from Teaching a Stone to Talk
had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the
death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the
region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in
sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that
day, and now we were in a strange place – a hotel in central Washington, in a
town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in
the next morning.
lay in bed. My husband, Gary, was reading beside me. I lay in bed and looked at
the painting on the hotel room wall. It was a print of a detailed and lifelike
painting of a smiling clown’s head, made out of vegetables. It was a painting
of the sort which you do not intend to look at, and which, alas, you never
forget. Some tasteless fate presses it upon you; it becomes part of the complex
interior junk you carry with you wherever you go. Two years have passed since
the total eclipse of which I write. During those years I have forgotten, I
assume, a great many things I wanted to remember – but I have not forgotten
that clown painting or its lunatic setting in the old hotel. The clown was bald.
Actually, he wore a clown’s tight rubber wig, painted white; this stretched
over the top of his skull, which was a cabbage. His hair was bunches of baby
carrots. Inset in his white clown makeup, and in his cabbage skull, were his
small and laughing human eyes. The clown’s glance was like the glance of
Rembrandt in some of the self-portraits: lively, knowing, deep, and loving. The
crinkled shadows around his eyes were string beans. His eyebrows were parsley.
Each of his ears was a broad bean. His thin, joyful lips were red chili peppers;
between his lips were wet rows of human teeth and a suggestion of a real tongue.
The clown print was framed in gilt and glassed.
put ourselves in the path of the total eclipse, that day we had driven five
hours inland from the Washington coast, where we lived. When we tried to cross
the Cascades range, an avalanche had blocked the pass.
slope’s worth of snow blocked the road; traffic backed up. Had the avalanche
buried any cars that morning? We could not learn. This highway was the only
winter road over the mountains. We waited as highway crews bulldozed a passage
through the avalanche. With two-by-fours and walls of plywood, they erected a
one-way, roofed tunnel through the avalanche. We drove through the avalanche
tunnel, crossed the pass, and descended several thousand feet into central
Washington and the broad Yakima valley, about which we knew only that it was
orchard country. As we lost altitude, the snows disappeared; our ears popped;
the trees changed, and in the trees were strange birds. I watched the landscape
innocently, like a fool, like a diver in the rapture of the deep who plays on
the bottom while his air runs out.
hotel lobby was a dark, derelict room, narrow as a corridor, and seemingly
without air. We waited on a couch while the manager vanished upstairs to do
something unknown to our room. Beside us on an overstuffed chair, absolutely
motionless, was a platinum-blond woman in her forties wearing a black silk dress
and a strand of pearls. Her long legs were crossed; she supported her head on
her fist. At the dim far end of the room, their backs toward us, sat six bald
old men in their shirtsleeves, around a loud television. Two of them seemed
asleep. They were drunks. “Number six!” cried the man on television,
the broad lobby desk, lighted and bubbling, was a ten-gallon aquarium containing
one large fish; the fish tilted up and down in its water. Against the long
opposite wall sang a live canary in its cage. Beneath the cage, among spilled
millet seeds on the carpet, were a decorated child’s sand bucket and matching
the alarm was set for six. I lay awake remembering an article I had read
downstairs in the lobby, in an engineering magazine. The article was about gold
South Africa, in India, and in South Dakota, the gold mines extend so deeply
into the earth’s crust that they are hot. The rock walls burn the miners’
hands. The companies have to air-condition the mines; if the air conditioners
break, the miners die. The elevators in the mine shafts run very slowly, down,
and up, so the miners’ ears will not pop in their skulls. When the miners
return to the surface, their faces are deathly pale.
the next morning we checked out. It was February 26, 1979, a Monday morning. We
would drive out of town, find a hilltop, watch the eclipse, and then drive back
over the mountains and home to the coast. How familiar things are here; how
adept we are; how smoothly and professionally we check out! I had forgotten the
clown’s smiling head and the hotel lobby as if they had never existed. Gary
put the car in gear and off we went, as off we have gone to a hundred other
was dawn when we found a highway out of town and drove into the unfamiliar
countryside. By the growing light we could see a band of cirro-stratus clouds in
the sky. Later the rising sun would clear these clouds before the eclipse began.
