a few rough years. By then I had scaled enough mountains to know never to doubt the challenge of a climb or the breathtaking reward. So I approached the mountain, with its three stations of prayer, blessed by an intrepid and earnest inquiry into the nature of pilgrimage.
I. Leacht Benáin
It was nearly five o’clock when we began to climb. Most people we passed were already heading down, their exhausted, limping figures nearly lost beneath their expressions—something between joy and relief at having returned to sturdy ground. The well-worn path, its edges clad in shrubs and purple heather, lay uneven beneath our feet but was easily navigable and soon turned to alternating beds of quartzite and schist. My mother took the lead, great naturalist that she is, snapping photographs, noting the flora, keeping pace with her excitement. I fell into stride close behind her but dallied, crisscrossing the trail as a dog might, owning the slowness of my steps—my pace beholden to the wildflowers, which across the country were in bloom. Several hundred feet above, people appeared like chess pieces against the middle ridge, bishops and rooks, kings and queens dancing on the stage of sky.
Weeks earlier we had visited Glenveagh Castle nestled among the lakes of eastern Donegal, and ever since, I had been thinking about how castles are like mountains. A castle may be anything from a prehistoric mound or hill fort to a crenellated mansion. They serve as strongholds in times of trouble. Once palatial shelters of kings and noble lords, castles are now preserved as monuments and museums, shrines bearing testament to the past, much like how we build and maintain memory in the spirit of self-preservation.
On the trail ahead, a middle-aged couple stood at the edge of the path. My mother waved as she passed, her legs bounding upward. I was a few yards away when I saw the slumped curve of their backs, the locked jaws of their stalemate. The man seemed to be waiting for the woman’s next move. He gestured toward the summit and then back to the trailhead. His movements were kind, conciliatory, perhaps futile, but patient. We exchanged quiet greetings as I passed. The woman’s eyes, fixed and swollen, gazed toward the ocean view.
Trying to catch up with my mother, I found myself willing the couple on. The trail had grown rocky, but the incline was still manageable, so I imagined how, once they resumed the trail, we would cross paths again, perhaps as they reached the summit and I began my descent.
Earlier that day, I had read about an archaeological excavation of Croagh Patrick in the mid-1990s that confirmed evidence of early Christian activity on the mountain but also revealed (with the help of radiocarbon dating) that the site was important during the pre-Christian era. For thousands of years people walked the same trail. That alone seemed as much a reason to continue up the reek as the promise of a spectacular view. Still, I sensed that the couple had reached an impasse I might never understand.
I’ve never felt a spiritual devotion. My father, though he doesn’t talk much about it, has his own form of faith, I’m sure. Before I was born, he was enrolled in Gordon-Conwell, a theological seminary outside of Boston, but (while that may have been where he first encountered the biblical name he would choose for me) art seemed to be his ultimate calling. My mother, braless and batiked until the late 1980s, leaned toward folk traditions. We sent “peace cards” on Christmas; we lit candles on the solstice. But for years, my curiosity about religious faith wouldn’t quit.
Soon I reached a large mound of stones set off from the trail, Leacht Benáin, named for one of Saint Patrick’s disciples. A small plaque listed the penitential exercises that earn forgiveness of sins: Walk seven times around the mound of stones while reciting seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys, one Creed.
I had seen this, the way the pilgrims circle in prayer, in footage from the annual climb featured on a news report a few years before. It rained that year, and the people in hooded ponchos and trail shoes walked slowly with hiking sticks, circling the stones, the rhythm of their steps and muted recitations lost in the fog.
I walked once around the mound of stones, trying to get a sense of its size. And then I remembered I had seen the circling once before. When I was twenty-two and fell ill in a Guatemalan village, the children in the orphanage where I stayed had prayed, their toes scuffing and catching on each other’s heels as they circled my bed.
I rejoined the path and tried to spot my mother, who had made ground up the reek. She appeared as a speck against the terrain, like the chess pieces I had seen from the base—knights, maidens, pawns, triumphant at the midpoint of their climb. And I remembered a boy I had known since kindergarten, when everything was sandboxes and skinned knees, and was in love with by the third grade, despite our separate desk groups. He had died in a car crash in southern California just months before I left for Ireland, and all I could think about was how we went to see Medieval Times on his ninth birthday. Inside the stone walls of Lyndhurst Castle, a life-size replication, somewhere in New Jersey, of an eleventh-century barracks, six knights in authentic armor clashed in a jousting tournament for the title of King’s Champion. We cheered for the Red and Yellow Knight, eating chicken off the bone, drinking chalices of orange soda, believing we were nobles of the court.
