Bathing in the Styx

Lying on the grass, my hands folded over my chest, I look upwards, the whole of my vision turning green, gold, and baby blue as I look through the irregular sheaf of leaves, branches, and sparkling air overhead. I hold my body still while my eyes dart around, from twisted branch to falling leaf, following the long-lived dance held between the trees and the wind. Every few seconds, a quick-moving bird or insect joins into the choreography, their shadows skittering over the grass.

I try to watch purposefully, with the meticulous, deeply considered attention of an astronomer charting clouds of stars. I try to think of nothing but the wind, the trees, the grass. I reduce them, as though simmering away the water in their bodies, to a slurry of light, matter, and sensation. The wind is a blue-toned and fragrant memory of the seashore and the grass is a kiss on my ankles and wrists. The world is here, in this field. It is contained in the eggshell of the sky, pricked by needles of metallic yellow and olive-green light. I try to keep my mind on a leash, yanking it back when it threatens to dash out of the fenced-in perimeter and onto the road below. This is a task that requires every ounce of my concentration.

Across the field, a young woman, her face obscured by a thick scarf, is bent over her phone. Our gazes never meet. I don’t notice when she leaves but when I next look around, she is already gone. Now, in her place, an older woman is leading a toddler across the patchy grass. She pauses every so often to let him test the sensation of walking on his own; he sinks to his knees, at a loss. His eyes, blinking against the light, move in my direction, but I am too far away for him to truly see: a silhouette bathed in the green blur of the trees. His hands grab at the tufts of grass. When he leans down to inspect the clump in his hand, I notice the roughly circular bald spot on his crown, as obvious as a speckled, pink-and-white carnation pinned to a dark lapel.

Something about very young children has always made me uneasy; with their jerky movements, farsightedness, half-formed limbs, and toothless smiles, they seem especially close to death. Never mind that, in terms of proximity and according to the moral order of things, we should never be farther away from death than we are as children. But even as a young girl myself, I felt that the veil between my life and death was strikingly thin, almost insubstantial. A barrier more like a cobweb than a curtain. I never possessed the sure-footed belief in my own immortality that seemed to characterize the childhoods of others. I was always conscious of fragility, particularly my own. Everything around me and about me seemed weak, insufficient, prone to breakage and failure.

In the photos where I most strongly recognize myself—my real presence, spared from artifice and revealed authentically, in the tepid waters of a drugstore darkroom, before being printed on laminated plastic and handed to my mother in a paper envelope—I am unsmiling, and my eyes are faraway, beholding a fuzzy, nearly invisible figure in the distance. A tiny psychopomp in a black felt hat, cradling a doll with a red satin ribbon woven through the synthetic strands of its hair.

In the moments after the woman-and-baby duo exit the park, a gray-haired gardener, shears in hand, a rubber apron over her midsection, walks assiduously through the field. She vanishes under the cover of the distant trees. I wonder what the world may be trying to tell me with this parade of women entering and exiting the field, while I lay under the cool shade of the largest maple. Will I ever grow old enough to appreciate the passage of days, to enjoy them, to indulge in their small, varied pleasures like the gem-like stars, the star-shaped leaves, the trees like angels, the wind like God? Will I ever lose the perverse urge to siphon away the value of my own time via the vice, the maw, of melancholia, its grip tightening around me like a cuff strapped around my torso, numbing me before the blood draw that reduces me to nothing but matter and sensation, nothing but cells oriented toward despondency, nothing but the shells of thoughts configured for fragility, toward failure?

I don’t want to be “productive”. I don’t want to be “pessimistic”. I don’t want the self-help manual, the uplifting conversation, the sun-bleached afternoon, the tender poem, the TV show produced by a crowd of web-savvy millennials, the gimmick, the joke, the cry in the dark. I want to never cause harm. I want to take back all the pain. I want to forgive. I want to choose right. I sit up, leaves in my hair, suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling I can’t name and will later be unable to describe, to give life beyond where it lives, sick to its stomach, within me. I want to never fear death. I want to meet its eyes across the field.


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