We drove at random until we came to a range of unfenced hills. We pulled off the
highway, bundled up, and climbed one of these hills.
of us rose another hill like ours. Between the hills, far below, 13 was the
highway which threaded south into the valley. This was the Yakima valley; I had
never seen it before. It is justly famous for its beauty, like every planted
valley. It extended south into the horizon, a distant dream of a valley, a
Shangri-la. All its hundreds of low, golden slopes bore orchards. Among the
orchards were towns, and roads, and plowed and fallow fields. Through the valley
wandered a thin, shining river; from the river extended fine, frozen irrigation
ditches Distance blurred and blued the sight, so that the whole valley looked
like a thickness or sediment at the bottom of the sky. Directly behind us was
more sky, and empty lowlands blued by distance, and Mount Adams. Mount Adams was
an enormous, snow-covered volcanic cone rising flat, like so much scenery.
the sun was up. We could not see it; but the sky behind the band of clouds was
yellow, and, far down the valley, some hillside orchards had lighted up. More
people were parking near the highway and climbing the hills. It was the West.
All of us rugged individualists were wearing knit caps and blue nylon parkas.
People were climbing the nearby hills and setting up shop in clumps among the
dead grasses. It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for
the world on its last day. It looked as though we had all crawled out of
spaceships and were preparing to assault the valley below. It looked as though
we were scattered on hilltops at dawn to sacrifice virgins, make rain, set stone
stelae in a ring. There was no place out of the wind. The straw grasses banged
in the sky where we stood the air was lusterless yellow. To the west the sky was
blue. Now the sun cleared the clouds. We cast rough shadows on the blowing
grass; freezing, we waved our arms. Near the sun, the sky was bright and
colorless. There was nothing to see.
began with no ado. It was odd that such a well advertised public event should
have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known
right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as
orbits, a piece of the sun went away. We looked at it through welders’
goggles. A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky.
had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It
bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the
same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him,
or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one
experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it. During a
partial eclipse the sky does not darken – not even when 94 percent of the sun
is hidden. Nor does the sun, seen colorless through protective devices, seem
terribly strange. We have all seen a sliver of light in the sky; we have all
seen the crescent moon by day. However, during a partial eclipse the air does
indeed get cold, precisely as if someone were standing between you and the fire.
And blackbirds do fly back to their roosts. I had seen a partial eclipse before,
and here was another.
you see in an eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially
different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a
flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not
figure out which way to set the clocks for Daylight Saving Time. Usually it is a
bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse
it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you
may read that the moon has something to do with eclipses. I have never seen the
moon yet. You do not see the moon. So near the sun, it is as completely
invisible as the stars are by day. What you see before your eyes is the sun
going through phases. It gets narrower and narrower, as the waning moon does,
and, like the ordinary moon, it travels alone in the simple sky. The sky is of
course background. It does not appear to eat the sun; it is far behind the sun.
The sun simply shaves away; gradually, you see less sun and more sky.
sky’s blue was deepening, but there was no darkness. The sun was a wide
crescent, like a segment of tangerine. The wind freshened and blew steadily over
the hill. The eastern hill across the highway grew dusky and sharp. The towns
and orchards in the valley to the south were dissolving into the blue light.
Only the thin river held a trickle of sun.
the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually
loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into
that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it.
The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountain tops
long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I
said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.
turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was
wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem,
head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art
photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The
hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a
nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the
people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are
now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’
grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded
color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some
mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle
Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
looked at Gary. He was in the film. Everything was lost. He was a platinum
print, a dead artist’s version of life. I saw on his skull the darkness of
night mixed with the colors of day. My mind was going out; my eyes were receding
the way galaxies recede to the rim of space. Gary was lighters away, gesturing
inside a circle of darkness, down the wrong end of a telescope. He smiled as if
he saw me; the stringy crinkles around his eyes moved. The sight of him,
familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from
the other side of death: yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were
living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive. I could not hear him;
the wind was too loud. Behind him the sun was going. We had all started down a
chute of time. At first it was pleasant; now there was no stopping it. Gary was
chuting away across space, moving and talking and catching my eye, chuting down
the long corridor of separation. The skin on his face moved like thin bronze
plating that would peel.
grass at our feet was wild barley. It was the wild einkorn wheat which grew on
the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains, above the Euphrates valley, above the
valley of the river we called River. We harvested the grass with stone sickles,
I remember. We found the grasses on the hillsides; we built our shelter beside
them and cut them down. That is how he used to look then, that one, moving and
living and catching my eye, with the sky so dark behind him, and the wind
blowing. God save our life.
all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was
detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the
back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was
almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky
slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover.
