Figures of a Pilgrimage

Figure 1: Subduction

 

Smelling of wood smoke, my red hair falls into my eyes. My mouth tastes of ashes, of cheap beer, of ocean salt. I step softly over my friends sleeping like seals on the motel room’s dingy, carpeted floor. Barefoot, I walk across the parking lot, to pale straw sand and the burnt-gray remains of a bonfire. Crumpled aluminum cans catch the dawn light and become fallen silver stars. As evidenced by the figure, I might string them into charms. 

*

The morning sun is not yet pulled above the Atlantic horizon, and scattered over the Carolina beach are men and women holding metal detectors. After losing my great-aunt’s ruby ring in the sand last night, I—fully dressed—shared a bed with the actor. I lay on my belly with my face turned away and my arms rolled under my hips, the way I slept as a child. Please, I call, waving. My hands stink of Marlboros. A man moves toward me, sweeping the round antenna in a flat arc.

*

The ring should remain lost, as suggested by the presence of a tree in the background, but soon I hold it again. Around my thin wrist I wind the chain and run it through the pale gold ring. From the motel’s second-story landing, the actor waves and then grips the railing with both hands, as if on the deck of a pitching ship. Shifting, I squint over the water, biting the ends of my hair. One flattened wave, then another. A body in the act of turning represents a body in the act of turning. This will be my answer.

Falling in love with a stoner, son of a Baltimore cop, I drop out of college and live in a trailer with high school friends. Plants thrive in a blue-lit bathroom, tended by a man who needs three root canals. For money, it is summer work in the packing warehouse where appliance parts move along a sluggish conveyor belt. Hoping it is later than it is, the workers sweat, pause, and look at the clock. It is difficult to hear the break whistle over the wide whir of five-foot fans.

*

A raised hand suggests memory cannot decide where it wants to be. I am twenty and pregnant. Define order. The shift manager is thirty-eight and has black hair. Her worn wrists are enclosed in braces. On a wooden pallet she helps me construct a large cardboard box. One by one we pull parts from the belt and arrange them inside. My hair is tied with a rawhide lace from one of the stoner’s hiking boots. Next week, it is not.  

*

The image clouds, indicating the presence of water. At twilight, the crew swims in an Appalachian lake. One man wades to his knees and stands, shivering and cupping his dick. The woman strips and dives right in, kicking out to the rope swing. The machinist smokes and floats face-up, water beading in his beard. Cicadas call from the trees. One tectonic plate slides under another.

 

*

Night air and lake the same temperature, in equilibrium we break the surface and walk through the field’s high grass. Our faces are streaked with pond scum and the grit of mountain dirt is deep in our teeth. My shirt is ruined as soon as she pulls it over her head, the lake-black bleeding deep into the cotton. Touching her shoulder, the machinist says, Don’t tell my wife. A dress glows, dime-sized, in the sky.

The actor dies at a cast party. Vodka. Heroin. Ill-placed and passing out on his back. We kissed that night at the beach. He loved me but desired the bodies of men. A grip, a bend, a lift from the knees. No matter, the baby swam away. 


Figure 2: Melancholia

 

Under vines of jasmine my uncle sits, cross-legged, drinking boxed rosé on the patio. Below him curves the Mediterranean’s blue blade. The walls of the Banyuls house are stone—an old battlement, renovated. Lizards nest in the eves.  Some evenings, a wild boar—un sanglier—appears at the crest of a vineyard ridge and trots, zigzag, into the valley. Men follow with baying hounds and guns that crack in the dusk.

*

One night my aunt drapes a calico housecat over her shoulders. She and I dance across the tile floor to Coltrane until my uncle says bitch. Three versions of the masked figure hint that the solitary mind is fractured. I stand at a window. A cat sleeps on the sill. Undersea, continents break apart as my aunt holds brittle film slides up to the moon’s hollow light.  

Eventually engaged in the Pyrenees, at first I say I don’t know. Prone to vertigo, I will not hike the rocky edges. The engineer and I work our way down the trail, steel gray clouds building and lightning jumping to ground. By the time we reach shelter, the ring circles tight around my swollen finger. Thus enclosed, the mind absorbs the splinters.

*

In the bath, watching the autumn rain, I wait for my aunt to bring up the dress. All thoughts a stream of insulation, nails, and shingles pouring through a single window. From here I can hear my husband-to-be stubbornly mispronouncing his French. Gutters on the house reveal a woman wearing a suit and a bonnet once climbed up on the roof to have a closer look at Saturn. Funny, how a body refuses to dissolve in hot water.

*

Leaning forward, I press my steam-pink forehead to a pane of cold glass. I want a hat, a suitcase, and a horse pointed toward the sun, but I stand up, dry off, and pull on the ivory silk. Is it true what they say, that a girl is born a baby but becomes a body? 

