SATURDAY READING: Newborn And Salted by Annie Dillard

Newborn And Salted by Annie Dillard

From Holy the Firm 

Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.  I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.

I wake in a god.  I wake in arms holding my quilt, holding me as best they can inside my quilt.

Someone is kissing me — already.  I wake, I cry, “Oh,” I rise from the pillow.  Why should I open my eyes?

I open my eyes.  The god lifts from the water.  His head fills the bay.  He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders.  Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage.

Today’s god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds.  He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like skin.

Under the quilt in my knees’ crook is a cat.  She wakes; she curls to bite her metal sutures.  The day is real; already, I can feel it click, hear it clicking under my knees.

The day is real; the sky clicks securely in place over the mountains, locks round the islands, snaps slap on the bay.  Air fits flush on farm roofs; it rises inside the doors of barns and rubs at yellow barn windows.  Air clicks up my hand cloven into fingers and wells in my ears’ holes, whole and entire.  I call it simplicity, the way matter is smooth and alone.

I toss the cat.  I stand and smooth the quilt.  “Oh,” I cry, “Oh!”

I live on northern Puget Sound, in Washington State, alone.  I have a gold cat, who sleeps on my legs, named Small.  In the morning I joke to her blank face, Do you remember last night?  Do you remember?  I throw her out before breakfast, so I can eat.

There is a spider, too, in the bathroom, with whom I keep a sort of company.  Her little outfit always reminds me of a certain moth I helped to kill.  The spider herself is of uncertain lineage, bulbous at the abdomen and drab.  Her six-inch mess of a web works, works somehow, works miraculously, to keep her alive and me amazed.  The web itself is in a corner behind the toilet, connecting tile wall to tile wall and floor, in a place where there is, I would have thought, scant traffic.  Yet under the web are sixteen or so corpses she has tossed to the floor.

The corpses appear to be mostly sow bugs, those little armadillo creatures who live to travel flat out in houses, and die round.  There is also a new shred of earwig, three old spider skins crinkled and clenched, and two moth bodies, wingless and huge and empty, moth bodies I drop to my knees to see.

Today the earwig shines darkly and gleams, what there is of him: a dorsal curve of thorax and abdomen, and a smooth pair of cerci by which I knew his name.  Next week, if the other bodies are any indication, he will be shrunken and gray, webbed to the floor with dust.  The sow bugs beside him are hollow and empty of color, fragile, a breath away from brittle fluff.  The spider skins lie on their sides, translucent and ragged, their legs drying in knots.  And the moths, the empty moths, stagger against each other, headless, in a confusion of arcing strips of chitin like peeling varnish, like a jumble of buttresses for cathedral domes, like nothing resembling moths, so that I should hesitate to call them moths, except that I have had some experience with the figure Moth reduced to a nub.

Two summers ago I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ramsey Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again.  So I read, lost, every day sitting under a tree by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.

Moths kept flying into the candle.  They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cooking pans.  Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched — a pan, a lid, a spoon — so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free.  These I could release by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum.  So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on.

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held.  I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all.  A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second.  Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine.  At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke.  At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly.  And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire.  When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs.  Had she been new, or old?  Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work?  All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick.  She kept burning.  The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk.  That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side.  The moth’s head was fire.  She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning — only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.

And that is why I believe those hollow crisps on the bathroom floor are moths.  I think I know moths, and fragments of moths, and chips and tatters of utterly empty moths, in any state.  How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives and be writers?  I was trembling from coffee, or cigarettes, or the closeness of faces all around me.  (Is this what we live for?  I thought; is this the only final beauty: the color of any skin in any light, and living, human eyes?)  All hands rose to the question.  (You, Nick?  Will you?  Margaret?  Randy?  Why do I want them to mean it?)  And then I tried to tell them what the choice must mean: you can’t be anything else.  You must go at your life with a broadax. . . .  They had no idea what I was saying.  (I have two hands, don’t I?  And all this energy, for as long as I can remember.  I’ll do it in the evenings, after skiing, or on the way home from the bank, or after the children are asleep. . . .)  They thought I was raving again.  It’s just as well.

