A Cluster of Sunsets
    Thomas Bolt  
  The summer I was killed we all went down to the lake. It was practically a family reunion: me, my husband Jim, our three kids Roger, Patty, and Everett, and Jim's sister Say-ruh (as she pronounced it—I never much liked her) and her boys Elmo and Josh. Josh is tall (he was already taller than me), kind, and, at 15, certainly fantasized about his aunt's body (I had a very good figure, not too skinny); he helped me unfasten the bicycles from our roofrack while Jim and the rest took groceries in. The weather was fine; it was almost dusk. Elmo, by the way, who is not tall, is moody, a few years older, and, I suspect, homosexual—he never seems to look at girls, and, that first evening, wouldn't play cards with the rest of us. When I went to the kitchen to get some cold water, he was leaning down into his own shadow over the counter, absently biting into a very green apple and reading a book of poems with a dark cover, Out of the Woods by Thomas Bolt. A drip hit the page, which dent-wrinkled. I filled my glass and went back to the game. But I got along well with both nephews, and Josh lifted my unfastened bicycle beautifully off and set it on the gravel: the ticking rear wheel abruptly stopped. (I love, or loved, that ticking whir of a backpedalled ten-speed breezing against no gear. My new mountain bike.) I mounted, waved, shouted something over my shoulder, took a quick loop down the drive, through a pinegrove, and back; dismounted; and left the bike propped against the cabin wall. My hair was a light honey-blond—though I had been much fairer as a child. I was thirty-seven.

We all had fun the next day, entering the mode of vigorous relaxation, a fiction well known to families. Patty and I went out, briefly, on a tilting boat, but the mosquitoes bit her (they didn't bother me); she feared sunburn and wanted to read. When we got back everyone had gone off somewhere. I rode alone for six or seven miles, down and back around a long snare of a trail.

Let me explain something: we made an odd family, though normal enough: our usual cabin was just outside a National Park: a twenty minute walk, along a sandy but serious creek, to the lake. We would camp in the park, on and off, during our stay; sleep outside and see the stars. We thought it was good for the kids. So every year we dragged along a paper sack of aluminum stakes still clodded with last year's mud, along with an old, musty, enormous canvas tent, and a sleek nylon one—electric blue—that shivered in any wind like some even frailer thing. Patty, our fat daughter, would not camp out: she stayed in the cabin, leaving one tent (unfortunately, the smaller nylon one) for Jim, Say-ruh, and me; and the roomy, gloomy one for the four boys.

It was almost dusk: then it was. Patty was going to have dinner with us, and wanted some tea. My boys had laid the fire, but we'd forgotten to bring water to the campsite, so I walked down to the Park Service pump just uphill from the edge of Looping Lake, named (according to a plaque affixed to some giant toy logs) in honor of Jeffrey T. Looping, a park ranger, drowned rescuing an infant (who survived, grew up, and became a distinguished circuit court judge) in tangled and deflating waterwings. The lake was for fishing—it was stocked—not for swimming. We usually swam at night, discreetly nude, if it wasn't too cold; we never fished. Even the night swimming, closely supervised, was better than allowing the kids to dive from the abrupt impossible heights of drilled stone over any of the old, snakeridden quarries in the area. Some of those quarries were quite dry, some had filled to the brim with years of rain (and were beer and pot-party haunts besides, where local kids would be sure to pick fights with any interloping city boys). And sometimes water that looked deep from above was only a mirror's inch of sky.

Horizon was reddening. My flip-flops—inappropriate shoes for walking on loose rocks, but otherwise comfortable—dragged in the gravel. Occasionally we would see stone blocks lying in the woods, fluted, almost, like column drums: discarded long ago by quarriers who'd found cracks or crumbling veins of unwanted stone. Looping Lake was manmade, and I wondered if the earthen dam at one end had been reinforced with other abandoned blocks. Probably: there was a gravel road across it.

Pump-rush; pump-rush; the squeaky thing cranked our galvanized bucket full, though there was something too soft (I thought) behind its pressure. Like many outmoded things, the pump was pleasant to use—pleasant for me, anyway, in a way it must rarely have been to some sober drudge who had no better plumbing, back in the gadgetless, pioneer past. Then, it was work. (It was work for us, of a different kind, being this close to the wild, and yet insulating ourselves from it, keeping almost the same safe distance we were accustomed to.)

A cluster of sunsets swam on the brimming bucket's tensing surface. Spill. Drip. Lit water. I walked back from the park pump, up the too-neat trail of shredded bark—most unnatural, mulch—to the campsite.

I set the bucket down. My husband, a wry chemist who once lost a thumbnail in a minor explosion (or something like one that he couldn't explain properly), wanted, or so he joked, to add a drop or two of chlorine. A happy pessimist, Jim saw, or pretended to see, the best water we would ever drink as a swirling infusion of microbes.