* 

In the observatory of the Umeda Sky Building, the engineer makes a short film, in which I wear my camel coat. In which I resist turning around and around, the screw in my eastern-hemisphere honeymoon. In the background a small boy smiles and shouts, repeating a single word in Japanese. Surely his footsteps sound down through all floors and the earth, then out the other side to unfurl into thin blossoms in the apple trees.

*

After visiting an altar where women pray for sons, my husband and I walk to a shopping mall where people photograph one another posing before high-end boutiques. Dipping his hand into a decorative indoor fountain full of koi fish, when they brush his skin the engineer laughs: But I prefer the touch of a woman. Desirous of this same feeling myself, I reach toward the water and sink my camera into the orange-gold swarm.


Figure 3: Monsoon

 

Celebrating our first anniversary with a return visit to the east, in Mumbai the engineer attends a business lunch with a colleague. A morning tour takes me on a drive past the Parsi Tower of Silence. In the air above our car, vultures glide in patterns reminiscent of the circular needles my mother used to knit hats one winter, in Queens, where my sister, not our mother, lived. Behind the trees, beneath the vultures, souls slowly uncoil into the air.

*

In the afternoon, the driver’s arm moves left as the car passes the Arabian Sea. With a finger he points to a shrine in the ocean. Haji Ali is a pale, salt-colored building whose path from shore is covered and bared by the tides. The background’s mottled sky indicates my sister and I were never baptized; however, this has no bearing on the scene. It also suggests that a vaccination given to cows in turn diminishes the vultures. Even in the sunlight the sky looks like rain.

*

Evening heat causes the windows to shimmer and shift. Though I want to be blessed, I cannot fight my way through the pilgrims. I only raise my lens from the car’s black leather seat, even though having a camera does not mean I have to use it.

Even when looking into one’s own life? I dial my husband’s number twice but he answers neither call.  

In the company of my husband and his colleague, I travel in an elevator to the top of the world’s tallest building. A massive pendulum hangs inside, so the structure can sway in the wind or move with the earth as it buckles. This inner heaviness will keep it upright. Sick with flu, the engineer presents me a sapphire ring, which is the birthstone of my sister. The colleague, wearing a small gold cross on a chain, presents to me next morning at breakfast a plate of freshly sliced mango, a fruit whose taste proves that sun can be coaxed from the sun.

*

Shadows of moss and slate being strong evidence of water running underneath asphalt and glass, he remains motionless as I approach inside the tight confines of the hotel elevator. Twelve hours without a drink and his hands do not stop shaking until they touch my breasts. As our mouths meet I imagine swallowing the sapphire and how it will swing, steady inside me.

*

101: as in binary. As in numerical prosody. A proliferation of observation obscures windows at ground level. Shutter falling, I whisper: And Icarus is drowning all over the place. And clouds are the sky’s mask.

*

Ascending the tall stories, days shift until it becomes year-of-woman-boarded-into-house. Of detectives, watching the vodka. Window casings exiting the window recall trees, darkening the year’s edge. Recall hurricanes, stretching far inland. Recall one smear of light: semen, firefly, or aspirate of a heat-orange azalea.


 Figure 4: Flame in the Woods

 

To prepare, I run through the graveyard. I stack old pennies on mossy headstones. I return to my husband in our large suburban house with petals in my hair, acorns in my mouth, and the pockets of my running shorts empty.  

*

Gradually, without moving his body, the engineer begins to retreat with his eyes. As though he senses something heavy will soon fall from the sky and crush me. Could it be a pot of black pepper crabs, or a pool of one hundred goldfish? Or will it be a skyscraper, its elevator, and the couple kissing inside? Wondering, my body increases in its tendencies to transparency.

*

People who construct buildings and those who live in them inhabit bodies of more than sixty percent water. After the bath, a lemon-yellow towel. Later in the day, the sound of wind leaving becomes the wind until it becomes wind in the warehouse fans. Through the door my husband listens as I call out another man’s name, my own fingers deep inside. At a slight angle, a faint line of caution tape bisects the frame.

*

The next morning and now thrown out of our house, I peer at my cats through a downstairs window while trying to hack the wireless. She did bear witness to the projection of preoccupation: This comes to be my next answer. One cat, the blue, approaches the window, its mouth opening and closing, but the house is well insulated and the animal’s cries only circle back inside.

*

Meant to photograph a wedding but jogging on the sidewalks of Beaufort instead, I twice twist my ankle. Drinking in town that night, three hundred miles from the beach where the actor and I kissed, I ask a winemaker if he’s married as my foot swells to fit my leather boot. An answer in the affirmative only increases my interest.