I have three candles here on the table which I disentangle from the plants and light when visitors come.  Small usually avoids them, although once she came too close and her tail caught fire; I rubbed it out before she noticed.  The flames move light over everyone’s skin, draw light to the surface of the faces of my friends.  When the people leave I never blow the candles out, and after I’m sleepy they flame and burn.

The Cascade range, in these high latitudes, backs almost into the water.  There is only a narrow strip, an afterthought of foothills and farms sixty miles wide, between the snowy mountains and the sea.  The mountains wall well.  Thes rest of the country — most of the rest of the planet, in some very real sense, excluding a shred of British Columbia’s coastline and the Alaskan islands — is called, and profoundly felt to be, simply “East of the Mountains.”  I’ve been there.

I came here to study hard things — rock mountain and salt sea — and to temper my spirit on their edges.  “Teach me thy ways, O Lord,” is, like all prayers, a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend.  These mountains — Mount Baker and the Sisters and Shuksan, the Canadian Coastal Range and the Olympics on the peninsula — are surely the edge of the known and comprehended world.  They are high.  That they bear their own unimaginable masses and weathers aloft, holding them up in the sky for anyone to see plain, makes them, as Chesterton said of the Eucharist, only the more mysterious by their very visibility and absence of secrecy.  They are the western rim of the real, if not considerably beyond it.  If the Greeks had looked at Mount Baker all day, their large and honest art would have broken, and they would have gone fishing, as these people do.  And as perhaps I one day shall.

But the mountains are, incredibly, east.  When I first came here I faced east and watched the mountains, thinking, These are the Ultima Thule, the final westering, the last serrate margin of time.  Since they are, incredibly, east, I must be no place at all.  But the sun rose over the snowfields and woke me where I lay, and I rose and cast a shadow over someplace, and thought, There is, God help us, more.  So gathering my bowls and spoons, and turning my head, as it were, I moved to face west, relinquishing all hope of sanity, for what is more.

And what is more is islands: sea, and unimaginably solid islands, and sea, and a hundred rolling skies.  You spill your breath.  Nothing holds; the whole show rolls.  I can imagine Virginias no less than Pacifics.  Inland valley, pool, desert, plain — it’s all a falling sheaf of edges, like a quick-flapped deck of cards, like a dory or a day launched all unchristened, lost at sea.  Land is a poured thing and time a surface film lapping and fringeing at fastness, at a hundred hollow and receding blues.  Breathe fast: we’re backing off the rim.

Here is the fringey edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.  The salt sea and the islands, molding and molding, row upon rolling row, don’t quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves.  The actual percentage of land mass to sea in the Sound equals that of the rest of the planet: we have less time than we knew.  Time is eternity’s pale interlinear, as the islands are the sea’s.  We have less time than we knew and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild.

The room where I live is plain as a skull, a firm setting for windows.  A nun lives in the fires of the spirit, a thinker lives in the bright wick of the mind, an artist lives jammed in the pool of materials.  (Or, a nun lives, thoughtful and tough, in the mind, a nun lives, with that special poignancy peculiar to religious, in the exile of materials; and a thinker, who would think of something, lives in the clash of materials, and in the world of spirit where all long thoughts must lead; and an artist lives in the mind, that warehouse of forms, and an artist lives, of course, in the spirit.  So.)  But this room is a skull, a fire tower, wooden, and empty.  Of itself it is nothing, but the view, as they say, is good.

Since I live in one room, one long wall of which is glass, I am myself, at everything I do, a backdrop to all the landscape’s occasions, to all its weathers, colors and lights.  From the kitchen sink, and from my bed, and from the table, the couch, the hearth, and the desk, I see land and water, islands, sky.