Ahead, two more figures: a woman leading a young man. They descended in slow procession. Carrying a small pack and a walking stick, the woman, just an arm’s reach in front of the man, looked back every two feet or so, as if checking that he was still there. I slowed my pace, suddenly aware of the sound of my steps against the scree, the stones clinking and scraping as my feet sunk into the shallow rock bed. As they neared, the woman’s face looked gentle. The young man trailed her. His eyes were glued to the ground as his weight, buckling with each step, hung on his walking staff. His feet were bare but for a thin pair of socks worn through at the toe and heel and stained with blood. A coat of dust extended up to his knees. The air felt tight, as if the sky held its breath.
II. The Summit
The trail broadened into a collection of rocks that scarred the mountain. The stones shifting beneath my feet sounded like ice cubes in a tumbler. Without realizing, as my mind wandered and my stride lengthened, I had passed my mother and was leading us. Not far above, I saw the saddle ridge, which offered some relief, as the climb had grown steep. After charging several paces upward to reach the ridge, I leaned back to keep my balance on the steep angle of the trail. The view stretched clear across Clew Bay’s deep water scattered with silvery green islands. I wondered if the shoeless penitent had stopped here to rest his feet, if the beauty uplifted and ushered him on. Would it lead us to fortitude? Is there a place for earthly incentive in the path of sacrifice?
I was unprepared for the final ascent. The air cooled; the path grew steep. My feet sank into the rocks. Small boulders stacked at a near vertical angle no longer bore handholds. I stepped slowly, strategically, at several points lowering to my hands and knees to crawl. The wind clamored like a percussive snare drum in my ears—the music of procession, of pomp and circumstance. I braced against the rocks, and the touch of them sparked memory: my friends and I, as children, pressing our palms and fingers together to compare hands, and then splaying them against the rock wall of granite and Manhattan schist; the fortified courtyard where we played taps at recess; the fenced-in park where we rolled joints and traded secrets. Against the rock I can see the years my hands grew bony, tipped with chipped middle-school manicures, and then long and veined like my mother’s.
A boy, barely eight or nine, emerged from the summit. Extending one foot at a time, he tested the rocks before placing his step, and then pivoted, hand outstretched. Behind him, a thin elderly man appeared all skin and bones in a tweed suit and carrying a cane. His limbs wobbled as he grasped the boy’s arm. I stood aside to give them room enough to pass, steadying myself between two rocks. The man nodded. His skin, folded and creased, looked translucent. I bowed slightly in the wind.
The two of them seemed to glide over the same boulders that I, short-breathed, clung to clumsily. As if descending a staircase the sky itself had offered, they disappeared down the mountain as steadily as they had come.
Neither the highest nor the hardest of climbs, Croagh Patrick offered more a sense of panoramic wonder. A dramatic view of Clew Bay and the Nephin Beg mountains to the north can be seen from the summit. When I reached the top, the wind whipped around my head and neck. The air at that height, in its all-encompassing breeze, felt like riding in the back of a pickup truck at full speed down the highway—the world too much to take in, the air too abundant to breathe.
I wanted to say a prayer, but I didn’t know where to begin. Even the Hail Marys and Our Fathers that I knew, most of which I had learned in Spanish from the children in Río Dulce, seemed all wrong. Instead, I walked over to a small mound of stones and read the plaque of instructions: Kneel and say seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys, one Creed. Pray near the chapel for the Pope’s intentions.
I imagined the movements outlined on the signpost and pictured a courtly yet humble dance of minstrels and troubadours. Who wrote these lines? Who issued these directives? I am fascinated by ritual—this instruction through ceremony or tradition that holds people in a place of faith, a sense of communal belonging that has structure, directions, a map, perhaps, for the soul.
I turned back to the trail edge and watched my mother’s head crown from below. She pulled herself up the last step of the trail and then stopped, squinting toward the bay, and joined me. We circled the summit chapel, which glowed white and warm, and kept rotating, trying to get our cardinal bearings. I wondered how we appeared from below, tiny pieces moving on an elaborate game board.
Not quite able to place where I’m from, people sometimes ask about my childhood and then seem surprised to learn that I’m from a big city, surprised by the rough edges I contain, the accent and slang that sometimes falls in drunken slurs from my mouth—a little bit hip-hop, a little bit Yiddish. It’s hard to explain how it feels to have grown up in extremes, to connect to others in pieces of the self, and how those pieces become like relics. There are no explanations for the things that we preserve as sacred: imagination and curiosity, castles and knights, dollhouses and make-believe, the people and places we love and remain intrinsically attached to even if our attachment determines us to leave. Saint Patrick left his home, his freedom from captivity, to return to Ireland and the people who enslaved him in order to answer a voice—a calling that governed his life and legend. Edna O’Brien left the land she called home to live in exile. The peace she obtained living abroad let her more clearly depict her homeland’s grace and influence. When Yeats left Thoor Ballylee, the castle where he wrote his famous tower poems, he wrote, “to leave here is to leave beauty behind.”