*

Days afterward we meet in Virginia, at a colonial inn complete with staff in period dress, to have sex while my soon-to-be-lost-to-my-husband, illegally-parked luxury car is towed from the garage. Weeks later we meet in a less impressive chain hotel, the bedspread as unforgiving as if it is shellacked. Three bottles of wine chill in the bathroom’s ice-filled sink. Since my husband’s detectives trailed me in the storm and my phone begins to ring as soon as we lie down, the winemaker’s penis grows less insistent than I remember.  

Ciao, I say to the winemaker, meaning: I once drank whiskey in Shanghai with a woman who didn’t leave her apartment for a year. And: My feet are sticky with rosé. In heavy black rain I drive to my apartment. Recognizing the lack of pull on my limbs I take a long bath. I throw my phone into the toilet as the estranged engineer’s number scrolls over the screen. Through the apartment’s thin walls I hear my neighbor’s daughter, singing to herself.  What does the girl hear from there?


 Figure 5: Laws of Conduction

 

Preoccupied with the outward manifestations of my consciousness but not my newly acquired lack of health insurance, I have unprotected sex in a Vermont field under the billion eyes of the Milky Way. Only blunt penetration concerns me, not the diplomat below my hips or his longhaired singing wife. Not his love of Michigan erosion or the Porcupine Mountains.

Next month, the diplomat and I sit on a bench by the East River piers and stare over the water. He wears a navy blue suit, yet the scent of woodchips lingers on his skin. Among those Brooklyn buildings low under parchment yellow sky is the small apartment he shares with his praying-to-be-pregnant wife and her songs. Here, in his pants, is a noontime erection. Renting a cabin upstate, three times a week I travel into the city to print in the community darkroom.

*

 A sawhorse can imbue the day with a sense of balance and waiting, though this may be a significant misinterpretation. Earlier, as the train from Hoboken entered the World Trade Center site, thin morning sun fell on rough cement. On girders and beams, red and raw. The darkroom smells the metal way lightning might, without light.

*

It must be accidental, I whisper against the diplomat’s lapel, dawn reaching that far down. He shrugs; my hand drifts along the inside of his thigh. In the darkroom that evening, I touch a girl’s hand and the girl giggles.

*

101: signifying an introduction. Thursday. Times Square. Another lover, a sculptor. He presents me a pair of blue topaz earrings in a clear plastic pouch. If I ever used cocaine, as many suggest I should not, I might now think, This bag I recognize.  In the back of a taxicab, he rips a wide hole in my cheap black tights and gathers me inside with his fist, as if forcing a flower to close.

*

From our hotel window, I watch families walk through the park. A fruit stand opens, then shuts an hour later. But is the sky silver with heat, or with cold? Either way, I have my doubts. The sculptor showers and I—sore and spent—lay on the bed and dream of dogs running through the streets. Dogs who are no person’s, just animals together, looking for meat and water.

*

A reclining form with lifted hands commonly represents the desire to enter air with purpose. It is valid to deduce the body will soon swim toward the sun, departing the grass and any empty chairs arranged outside the frame. I begin to look for my blouse, the one with the lace diamond set over the heart.


 

Figure 6: Uncontested

 

Nothing can keep me to a place. In the moonlight, along a mountain road named for types of thunder, the son of a Dutchman and I walk to a muddy trout pond. Between us we pass a flat bottle. We strip and leave our clothing along the shale-reddened road. He strikes me. I smile as I fall. Blueberry bushes crowd the summer hills. Dogs run through the humid night air, snapping at thistles in bloom.

*

At the end of my life, what will be the word of my life? I have not mastered the crossword and the son of the Dutchman rarely reads. Lines in the linen bedding do echo those of a gun barrel, but I can make no further suggestions of how to see. After all, a rifle resting in one corner of the bedroom reminds me of more than just a broom.

*

Snowmobiles, ratty upstate bars, a stripper squatting and patting her white-sequined crotch. No longer eighteen and no longer packing boxes, I watch a game of pool at a tavern. The cues jut shallowly over the red felt and I try to recall the history of Mediterranean jasmine. Are the flowers still the size of my thumbnails, does the Indian Ocean still curl into the seawall, did the woman’s wrists ever stop aching?

*

What are you to me? The sound of the ocean is very distant. The actor waves from the balcony of a motel long razed. I lick my lower lip. It tastes of sweat, of whiskey, of Guinness. In my mind sounds the howl of rest area hand dryers. The hiss of film rewinding on a spool. And so there are places we may enter if our purpose is finding. This line not part of the country song playing on the jukebox, I hum it nonetheless.

*

Last night a pack of coyotes, their cries like transistors, cut over the moonlit Catskill fields. This morning, I commute into the city, the train skirting the Hudson. Across the aisle, I smile at a woman with a baby on her lap. The baby’s blue eyes bulge as it tries to stuff its fist into its mouth. As is typically found, the meeting of river water and land may signify my disinterest in the clinical difference between babble and a coo.

