Lifer

April 12th, 2021

By Lisa Boice

Animal Encounter Gold Winner in the Fifteenth Annual Solas Awards

“The life list of a birdwatcher is of a different order. It’s not what you cross off that counts, but what you add.” —Terry Tempest Williams

The black sky was like a drop cloth over the prairie grass and the only thing we could see were the bugs darting in and out of the light from our car’s headlights. We were only 60 miles west from Houston in Eagle Lake, Texas, but the big city felt a lifetime away. I turned my neck to see behind us and the brightness of the headlight beams from another car made me wince. My husband, Steve, yawned, which made me yawn. It was early and we hoped we weren’t too late.

We were in a hurry to get in line at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge to witness the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken’s courting ritual. During March and April, the males go out to a lek, an area where animals—or in this case, birds—assemble to engage in courtship behavior. In the human world our leks have evolved from parties and bars to smartphone apps where singles attempt to impress and be impressed. But at this lek all the hope that male Prairie-Chickens can muster is on display in the middle of an expansive field as they perform an elaborate dance just after sunrise, which is why we were up early in the black of night.

Steve drove carefully in the dark with one hand on the wheel and the other at his side. I took his hand and held it, grateful that I no longer needed to visit the human equivalent of leks.

Seeing this bird would be a “lifer” for me—birding lingo for a new species I had never seen. Twelve years earlier, Steve pulled me into his hobby of birding by gifting me bird feeders for our first Christmas together. I was hoping for jewelry and feeders seemed to signal to me that the relationship was going nowhere. But his gift introduced me to the birds in my own back yard. I had the gold of Goldfinches, the sapphire of the Western Scrub Jays, and the fiery jewel-toned red and yellow Western Tanager—my own backyard gems.

Not long after Steve set up the feeders in my backyard, he began keeping a list of my lifers in a bird field guide by marking which ones I would see, where I saw them and when. If I were a real birder, I would be tracking this myself, but Steve, who already had a life list of over 1,500 species before we met, would re-live the joy of seeing birds for the first time vicariously through me as I encountered new species. Each new bird I saw thrilled me with excitement, and I would often gasp, hold my breath and feel as though the bird came into view just for me. The birds and I greeted each other through the glass of my binoculars and sometimes the bird would pose by turning around and give me good looks and other times they acted coy, flitting around in the branches, hiding and popping out briefly to tease me. It doesn’t have to be a brightly colored bird or particularly special to get me excited. Seeing a bird species for the first time has helped me believe in possibilities—to know that there is a bigger world than the one I live in day to day.

“You’ll want to get here early,” the refuge ranger instructed us when we stopped by the refuge the previous day to get details on how to see the Prairie-Chicken. It was the second weekend in April, and the refuge was conducting tours to the normally-restricted lek as it does every year.

“The vans leave for the lek at 7 o’clock in the morning,” the ranger continued, “but you’ll see people lining up at 6:30 or even earlier, so don’t be late.”

It’s not just the act of courtship that draws people to these leks to observe. Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens are slipping away as they continue to decline in numbers. The Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—a sub-species of the Greater Prairie-Chicken—is one of the most endangered birds in North America and its future is hanging by a thread. It can only be found here in this part of Texas on the 10,541 acres of the refuge with only roughly 200 of them remaining.

We arrived at the reserve headquarters at 6:40 a.m. and we realized we were late. There was already a long line of people silhouetted against the sky, which was now indigo with orange and yellow painted brush strokes near the horizon signaling that the sun was about to rise.

We took our place at the end of the line, and others followed behind us. First two then four more, then in just five minutes 10 more people took their places at the end of the line. We all quietly stood and there were a few quiet conversations. “Have you been here before?” someone would ask. “No,” another would say. We all seemed to be new to this, or at least those of us who were at the end of the line and not wise enough to get up earlier.

It was surprisingly chilly for Texas and I zipped up my polar fleece jacket closer to my neck and I was happy I brought my gloves. Others were not bothered by the brisk air, and showed up in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. There were wide-brimmed safari-type hats, baseball caps and those without hats. Most everyone had binoculars hanging from their necks, and there were cameras of all sizes—long lenses, short lenses, some with their cameras and tripods propped on their shoulders, and those with pocket-sized point-and-shoots.

Right at 7:00 the first van filled with birders and left for the lek. We were in the sixth van and we squeezed in as many people as we could and the smell of coffee on everyone’s breath filled the van. We rode on a dirt road for about 15 minutes to the restricted area while the driver—a refuge worker—told us of the invasive red fire ants that are aggressively feeding on everything in these prairies, most of which are food sources for young Prairie-Chickens. He explained how development has been encroaching on Texas prairies where the habitat is growing smaller and everyone in our shuttle nodded their head in agreement or disgust or both. “And the weather,” he said. “It’s been the cruelest. With flooding in 2015 and 2016 we had no surviving nests those years. That was hard.”

We arrived at the lek and before he let us out, he explained where we should stand and reminded us to be very quiet.

