CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Bather, Alone: An Essay|
Some cave naked for fear of contaminating the water they mean to study.
Stripping quickly in the pale light of the cave’s opening chamber, she tucks her bundle of clothing behind a stone, shoulders her pack, and steps into darkness.
As the passage twists and descends, her light illuminates the step ahead of her.2 Then the next. She takes each pace as it comes, easing between tight places, scratching her thighs on limestone outcrops. The air tastes thick, like last season’s potatoes. Then she smells water.
She steps into the lake with a gasp; the cold’s always a shock. In this first chamber, a great cavern ringed with dripping stalactites, she strokes confidently through the water; it’s several stories deep, she knows, but so clear the bottom seems just out of reach. She floats into a narrow defile, mineral-rich water wrinkling her fingertips, whitening pared nails. The bright cone of her miner’s light picks out the curling print of a fossil ammonite. She hauls herself onto a boulder and maps her path on damp graph paper, noting the fossils and formations she’s seen, the smoky script of candle-writing on an overhanging ledge near the entrance. A stream of bats pours down the ceiling above her; it must be dusk, time for them to feed.
She drinks bottled protein shakes, relieves herself in a jar, washes perfunctorily with cloths stashed in her pack. She is careful because of the things she sees3 and those she does not.4 She spends a string of silky hours, their passing marked by the phosphorescent glow of her waterproof wristwatch, in darkness deeper than night or day.5
When she steps out of the water, her feet leave a trail of firm prints that nobody will ever see. Surfacing in the sun’s blinding spray, naked as a newborn, what does she say? That she had tried to cleanse herself like a priest or a surgeon,6 had tried not to befoul the place; had tried to see what was there so she could tell the others, the ones too afraid to go.
Ten years ago, my semester abroad. I was taking an art history class, and we all went to Milan to see The Last Supper. Our art history professor7 told us about the technique da Vinci had tried, painting on dry plaster instead of damp, so that he could touch up the colors, make the scene more lifelike. He got the effect he wanted, but at a cost; the paint began to peel shortly after he finished, and that was five hundred years ago.8 As I stood in the quiet line, waiting my turn with the fresco, I felt as though I were intruding on a private moment, a mere acquaintance visiting someone gravely ill; I tried not to take up much space. When my turn came, I stepped into a small chamber, and glass doors tightly sealed the entrance and exit. Then a series of powerful fans roared to life, yanking at my clothes and blasting my hair, making my eyes water. A recorded voice informed me that this was the cleansing room; the fans were supposed to shake off street dust, to protect the delicate painting. When the fans clicked off, it seemed very quiet; the door slid open, and I walked into the room that contained the painting. I looked at it for the prescribed number of minutes, and the docent herded me out.
When I think of the painting now, I barely remember the flaking paint, the mastery of one-point perspective, the expression on Christ’s face—are his eyes downcast or raised? It’s the cleansing room I think of, with its bag of winds that made me feel more contaminated somehow than I had before, walking down the street in the yellow sun, watching pigeons (filthy birds, my mother says) wheel through the air.
At a church in Houston, I served on the altar guild with a group of capable, particular Texas ladies. We took turns gathering the communion things after service, washing them, and putting them away: chalice, pitcher, bowl. We bought linens from a Spanish convent, and I thought of the nuns while I pre-soaked the stained napkins they had stitched; Episcopalian ladies could not be prevailed upon to blot their lipstick before approaching the rail.
I scrubbed the linen with a bar of honey-colored glycerin soap we kept for just that purpose, and it always worked; when the lipstick and dark wine lifted, I draped the dripping squares over the drying rack. Every week, we washed the blood of Christ from the rim of the common cup, wiped clean the print of many lips. If any fragments of body were left over, we took them outside and laid them on the grass. But I confess: I have gone to work in God’s scullery still damp with love, have calculated the cost of the heavy sterling chalices, their insides washed with gold. Lust and greed; I have shut my ears, unrepentant. I have scrubbed with dirty hands.9
I learned the story of Naaman in Sunday School. One of the Old Testament miracles. Naaman the Syrian was a military man, good at what he did, expert at sensing weakness and pressing advantage; he almost always won. Because of this, Naaman owned many changes of clothing and casks of oil, wives and concubines and the children they bore him, menservants and maidservants and cattle and he-asses. He also had leprosy, which nothing could cure.
Naaman had taken a Hebrew servant girl during a skirmish. He gave her to one of his wives, maybe one who’d complained of feeling slighted, maybe a favorite. One day the servant saw him dressing, the tunic fallen open to reveal discolored, pebbly skin on his forearms, and he turned away, shamed. Shaking, he roared Get out of here!
That night the girl spoke to her mistress. He should go to the prophet of my people, in Samaria, the servant girl said. Elisha. He would know how to cure my lord.