The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in
the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun
belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no
sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no
world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and
around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth rolled down. Our minds
were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary
act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in
matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but
could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was
something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was
a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old
wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.
saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky. I saw a
circular piece of that sky appear, suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted;
from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It
was enormous and black If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen
the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once. (If, however, I
had not read that it was the moon – if, like most of the world’s people
throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing – then I
doubtless would not have speculated much, but would have, like Emperor Louis of
Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.) It did not look like a
dragon, although it looked more like a dragon than the moon. It looked like a
lens cover, or the lid of a pot. It materialized out of thin air – black, and
flat, and sliding, outlined in flame.
this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The heart screeched. The
meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself.
If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the
horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was,
was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone.
Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is
significance for people. No people, no significance. This is all I have to tell
the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warmed us. But if
you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the
world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate,
the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its
power for good, and evil. Its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and
inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is
given. It is not learned.
world which lay under darkness and stillness following the closing of the lid
was not the world we know. The event was over. Its devastation lay around about
us. The clamoring mind and heart stilled, almost indifferent, certainly
disembodied, frail, and exhausted. The hills were hushed, obliterated. Up in the
sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring.
have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse. The corona fills
the print. All of those photographs were taken through telescopes. The lenses of
telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual
array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal
experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty
and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card. I assure you, if you
send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-three
photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a multitude of
the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid. More fearsome things can come
in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can
appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the
see the wide world swaddled in darkness; you see a vast breadth of hilly land,
and an enormous, distant, blackened valley; you see towns’ lights, a river’s
path, and blurred portions of your hat and scarf; you see your husband’s face
looking like an early black-and-white film; and you see a sprawl of black sky
and blue sky together, with unfamiliar stars in it, some barely visible bands of
cloud, and over there, a small white ring. The ring is as small as one goose in
a flock of migrating geese – if you happen to notice a flock of migrating
geese. It is one 360th part of the visible sky. The sun we see is less than half
the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length.
Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a
smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion
first reached the earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone
in the daytime. Now it is not so bright, but it is still exploding. It expands
at the rate of seventy million miles a day. It is interesting to look through
binoculars at something expanding seventy million miles a day. It does not
budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken
fifteen years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some
lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at
fifty-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells
divide; they live.
small ring of light was like these things – like a ridiculous lichen up in the
sky, like a perfectly still explosion 4,200 light-years away: it was
interesting, and lovely, and in witless motion, and it had nothing to do with
had nothing to do with anything. The sun was too small, and too cold, and too
far away, to keep the world alive. The white ring was not enough. It was feeble
and worthless. It was as useless as a memory; it was as off-kilter and hollow
and wretched as a memory.
you try your hardest to recall someone’s face, or the look of a place, you see
in your mind’s eye some vague and terrible sight such as this. It is dark; it
is insubstantial; it is all wrong.
white ring and the saturated darkness made the earth and the sky look as they
must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seemed to be
standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed
upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima,
and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared
for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we had
remembered some sort of circular light in the sky – but only the outline. Oh,
and then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down
the valleys and overlapped the towns. If there had ever been people on earth,
nobody knew it. The dead had forgotten those they had loved. The dead were
parted one from the other and could no longer remember the faces and lands they
had loved in the light. They seemed to stand on darkened hilltops, looking down.
do not know how we got to the restaurant. Like Roethke, “I take my waking
slow.” Gradually I seemed more or less alive, and already forgetful. It was
now almost nine in the morning. It was the day of a solar eclipse in central
Washington, and a fine adventure for everyone. The sky was clear; there was a
fresh breeze out of the north.
restaurant was a roadside place with tables and booths. The other
eclipse-watchers were there. From our booth we could see their cars’
California license plates, their University of Washington parking stickers.