*

From the office windows I watch Lady Liberty wave at a distance. I slip on the black heels I keep in my desk, ignoring the broken camera lying beneath. In no hurry to answer the phone, I take a metal file to my nails. I think of the tightrope walker who once secured a line between the Twin Towers and made it across with no net or ropes. How he then entered another woman while his wife was lost in the jubilant crowd.


Figure 7: Prayer Eating the Sun

 

Though I, far from anywhere, cannot be sure I hear the story correctly. Though I, soon in bed with another lover (the taller son of my boss), understand the acrobat’s emergency.

*

In the basement of a small white house in Northampton, where I move alone to sort things out, bone-pale spiders drift down from the floor braces. They sail above mildewing couches and a tarnished brass bed, all crowded on the cracked concrete floor. Stuck to pieces of furniture are the yellow tags of division, and each is marked with my first initial. Each a statement: This is the fraction of matter I take upon my departures.  

*

A washing machine drains inaccurately into the sink. I attempt to sing along, wanting to forget the gallon jugs of film developer and fixer leaking in the shadows. Pausing on the stairs I look over my former life, already gathering dust. The charm, its cheap metal chain long oxidized, waits in the unused ashtray of my car. Meanwhile, a neighbor with two young sons and a husband she will divorce years later borrows an egg. Right now, the tall maple between our houses is a tree of many copper wings.

*

Drawers fill with undeveloped film. To orb-weaving spiders that appear in late fall I say, Hello Calvin Coolidge. To be greeted as a president, living or dead, quickens many creatures and the spiders climb faster across their webs. An improved hypothesis, I suppose, reading a letter from the diplomat who recently took a job in architecture. He sent a picture of a house he convinced to tear itself apart, along with a shot of his two new babies and a lock of his wife’s hair.

*

A figure of a reclining woman in the lower left of the frame indicates the sudden weariness I feel as I read his letter for the third time. Consider what a fence or any barrier in the background might—or may come—to represent: safety or impediment? Relaxation or preparation? Or nothing but a short line, invisible from space?

*


Standing on a bridge above the Connecticut River, a theory of time emerges: One phrase, or a single sentence, can accommodate the expanse of many years. An isolated moment may span pages. Two years of marriage plus a temple in the water plus bonfires in beach sand. I lean over the splinter-rich railing and spit into the southbound current. The engineer’s sapphire ring follows down, the topaz earrings from the sculptor trailing after.  

In the beginning, it is unknown if what is lost will be found, elsewhere. I consider other inventions: a mannequin. A headboard. A cityscape. A face. In my mind a mobile spins. Camera, cross, pallet. In the Pacific, kelp vines sway like the tails of swimming horses. In my mind, a useless machine.


Figure 8: Exodus

 

Aiming a telescope toward Saturn I see only the bedroom’s stucco ceiling. Sitting at the window I press my face into the curtains of jade green silk woven tight. Sea lions bellow from the wharf. Again I wonder at the ability of the mind to hide in the body. At the history of straddling a diplomat in a yellow Adirondack chair, in the middle of a New England pasture, with stars in the sky so thick they might be walked into. Might be opened or shut. Outside, a woman calls to a dog in the twilight: Sunshine! Sunshine!  The way ground calls to air.

*

Considering gravity’s strong presence in the frame, it is possible to predict the following actions: Pulling sheets from a bed and pushing them into a hot water wash. Tearing shingles from a roof. Combing dried azalea petals from the hair. Watching the married house empty itself onto the spring grass.

*

For days I try to scrub the birthmark from my upper arm. Failing that, I wet my thumbs and run one over each eyebrow, twice. Hiking at Año Nuevo, trudging out to view the elephant seals molting deep in the dunes, I cross three fault lines in under an hour. Under the sun, barely interested.

*

Shut eyes may signify a fear of objection, as when drinking in a bar years ago, I threw the darts blind and squatted deep in the hopes the colleague would look down the back of my jeans. In my mind, cows forever dot steep gold hills. Castles I do not own wave from a map of Algiers. I dial his number three times and hang up twice.  

Open windows may symbolize nothing commonly known. Or the woman with her back to the world may bring to mind car horns, sounding sharply from the street. East, west. Places, loves. Once named, they begin to reappear. All figurations and geographies call at once as memory builds its own mask. Because thinking I remembered nothing I find I remember everything.

*

Did those city dogs ever find enough to eat in the park? The camera grows too still, the chain too fragile, for all I want to keep. Memory full of inclusions, I bend to a metal detector. The machine makes a low humming sound. Will it locate a blurry skyline, my ripped tights, or a thin coyote, small in a wide field? The baby? In the basement darkroom, ribbons of film hang to dry. As my face passes again over the search coil, an ocean, long covering my body, finally begins to retract.

 

All photographs ©Laurie Saurborn.