So he went to this Elisha, and the man wouldn’t even meet with him. A messenger came out to say, Wash seven times in the Jordan, and your skin will be as that of a little child.
Naaman stared at the messenger lad, incredulous. Obviously, the man meant to insult him. The Jordan was filthy, and besides, it was strange to him. There were any number of superior rivers back home where he could have washed, saving himself the trip. He kicked his horse in the side, and a rooster-tail of dust rose from the dry path as he rode away, blind with anger. He was a powerful man. And yet there was this sickness he could not order away that made people despise him. Maybe that was how he had been able to wrangle such power from others. His weakness (how he hated it) showed him how to exploit theirs. Hated all those who could heal, or pretended to, and wouldn’t.
Then one of his men rode up to him,11 someone bold enough to speak to him when he was in such a thunder. Dared to say, If the prophet had asked a hard thing, you would have done it. Why not this?
Why not this? The Jordan river was close at hand; he could smell the dank water.
Why not this? And prove that prophet a fakir.
Why not this? He had come so far already.
Dismounting, he gave the lead rope to a servant. Heat rose off the stones. The tilting sun flashed on the water as he walked to the river, where he loosed his belt, unbound his tunic, squatted down to pick at the knots securing his sandals. Stood there naked, surrounded by drying dung, buzzing flies at feed. Did he bark at his men to look the other way, or was that already their habit? Did he say, Look at me; this is what it is to be mortal, and mock the ones who flinched? The ones too young to steel themselves.
He stepped into the spit-warm water, arms half-raised for balance, and stared across the river, narrowing his eyes against the glare. Silt swirled around his feet, and he sank a little in the muck. He moved in up to the knees, the firm battle-scarred flanks, his sex floating on the water, and then he dipped himself for the first time into the cave of damp clay the river had become. Surfacing, he shook water from his eyes. He raised his arms out of the river and watched rivulets of water run down the scabbed skin, slicking the hairs, staining his nails. He stepped out further, the water chest-deep now, the sound of its rushing all that he heard. He couldn’t hear the rustling leaves of the trees whose names he didn’t know, or the cry of the strange birds flying overhead. Only the sound of water, a river of mud. He dropped to his knees, feeling the current knock him off his feet momentarily, and then flexed, surfaced, spouting. The second time. Under again, into the opaque water, and up, the current pulling at him, standing there alone; again, and a slick fish brushed his chest, startling him. Standing in the water, watching the sun lowering towards the western horizon,12 he sank into the river, tasted earth, and thought of woman, body’s damp flavor. A cold patch of water hit him and passed on. Should he do anything different for the last time? Did it matter? Hypnotic, this rising and falling, seven-fold washing. He turned towards to the near bank, where his men still waited, water sloughing him, and as he stepped out he felt the dry air wicking his skin. Ran his hands through his dripping hair, picked out a twig, tasted grit. Shook himself.
One of the lads turned around and saw his grimy captain, naked, bedraggled, cleansed.
Naaman the Syrian looked at himself. Pulled the skin on his arm and saw it snap back, healthy. For once in his life, had nothing to say.
It’s a blue so startling you want to gorge yourself on it, gaze at it until (like an idea) you can’t see it anymore, like white winter in the north country. Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States, may be one of the purest; its waters come from springs and snowmelt, not creeks, so there’s no till. Lapis, cobalt, midnight blue. Even at the lake’s deepest point,13 a little light still filters through. Navy soup in a gray bowl.
But only blue from a distance, of course. On a hot August day, I hiked down the steep path to the water’s edge, peeled off shoes and socks, and jumped in. What had been blue turned clear as quartz, and it was so cold (37 degrees) that it knocked out my air.14 But I wanted this. I stroked past the underwater boulders near the shore and opened my eyes as the bottom fell away and the water bore me up. I floated there as long as I could stand it, thinking of the mikvah, Jewish ritual bath,15 how the bather must be completely naked, no earrings or contacts, nails unpolished and hair unbound. I needed that cold swim on that hot day, have needed the memory of it many times since. Needed to shake off the dust. Long ago, a great explosion formed the lake. It had been a classic cinder cone before. This is what scientists think; we can’t know for certain.
He ran back to the prophet’s tent a different person, breathless and thankful. He pressed a reward on Elisha: clothes, silver, 17jewelry. The prophet refused. Naaman tried again; transactions were what he understood. But Elisha would not be moved.
Then Naaman asked Elisha something; we never discussed this in Sunday School. He requested “two mules’ burden of earth” to take with him, so that he could worship Elisha’s God back in Syria. “Thy servant,” he pledged, “will henceforth offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the Lord” (2 Kings 5.17). And Elisha allowed it.