This second night was our first in the tents. The presence of his sister an arm's length away always made Jim breathlessly ardent—literally—he was trying not to breathe, not daring to stir up sound during the whole slow process of gently reaching under me and touching me with two fingers until I was wet—followed by a very gradual, insinuating penetration from behind (we lay like spoons)—and then his moving, impossibly hushed climax, gripping my hips, with its aftermath of a single, whispered sound—a comical situation that his frosted, scrawny, blond sister was certainly aware of. She had advised, or warned, Jim not to marry me; now our ordinary, happy life together annoyed her. Since I didn't much care how she felt, I never rubbed it in, though I admit it was satisfying to notice that my natural aloofness to any nastiness or cynical crack of hers seemed to bother her more than open taunting might have.

I had to walk out afterward to pee. The Milky Way that night was searingly there—as it's supposed to be, far from a city: whiter than sunny laundry (our own sheets airing out behind the cabin, on a thin rope stretched between two pines) hung against void. Whiter than the thin roll of thin paper I carried in my hand. I'd forgotten: we really do live in a galaxy! Even astronomers must forget! What tiny contexts we prefer to focus on—daily, personal, family, social, national, international, earthly, solar.... With the shiver of old photons in my eyes, I looked at those giant figures of past light, and thought of our tent's thin nylon shell; our frail station wagon in its rut of gravel and grass; how my mother's grin, her way of pouring me a cup of tea, her gray eyes were coded in my thoughts, along with the big, fragrant, cemetery boxwood into which we had poured her ashes. I squatted, looking up: like looking up into time, which must look different, as space does, depending on your "relative position," as Jim might say: your point of view. After I finished, I walked, in time, through space, down to the lake to wash my fingertips.

The sky was on the lake. It was addictive: wild and strange. I looked up again, until at last I found a shape I recognized. The Big Dipper made the crammed sky seem not so much overawing or impossible as...kind and reasonable?...or merely true. I was fond of the Dipper, though I knew its homely configuration depended on a subjective point of view: the same set of stars, from another angle, galaxies away, would be unrecognizable—or else might constellate a pitchfork, a perfect italic T, a horse's head; or mimic, with other stars, the brightest lights of some major city, as seen by an airline pilot on a particular approach. But, so what. I liked the image, in an old story I read as a girl, of the Dipper as a battered, familiar, tin pan used to dip cold rainwater up from a dark mossbottomed barrel. Through some magic I've forgotten, maybe for having helped to satisfy the unbelievable thirst of a runaway slave, the tin pan came to be placed in the night sky, from which it guided her, by pointing to the polestar, to the safe haven of the Industrial North. Of course the Plough, and the Great Bear, were there before: the Dipper's story was just one among many projected on the false pattern of a random sky—even to a child, this business of constellations is obviously forced. Their stick-figure myths are far from convincing. Our systems are projections, and not projected well. They fail to fit, they oversimplify, like crank social theories (and which aren't?), or the literary theory Sarah, who was going back to school for an M.A., was always reading now, with such an air of smug importance. Other than the Dipper, Orion, and a few others almost excused by their elegance, a constellation is a relationship, depending on a special point of view, forced on entirely unrelated stars.

At dawn we all drank Jim's very good coffee made on the cement-and-stone, irongridded hearth that the Park Service had thoughtfully provided, and eyed our neighbors' empty campsites—they were all out catching the stocked fish. We had plans that day: a long hike, a big lunch, sitting down before dinner to a board game that Patty liked to play, and a late cookout with ghost stories afterward. A number of things were going to happen that never did.

I spent most of that third day relaxing with my difficult daughter, who likes to play chess and would quote the feminist authors she'd just discovered to me as if the history of women (imagining it first to be definitive or true as it comes to us and is interpreted) were not a record of occurrences but a list of ills, outrages, and abuses for which I was tacitly responsible. (But her "outrage" was so earnest, so optimistic!) I was a terrible chessplayer, she was wrong, and I lost six games and tied one. (Sorry I named you Patricia, sweetie: I didn't think of what "Pat" would rhyme with twenty-five times a day at school.) While we sat on the porch and talked, the boys explored. Jim was out stalking his quarry in the woods—hunting mushrooms, his lonely hobby (in our whole family, only his sister will eat them)—collecting by chance a perfect example of a Destroying Angel. It was a luminous white, like the flame of one candle seen though the white wax of the next. "A crumb or two of this could kill us all," Jim bragged, and carefully washed his hands in the empty lake. Around us, the day's fish were fried.

The sun was rising somewhere on the globe: here, it set. The waterbucket, half an inch from empty, sat on a flat, lichened rock that was almost level. "Yeah, but you should think. Not just..." Elmo admonished tall, young Josh. I didn't hear the rest.

Think? I thought. My senses buzzed with it. A half-hour left in which to see, more or less. I thought of that jouncing bucket, that quiet moment the day before when I'd carried several suns, liquid, in cool water. Bounce: multiply. Still: unite. I went and got my bike. Josh wore cutoff jeans and no shirt, and as I passed I slapped his taut belly with my palm, sizing him up with auntly comedy. Josh and I flirted briefly—teasingly, only a game, always a part of the way we got along—until his mother (whom I had not seen nearby) made a cruel, unnecessary, and excessive comment. I straddled the bike. Across a damp, pineneedly patch of ground, she and I had a quick embarrassing argument. I was a little sharper than I should have been—really, I should have laughed—but unexpected criticism does that. Especially on vacation, and from her. I straddled the bike and footed it toward the path.

