The cliff reminds me. It always does. I pass it, and I remember. It is the shape of the rocks, the way they hold up the sky. There is a plateau there, above which the eagle rides the currents. I imagine the view, the river winding through the canyon, the hills stretching away, light-saturated. I imagine the wind soughing at night, and the cool black distance of the sky. I can’t imagine not being awed, not reaching towards it all.
The awe it inspires must be why it reminds me of what I saw.
I remember. It was the end of my marriage, and I thought it was the beginning of a new way of being married. I was writing a book about it all, with Nada in it, and me, and my ex. It was really about my mother, about the dragon bowl and missionaries in China and carved wooden Buddhas. But it was about me too, about Nada. I wrote the ending before I finished the book. It was a good ending, one I believed in. In it, my ex was going to be what I needed him to be. He was going to be like my father, patient with my young and restless mother, loving her enough to trust. He was going to be the man I married, who trusted me as I trusted him. But he was already crumbling. The more I begged him to trust me (and I was trustworthy still, then), the more he accused me. Nada, then still only a friend, was so gentle in contrast.
We went on a trip, my ex and I, trying to recover what was slipping away. We drove through the hills to my alma mater, walked through the woods to the beach. I got lost, in my mind, in memories, and wrote the ending of the story of my mother, which was wrapped up in my own story. In the end, my mother went back. She came into a clearing, and her husband was there, waiting. So was the light.
I thought it would be so. But only a few hours later, we drove to the ocean and booked into a lodge hotel. We threw our duffle bags on the bed and went for dinner. Back in our room, later, we slept, and I woke to thunder. When I got up, everything held still. I know what I saw.
I pulled back the curtains. There was thunder, yes, and lightning, in a place that was more like dream than now. There must have been water sleeting down the window pane. There must have been. But there wasn’t. I looked out onto a spit of land, grassy. A fire in the center. Wooden logs laid down like benches. People dancing, drumming, chanting. The wind blew, but it blew inside them. It held them. They sang to it.
“Look,” I said. “Look out the window. There’s people dancing.”
“Come to bed,” he said. “You’re dreaming. It’s pouring rain.”
In the rain, in the storm, in the very still heart of it, people danced around the fire outside the window. I saw them. I heard them. The chanting held me in thrall, winding as it was around the distant call of the storm. I smelled the smoke from the fire, felt its heat. I saw their eyes, the swirl of their hair, their sleek lean bodies dancing beneath the great black sky.
“Come look,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” he said.
In the bathroom, I sat on the toilet with my head in my hands. I could hear them still. I could hear the rain sluicing down the window, and I could hear the dancers dancing. I looked at my face in the mirror and I was pale and my eyes were blackbright and horrified. I saw them. They were as real as my hands on the keyboard in front of me now. They were real.
In the morning, I got up and went to the window. I thought I’d find proof. A fire still smoldering, or at least a circle of rocks with dead gray ashes in the center. Logs laid around a circle, waiting for the next dance. I opened the curtains, looked out, and saw air and clouds and birds. The hotel was on a cliff. Beyond the window the land plunged down to water far below. The dancers had been dancing on air, on clouds, on what did not exist. Gulls swooped and soared where people had sat and drummed. What I saw had not been.
But it was. I am reminded of it every time — every time — I pass that certain rock formation in the canyon. The same spirit that breathed in the roiling air outside the window, in the clean, rain-washed space of my vision, soars with the eagle above the rock plateau. I don’t know what I saw. It was not real in my time. But there was something there, that night, that bridged time and space. Something of imagination and history brought together, of memory and projection. When I think, “What is real?” I know that what I saw that night was as real as what I see before me now.
In the morning, the wintry washed air breathed over me. I sat on a wall and watched three crows on an overhead line. Two sat together, rubbing heads. Another sat at a distance, watching them. I couldn’t figure out which crow I was. The one in the partnership, with Nada watching from a distance? Or maybe my ex was the distant crow, and I was with Nada. Or maybe I was the lonely one, and the two sitting so close, so lovingly together, were my husband and ….? Nada and …..? I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell which crow I was.
I was all of them. We all are. The dancers dance, and the rocks in the canyon are sacred. I saw what I saw. I saw the crows.