Why would he need that earth? Isn’t worship valid no matter what ground underlies it?
But I think I understand what Naaman wanted: something to build a fire on, something for sacrifice’s blood and fat to soak into. Clay pulls human, as like attracts like; it’s a recognition of kinship.18 Yes, you can change your life in a place where you are a stranger. But to make that change permanent, you have to take it home. Things that happen in other places feel transient, even though they may not be. He needed a measure of his adopted country to carry back with him.
There is nothing to indicate that he returned the Hebrew servant to her family.
Underwater Town (Jocassee River Valley, South Carolina)
Early in the morning, fishing boats drift through the mist that rises from the lake. Sometimes an eighteen-wheeler barrels across the far bridge, invisible in the fog, the blat of its brakes carrying over the water. And then it is quiet for a long time. Misleading to call the towns lost. We know right where they are: far below the lake’s silver skin, below the boats’ keels. At the bottom of reservoirs like Jocassee, whose abandoned farmhouses are always dark, attic to basement.
The diver stretches her arms above her head, making herself a blade, and pushes off with the balls of her feet. She pushes against the water with lean legs, not turning her masked face aside to look at the schools of sunnies and bass, pulling down with even strokes of her arms, breathing slowly through the tank. By now the water’s brown-green, darker with each push, more substantial. Water compresses her to a smaller self, holding her closer than any lover. She snaps on her light, swimming slowly now, and when the farmhouse appears, pale clapboards rising out of the darkness, it surprises her again. She goes inside.
Nothing’s changed, as far as she can tell. Silt cants against the baseboards, a straight-back chair stands in a corner, strips of wallpaper ripple in the gentle current. The windows are broken, but that’s probably from other divers, not from the water that rose when the power company finished the dam and the river swelled, the footpaths flooded and the waterfalls straightened out, and the lake inched up barbed-wire fences and tree trunks, and further.
What if she stripped everything away? Her hair would lift and spread, a dark bloom in the water. Fecundity, life, sex. This, the powerful body that bears her, is what the world sees; hidden within there’s a city whose streets walk alone.19 She doesn’t need to be cleansed: preposterous idea. This mud, her own, washes her. Swims to the lake bottom because she can. Silver pillows of air issue from her lips, rise to the surface.
1. After reading, in a borrowed house, a stranger’s National Geographic.
2. On the longest night of the year, a bulb burns in the narrow kitchen, the stove’s four small cataracts mouth their patient sighs, and the burner leaps into flame when breathed upon. And this is a stay against darkness, the voice of a kettle stretching into thin song. Later, awake, I lie beside him, bone to bone, my arm pressing his back’s seam. He sleeps softly; I am trying to learn this. Instead, I listen as the old accordion radiator rills and knocks.
3. Pale amphibians with blood-bright gills and useless eyespots.
4. Slips squiggling through the water.
5. Once, on a cave tour, I heard a guide claim that a human, if trapped in a cave with no flashlight, would go blind in two weeks from the strain of searching for light where none can be.
6. Or museum-goer.
7. Of whom, the studio art prof said, incredulously, She works five days a week!
8. Thus the painting’s fragility calls attention to its mortality.
9. And yet. I think of the cups I made with slick clay and potter’s wheel, shapes forming wet under the press of my hand and the smooth slide of fingers. When they dried I fired them in the kiln. After I brought them home they clicked, now and then, from the heat slowly escaping them. I slept shallowly then, and sometimes the ticking pots woke me. They seemed alive. Companionable. I’d walk back to my rented room, pantlegs stiff with dried mud, fingertips scoured and glowing. Clean, clean, with my pared nails and ringless fingers. Fingerprinted clay and mud-slipped hands. Clay is a very forgiving material, one of the experienced potters told me. I know what it is to forgive from practicing and practicing on myself.
10. 2 Kings 5. 1-14
11. A brother?
12. Makes you think, how short our days are, a high school boyfriend once said to me.
13. 1,932 feet; the same year (remember?) FDR was elected to his first term.
14. Point your arms above your head, honey, like you’re a diver, she said, helping me into the wedding dress. Seed pearls were strewn on the boutique’s camel-colored carpet, like shells at the beach. She was practiced in this, fitting expensive gowns to the bodies of other women. I was a novice, barefoot in a borrowed corset.
15. For ritual purification after menses. Some scholars place the mikvah before the synagogue in terms of importance to the community; you can worship outside, but if you don’t have a suitable mikvah pool, nobody is allowed lawful intercourse.
16. 2 Kings 5.17
17. One talent equals seventy-five pounds.
18. For instance, I explained to my lover that if we were to marry, it would have to be in South Carolina, at the foot of a sacred mountain. Otherwise, it wouldn’t take.
19. Lights flash, small and bright, on the surface.