Inside the restaurant we were all eating eggs or waffles; people were fairly
shouting and exchanging enthusiasms, like fans after a World Series game. Did
you see . . . ? Did you see
college student, a boy in a blue parka who carried a Hasselblad, said to us,
“Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked
like a Life Saver up in the Sky,”
so it did. The boy spoke well. He was a walking alarm clock. I myself had at
that time no access to such a word. He could write a sentence, and I could not.
I grabbed that Life Saver and rode it to the surface. And I had to laugh. I had
been dumbstruck on the Euphrates River, I had been dead and gone and grieving,
all over the sight of something which, if you could claw your way up to that
level, you would grant looked very much like a Life Saver. It was good to be
back among people so clever; it was good to have all the world’s words at the
mind’s disposal, so the mind could begin its task. All those things for which
we have no words are lost. The mind – the culture – has two little tools,
grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these
we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try
to save our very lives.
are a few more things to tell from this level, the level of the restaurant. One
is the old joke about breakfast. “It can never be satisfied, the mind,
never.” Wallace Stevens wrote that, and in the long run he was right. The mind
wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants
the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the
world, and all eternity, and God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle
for two eggs over easy.
dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the
simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny
that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give
it an egg.
while the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults,
the workaday senses, in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computer terminals
printing out market prices while the world blows up, still transcribe their
little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull. Later, under the
tranquilizing influence of fried eggs, the mind can sort through this data. The
restaurant was a halfway house, a decompression chamber. There I remembered a
few things more.
deepest, and most terrifying, was this: I have said that I heard screams. (I
have since read that screaming, with hysteria, is a common reaction even to
expected total eclipses.) People on all the hillsides, including, I think,
myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and
rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and
it was this, I believe, which made us scream.
second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us.
We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley.
It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone
of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an
hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed – 1,800 miles an hour.
It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight – you saw only the edge. It rolled
at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague
behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like
feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may
have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness
race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood.
We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the
universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized
speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit
amok like a car out of control on a turn?
than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow
cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain,
faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the
planet’s rim in a twinkling It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We
blinked in the light It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had
reached down and slapped the earth’s face.
else, something more ordinary, came back to me along about the third cup of
coffee. During the moments of totality, it was so dark that drivers on the
highway below turned on their cars’ headlights. We could see the highway’s
route as a strand of lights. It was bumper-to-bumper down there. It was
eight-fifteen in the morning, Monday morning, and people were driving into
Yakima to work. That it was as dark as night, and eerie as hell, an hour after
dawn, apparently meant that in order to see to drive to work, people had to use
their headlights. Four or five cars pulled off the road. The rest, in a line at
least five miles long, drove to town. The highway ran between hills; the people
could not have seen any of the eclipsed sun at all. Yakima will have another
total eclipse in 2086. Perhaps, in 2086, businesses will give their employees an
the restaurant we drove back to the coast. The highway crossing the Cascades
range was open. We drove over the mountain like old pros. We joined our places
on the planet’s thin crust; it held. For the time being, we were home free.
that morning at six, when we had checked out, the six bald men were sitting on
folding chairs in the dim hotel lobby. The television was on. Most of them were
awake. You might drown in your own spittle, God knows, at any time; you might
wake up dead in a small hotel, a cabbage head watching TV while snows pile up in
the passes, watching TV while the chili peppers smile and the moon passes over
the sun and nothing changes and nothing is learned because you have lost your
bucket and shovel and no longer care. What if you regain the surface and open
your sack and find, instead of treasure, a beast which jumps at you? Or you may
not come back at all. The winches may jam, the scaffolding buckle, the air
conditioning collapse. You may glance up one day and see by your headlamp the
canary keeled over in its cage. You may reach into a cranny for pearls and touch
a moray eel. You yank on your rope; it is too late.
people share a sense of these hazards, for when the total eclipse ended, an odd
the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over.
The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the
yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The
real world began there. I remember now: we all hurried away. We were born and
bored at a stroke. We rushed down the hill. We found our car; we saw the other
people streaming down the hillsides; we joined the highway traffic and drove
never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left
the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed – a sight rare enough, and one
which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see. But enough is
enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the
depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and
hurry for the latitudes of home.