"I don't need this, Sarah. Don't be sick," I said, or something else, and took off, past poor embarrassed Josh—my main reason for cutting it short. I wanted to curse; didn't. Smiled, or grinned defensively, instead. My shoulder grazed a rough, sticky pine-scale as I cut onto the dim path.

"Keep that mushroom away from our crazy daughter," I said to Jim as I passed the tent. She stuck her fat, pretty face out of the tent, her pink tongue extended. The bicycle rattled under me; I went off in amused anger down a thin trail that would probably lead to one of the trails I knew.

Curving, secondary paths wound through the woods—fir, and spruce, if I'm not mistaken—and I should have watched where I was going, if only because so many of those paths doubled back to end where they began. True, Josh had had an erection; but I doubt if Sarah had noticed, and besides, it was neither here nor there. Young boys' erections are hardly stately declarations of intent. That was a red herring, and I was off: I'd be back in a bit, when the sun definitively set, to smooth things over.

I pedaled uphill, telling Jim's sister off in my head, following a trail of thought through the woods instead of minding where the path was taking me.

A bicycle is a slender instrument, really, compared to the forces involved in a quick ride over shattered stonebits and poorly-purchased weeds into the wide, sunny, sudden air eighty-five feet over a dry, abandoned quarry: but not nearly so vulnerable as I, since I understand that Jim was able to give the bike's bent but fixable remains, wisely, to charity. The finality of death is enormous, but, no longer lying there with a shattered head and an arm bent back under me by mistake—purely by mistake, all of it; I wasn't that mad—I can see that its finality (in my case, in yours) begins even before birth, in the concern of parents for an unseen growing bulb of tissue with peasized head and tiny, swimming hands. Death was always as much a part of me as my own musculature. As necessary; as easily forgotten.

This turned out to have been my way, Jim, of saying goodbye; goodbye, Roger and Everett, goodbye Patty; goodbye sad Elmo and handsome Josh: just pedaling off, angry, grinning away.

The impact was terrible because it made no sound, no concussion, no repercussion; I was a bucket in which a cluster of sunsets swarmed.

Sun sank like a swallowed rock.

Sun withdrew from the lion-worried flank of a sunflayed zebra covered with flies, as if from a dumped box of very black, very fat raisins. Far from any tourist camera. There. Setting between the peeled, forked stick and the dolmen.

A boy wiped his mouth; there was sun on it, setting. On Gibraltar the day, or some other day, was ending: a wineglass was lifted and set down: the sun curved on its rim, and reddened there. Began to slip down the great, discolored dome of a Ukrainian museum; slipped away.

A Canadian penny dropped by a journalist blazed up from a narrow Egyptian street; its fluid gold sank (with a last, wet wobble) from this momentary transmutation back to cool, minted copper: went inert. An old man drained the last coffee from a small cup with a wet red gleam on its handle, swallowing. Sun set in patterns through a thousand screens, falling on books, beds, jewels, food, an anarchy of papers, instruments. It shone in the black hair of a bride in Kashmir. Reddened a tilted Antarctic field of pink snow, gold snow, snow going bluish-violet, where a lone animal blinked its liquid eye, reflecting a long horizon with a long, thin, Möbius-wisp of cloud. (You expect—or I suppose I expected, anyway—a quick, sharp, shock: enveloping darkness, infinitely dense: then nothing more. Where was I? A merging rush of places; here and somewhere not, emerging from a framework, blinking awake, seeing time like fireworks outside of time.)

Sky plunged into the quarry, echoing. One wheel still spun, chrome, chrome, chrome; a sunset glanced from every spoke.

Sun eased into the ocean leaving a quick, molten arc like a submerging swimmer's outspread hair. Elapsed along the uneven boards of a desolate fence somewhere in Peru; slipped down a gleaming needle that is still stuck in a spool of crimson thread on a dusty windowsill in Razan; fell away from a statue in an empty park in Thale, and surrendered a neat, dim dooryard in Yinchuan; glimmered, failing quickly, on the sandy beige exterior of a large northern California computer peripherals firm; disappeared into those sunproof windowpanes, and sank into all the pooled chromes of the one car left in the lot: warm red suddenly cool.

There was no real pain.

A single, familiar sill in Pennsylvania slipped out of the light, its old window, surprisingly, open—like a stubborn mirror refusing to reflect.

The sun was setting; stooped, carelessly, to pick up its razor on the horizon: gone.

My head still leaked on the squared, gory rock, but I was already here, I was already nearly everywhere, I was already close by and far away: thank you.
    "A Cluster of Sunsets" first appeared in Southwest Review.





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"A Cluster of Sunsets"
copyright (c) 1997 by Thomas Bolt. All rights reserved.