The land is complex and shifting: the eye leaves it.  There is a white Congregationalist church among Douglas firs; there is a green pasture between two yellow fallow fields; there are sheep bent over beneath some alders, and beside them a yard of running brown hens.  But everything in the landscape points to sea.  The land’s progress of colors leads the eye up a distant hill, a sweeping big farm of a hill whose yellow pastures bounce light all day from a billion stems and blades; and down the hill’s rim drops a dark slope of fir forest, a slant your eye rides down to the point, the dark sliver of land that holds the bay.  From this angle you see the bay cut a crescent; your eye flies up the black beach to the point, or slides down the green first to the point, and the point is an arrow pointing over and over, with its log-strewn beach, its gray singleness, and its recurved white edging of foam, to sea: to the bright sound, the bluing of water with distance at the world’s rim, and on it the far blue islands, and over these light the light clouds.

You can’t picture it, can you?  Neither can I.  Oh, the desk is yellow, the oak table round, the ferns alive, the mirror cold, and I never have cared.  I read.  In the Middle Ages, I read, “the idea of a thing which a man framed for himself was always more real to him than the actual thing itself.”  Of course.  I am in my Middle Ages; the world at my feet, the world through the window, is an illuminated manuscript whose leaves the wind takes, one by one, whose painted illuminations and halting words draw me, one by one, and I am dazzled in days and lost.

There is, in short, one country, one room, one enormous window, one cat, one spider, and one person: but I am hollow.  And, for now, there are the many gods of mornings and the many things to give them for their work — lungs and heart, muscle, nerve, and bone — and there is the no man’s land of many things wherein they dwell, and from which I seek to call them, in work that’s mine.

Nothing is going to happen in this book.  There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time.

So I read.  Armenians, I read, salt their newborn babies.  I check somewhere else: so did the Jews at the time of the prophets.  They washed a baby in water, salted him, and wrapped him in cloths.  When God promised to Aaron and all the Levites all the offerings Israel made to God, the firstfruits and the firstling livestock, “all the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine,” he said of this promise, “It is a covenant of salt forever.”  In the Roman church baptism, the priest places salt in the infant’s mouth.

I salt my breakfast eggs.  All day long I feel created. I can see the blown dust on the skin on the back of my hand, the tiny trapezoids of chipped clay, moistened and breathed alive.  There are some created sheep in the pasture below me, sheep set down here precisely, just touching their blue shadows hoof to hoof on the grass.  Created gulls pock the air, rip great curved seams in the settled air: I greet my created meal, amazed.

I have been drawing a key to the islands I see from my window.  Everyone told me a different set of names for them, until one day a sailor came and named them all with such authority that I believed him.  So I penciled an outline of the horizon on a sheet of paper and labeled the lobes: Skipjack, Sucia, Saturna, Salt Spring, Bare Island. . . .

Today, November 18 and no wind, today a veil of air has lifted that I didn’t know was there.  I see a new island, a new wrinkle, the deepening of wonder, behind the blue translucence the sailor said is Salt Spring Island.  I have no way of learning its name.  I bring the labeled map to the table and pencil a new line.  Call that: Unknown Island North; Water-Statue; Sky-Ruck; Newborn and Salted; Waiting for Sailor.

Henry Miller relates that Knut Hamsun once said, in response to a questionnaire, that he wrote to kill time.  This is funny in a number of ways.  In a number of ways I kill myself laughing, looking out at islands.  Startled, the yellow cat on the floor stares over her shoulder.  She has carried in a wren, I suddenly see, a wren she has killed, whose dead wings point askew on the circular rug.  It is time.  Out with you both.  I’m busy laughing, to kill time.  I shoo the cat from the door, turn the wren over in my palm, unmoved, and drop him from the porch, down to the winterkilled hair grass and sedge, where the cat may find him if she will, or crows, or beetles, or rain.

