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Three Mental Migrations

                                    Judith Kitchen



Everything conspires toward anonymity: the long row of decking, the rail that cuts the sky like a second horizon, the clouds dispersing themselves as though the bleached sun had withdrawn its solace. It’s there, though—because shadows angle back, reaching for a past already discarded.

One foot before the other, one eye on lookout, one heart turning away. Soon—two days, or ten, who knows—there will be a statue, or a promontory, an entry to what, now, is only a gap between the boot and the deck, a space revealed in the way the shadow fails to connect to its source

Loneliness. They are no strangers to the way the body can go numb while the mind travels on. The way travel distorts memory so that the traveler becomes someone new, someone washed clean of history. And history is their enemy—it sticks to them like leeches, leaving them weak and anemic. If they look back, they’ll falter.

When they put down their feet on land, the world will not stop swaying. A tilting world, where words forsake them daily, whirling up in the air like a scattering of birds. So they face farther west, and they walk their way over a continent. Or ride the locomotives into the pulsing heart of the machine. They mutter the unfamiliar pronouns. They shorten their unwieldy names. They make their way into the future. 


Tonight, the rotor whirr so close, so loud, it spelled mayhem, spelled inferno, and then up and over the hill until it was a faint stutter of sound, far off, reminder, and I was spiraling down the flight of years, back, and back again to that tiny courtyard on Praça Pio Onze. Place of Pius the Eleventh. Pious place of calm within the storm.

Here you see only the dark doorway, tucked back and away from the entrance, and only later the stark blacks and sheer whites, the absence of shadow in equatorial light. White upon white upon white stretching into the distance, and the orange tiles of the rooftops drawn out in layers of glittering sunlight. Why, at the sound of one helicopter circling, did Rio return to me now?

It couldn’t be sound that transported me here, where I have only to open the door to step into coolness. It couldn’t be sound because all I remember is a steady whoosh of traffic, and a chatter of maids in the courtyard. The blue hush inside shuttered windows, everything muted, and mild. The popsicle vendors calling—Kibon, Kibon—on the beaches, and somewhere my own heart attuned to the lack of my tongue.

If it couldn’t be sound, what was it? The briefly hectic sky—as though vultures were whirling above me, riding the thermals. Circling like kites in the effortless sky. Yes, maybe the light and its absolute absence of grayscale. Or the why were we willing to challenge ourselves in that climate? And the why I now call it a storm.

The panic, the daily rotor of panic. Daily the fear I was losing myself. Who senses the self in the ongoing order of things? It was there that I felt most American. Most aware of what shaped and sustained me. Most conscious of what I could lose. 

So I look now at photos of family who packed up the words for sausage or mittens, tied them with string and then put them away. I look now at people who managed what I couldn’t handle. Why wasn’t I made of their mettle? They turn away from my self-absorbed question. They have no time for my year of mute displacement. Necessity was a hurricane inside them. They had work to do, cows that needed milking, language that needed to be learned. 


If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.

--Sylvia Plath, “Wuthering Heights”

Bleak on the north Yorkshire moors, the town waits out the century. Here you see only the white doorway of the tiny antique shop where I bought a pewter salt cellar for my mother. Everything else is some shade of grey. So still. Everything leads out and away. Walk down the dingy hillside, beyond the rain-slick cobbles, to where you can turn and look back at a town perched on the lip of oblivion. Walk into the haze of purple heather where the only sound is curlew, curlew and the heart grows wide and lonely. This is the interior landscape—the one that mirrors language and contains the inner ear.

Imagine what it must have been to be whittled down to bone by consumption, to stare out the confining window into that tiny churchyard where generations upon generations lie in absolute stillness under flat stone markers. Millstone grit. Lying there on the couch, let your mind drift again onto the moors with their scattering of wayward sheep and a path that takes you over the faint trace of the Roman road that runs its straight line into history. Ridge after ridge as clouds sweep their strobe shadows across them until the moorland itself resembles the restless sea that will carry you westward where a young woman you conjured in your feverish dreams hands my mother a gift.


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