My mother began building a cairn to commemorate our climb, and I joined her. Several piles lay scattered around the chapel. Balancing one stone at a time, we constructed a stack. My mother placed two buds of purple heather beneath the top stone.
“To the solstice,” she said. It wasn’t a prayer, but it was a gesture we knew. I imagined the saints at a loss, celestial kings and bishops rolling in their graves.
III. Roilig Mhuire
The descent proved an almost greater challenge to navigate as each step sunk into the tumbling scree, and more than once I took to an inverted crawl, like a jester or a sand crab scurrying down a dune. When we reached the saddle once again, I was relieved to know we had passed the steepest part. The ridge stretched serpentine before us, the view extended on both sides, and for the first time—though I wondered why I hadn’t seen it on the way up—I caught a glimpse of the back end of the ridge, where the mountain slope was dappled with more rock signs and cairns. Some resembled initials framed in hearts—the ruins of testimonials, a marriage proposal, the skeletal alignment of letters. Many of the stones were now gone, perhaps pillaged for another’s communiqué: messages to God, a lover, fellow hill-walkers, tourists and travelers who have made the climb, the mountaineers and trail runners to whom Croagh Patrick is perhaps but a small summit among hundreds. I had seen the same tokens at the summit. At a small plot marked for Saint Patrick’s bed, icons and rosaries tied with wildflowers lay nestled in the dirt along with handwritten messages and photographs. Prayers weighted down by stones: a woman longing for a child, a boy sent off to fight in the war, a girl who is ill, another who is lost.
Every belief has a story. Every story has a setting. Perhaps the sacred is not entirely intangible. Perhaps landscape, or place, is integral to belief. Religious conflicts have for years persisted over disputed lands—mere outlines and boundaries. We know where relics lie throughout the world, where holy water flows, where saints and martyrs rest. Our religious texts are as much historical records as they are relics of cartography, which is why people journey to Bethlehem, Damascus, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, or the western shores of County Mayo. Somewhere in southern California there is a tree by a road that bore the point of impact that killed my childhood friend. There is a sidewalk in the Bronx that absorbed the blood of my first true fall. Somewhere in the East Village is a church where I first tried to pray.
I can understand pilgrimage as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul. To summit a mountain, to complete a trail, to reach an ancient monument offers a tangible sense of arrival. The worn and weary legs of a pilgrim are but a physical expression. The old man led by the young boy I could only imagine to be his grandson knew this. The young man with his torn, bloodied socks hobbling over the rocks knew this. But what of the couple stopped in despair? I never saw them again as we made our way back down the reek. Was it their knees aching beneath the constantly shifting rocks, or a lack of imagination, spiritual stamina—of faith—to see through their climb?
At the time I might have denied that faith had anything to do with my sense of belonging on that mountain, but I couldn’t ignore the sense that the mountain itself, and all of the living and dying that it held, recognized my grief: grief for the way we ration hope as we grow up, hardening like armor as the flowers and make-believe fall from our garlanded heads. Despite the hurt and longing, summiting the reek offered the bewildering sense that the world was as it should be, that I had taken part in something, albeit something I may never understand.
After some time, along the center of the saddle ridge, we reach the final station, Roilig Mhuire, the Virgin’s Cemetery, a set of three large boulder cairns that rests some ways down the western slope. A plaque nestled in the rock pile bears instructions for the final station: Walk seven times around each mound of stones saying seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys, one Creed. Walk seven times around the whole enclosure of Roilig Mhuire praying.
I looked back at my mother, her fair skin flushed from the climb, her eyes as blue as the sky behind her. At my feet a purple flower appeared by the side of the trail, just as I had seen the same amethyst crowns at my feet by Glenveagh Castle. We continued on toward sturdy ground, savoring the light of the longest of days.
In its own way, this climb was a plea; this mountain, a prayer. Just as a Benediction is recited, a rosary worried, a candle lit, we summit a peak, we build a cairn, and we are no longer where we started. I didn’t set forth to climb Croagh Patrick with the perspective of a pilgrim, nor offer penance as I walked its path. But didn’t my stride at some point become more deliberate? Didn’t my thoughts dissipate into a stream of consciousness perpetuated by my legs, my pulse, my breath? When we journey, we learn, like catechism, our own instructions. We find a mountain. We find a castle. We touch all of the exquisite stones and wildflowers on earth—dub every last one of them: great sinners, great penitents and pilgrims, yes. Rooks and queens and bishops, too. Mothers and daughters, childhood friends. The gracious, the skeptics, the saved.