When I next look up from my coffee, there is a ruckus on the porch.  The cat has dragged in a god, scorched.  He is alive.  I run outside.  Save for his wings, he is a perfect, very small man.  He is fair, thin-skinned in the cat’s mouth, and kicking.  His hair in on fire and stinks; his wingtips are blackened and seared.  From the two soft flaps of the cat’s tiger muzzle his body jerks, naked.  One of his miniature hands pushes hard at her nose.  He waves his thighs; he beats her face and the air with his smoking wings.  I cannot breathe.  I run at the cat to scare her; she drops him, casting at me an evil look, and runs from the porch.

The god lies gasping and perfect.  He is no longer than my face.  Quickly I snuff the smoldering fire in his yellow hair with a finger and thumb.  In so doing I accidentally touch his skull, brush against his hot skull, which is the size of a hazelnut, as the saying goes, warm-skinned and alive.

He rolls his colorless eyes toward mind: his long wings catch strength from the sun, and heave.

Later I am walking in the day’s last light.  The god ides barefoot on my shoulder, or astride it, or tugging on swinging on loops of my hair.

He is whistling at my ear; he is blowing a huge tune in my ear, a myth about November.  He is heaping a hot hurricane into my ear, into my hair, an ignorant ditty calling things real, calling islands out of the sea, calling solid moss from curling rock, and ducks down the sky for the winter.

I see it!  I see it all!  Two islands, twelve islands, worlds, gather substance, father the blue contours of time, and array themselves down distance, mute and hard.

I seem to see a road; I seem to be on a road, walking.  I seem to walk on a blacktop road that runs over a hill.  The hill creates itself, thickening with apparently solid earth and waving plants, with houses and browsing cattle, unrolling wherever my eyes go, as though my focus were a brush painting in a world.  I cannot escape the illusion.  The colorful thought persists, this world, a dream forced into my ear and sent round my body on ropes of hot blood.  If I throw my eyes past the rim of the hill to see the real — stars, were they? something with wings, or loops? — I elaborate the illusion instead; I rough in a middle ground.  I stitch the transparent curtain solid with bright phantom mountains, with thick clouds gliding just so over their shadows on green water, with blank, impenetrable sky.  The dream fills in, like wind widening over a bay.  Quickly I look to the flat dream’s rim for a glimpse of that old deep. . . and, just as quickly, the blue slaps shut, the colors wrap everything out.  There is not a chink.  The sky is gagging on trees.  I seem to be on a road, walking, greeting the hedgerows, the rose hips, apples, and thorn.  I seem to be on a road walking, familiar with neighbors, high-handed with cattle, smelling the sea, and alone.  Already, I know the names of things.  I can kick a stone.

Time is enough, more than enough, and matter multiple and given.  The god of today is a child, a baby new and filling the house, remarkably here in the flesh.  He is day.  He thrives in a cup of wind, landlocked and thrashing.  He unrolls, revealing his shape an edge at a time, a smatter of content, footfirst: a word, a friend for coffee, a windshift, the shingling or coincidence of ideas.  Today, November 18 and no wind, is clear.  Terry Wean — who fishes, and takes my poetry course — could see Mount Rainier.  He hauls his reef net gear from the bay; we talk on its deck while he hammers at shrunken knots.  The Moores for dinner.  In bed, I call to me my sad cat, I read.  Like a rug or wrap rolling unformed up a loom, the day discovers itself, like the poem.

The god of today is rampant and drenched.  His arms spread, bearing moist pastures; his fingers spread, fingering the shore.  He is time’s live skin; he burgeons up from day like any tree.  His legs spread crossing the heavens, flicking hugely, and flashing and arcing around the earth toward night.

This is the one world, bound to itself and exultant.  It fizzes up in trees, trees heaving up streams of salt to their leaves.  This is the one air, bitten by grackles; time is alone and in and out of mind.  The god of today is a boy, pagan and fernfoot.  His power is enthusiasm; his innocence is mystery.  He sockets into everything that is, and that right holy.  Loud as music, filing the grasses and skies, his day spreads rising at home in the hundred senses.  He rises, new and surrounding; he is everything that is, wholly here and emptied — flung, and flowing, sowing, unseen, and flown.


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