I unfolded my body as I came out of the shuttle and the darkness had disappeared as though someone had flipped a switch. The sun painted a stroke of glowing orange across the prairie grass and it was beautiful. This is not how I or even others often envision Texas. Cinema has long-portrayed Texas as dusty, flat, brown and barren of any life, save some cattle and a few tumbleweeds that roll by as if on cue. That’s the West Texas version of Texas most people have come to know through movies such as Giant, Bonnie and Clyde and No Country for Old Men. What I was looking at was not dry and dusty, but a pastoral scene of grasses that were lush, feathery and green—grasses that waved to the sky gently as if to say thank you for the moisture from the humid air. “They used to refer to the Coastal Prairie as the Texas Serengeti,” our driver had told us during our short drive. “It once covered 6 million acres over Texas and Louisiana, but now only 1% of that remains, and this particular Prairie-Chicken relies on it.” This is it, I thought. This is the last of the Coastal Prairie.

Birders who had been on earlier shuttles were already standing on the back of a flatbed truck that was parked in front of the lek for viewing. Little patches of dirt, like pitchers mounds, were scattered in several spots on the green prairie grass. It was on top of these mounds where the males were to display and dance.

“Can you see any?” I whispered to Steve.

“No, not yet. But give it some time,” he said confidently. Steve had never been here, but he came to our marriage with a life-time of birding experience, and he had seen the Greater Prairie-Chicken—a cousin of the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—in South Dakota.

A young girl with a green and orange knitted dinosaur cap looked through her mom’s scope atop the tripod set at just the right height for the girl. Every person had binoculars up to their eyes, scanning the field. There were 30 of us on the edge of the field looking, which meant we were bound to see something. I searched knowing this may be my only chance I would get to see this bird.

“There’s one!” the man next to us said in a loudish whisper. He brought his binoculars down to point to the field so we all could see. “By the fence, just to the right of that tree.” The crowd bustled with excitement as hushed tones of “he saw one!” and “where?” made its way down the crowd.

With my eyes I followed the man’s finger out to the field and pulled my binoculars up to my eyes. It was way out in the field and it was still small in my binoculars. I was looking at my very first Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—a lifer.

The dance began as the Prairie-Chicken stomped in a circle. It stood atop its little mound of dirt, drumming its feet as though he was stamping out a fire. He filled up the bright yellow air sac on his neck and made his famous booming call, which sounded like the low bass note you get when you blow into a large empty 2-liter Coke plastic bottle. A couple of Prairie-Chickens hens looked on and one looked like it was going to get close, but she changed her mind. It was not a triumph for him, but it was a triumph for me.

I wondered if I would ever see this bird again. All it would take is a few more storms to wipe them out. I put my binoculars back up to my eyes to see more of the bird that comes out every spring to dance for a mate, with the hope of survival.

“Hey, there’s an Upland Sandpiper,” Steve said.

“What? Where?” I asked, lowering my binoculars to get a broad view of the field.

“On the other side of those twiggy bushes.”

“Steve, there are twiggy bushes everywhere.” I shot back.

“Follow my finger,” he said. “See the big dark green tree way in the background on the horizon? Go down from there in the field and between the mound and the twiggy bush you’ll see it.”

“Got it!” I exclaimed in my hybrid whisper and excitement tone. I pulled the binoculars back up to my eyes and I was looking at a small bird, a little bit bigger than a pigeon, but with a long neck. It had a white chin and white underbelly that I could barely make out under its dappled brown and tan body.

“Aren’t sandpipers shorebirds?” I asked. “Shouldn’t it be on the beach?” I was beaming as I shared this bird fact, feeling a bit less like a birder imposter and like someone who could actually carry on an intelligent conversation about birds.

“Yes, he’s a shorebird, but it’s why they call it the Upland Sandpiper. He hangs out in fields, feeding on grasshoppers,” he told me.

“Have I seen him before?” That’s the question I often ask Steve, since he’s the curator of my bird lists—still, over these past 12 years. If I were a serious student of birding I suppose I would be maintaining my list more thoughtfully and committing my experiences to memory, but I long ago tossed that chore over to Steve.

“This is another lifer for you,” he said proudly, as though he had made the bird magically appear for me.

More shuttles arrived with people pouring out of their doors. It was time to make room for others to see the earnestness of the male Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, so we took one of the shuttles back to the reserve headquarters and headed back to our car.

We drove out of the refuge just as slowly as we did in the dark earlier that morning, hoping to see what else we could find in the prairie. Any clouds there were in the morning had dissolved into the sky, leaving a canvass of blue above the green prairie. A Crested Caracara stood unconcerned that we were driving by. I was familiar with Caracaras when I had seen them in the tropics, but Texas is the northern-most area of its range, so we were both excited to see it here. Caracaras look like large hawks and are opportunistic hunters, stealing from other birds and feeding on carrion like vultures. We stopped, I stuck the camera lens out the car window and snapped a few pictures, using our car as a bird blind. It was a colorful bird, with an orange face, and long white neck atop the brown body. Its yellow legs gleaned against the green prairie grass. I got this lifer years ago, but it’s always nice to see this one and felt like running into an old friend.

We hadn’t been driving more than 10 yards when Steve slowed the car to a crawl. “That would make a nice picture,” he said, pointing at the direction of my window. A Western Willet was standing on a fence post right next to the road, unafraid as our car came to a stop but not too close so to keep a safe distance as I snapped a few photos. It was another shorebird, here to enjoy the bounty the Texas prairie offers. The Willet was about 15 inches in length, with a grayish-brown head, back and wings. His belly was white and had a long-straight black bill. I knew this bird and usually could identify it when we visited the beach.

A bird called in the distance. “Northern Bobwhite,” Steve said, always calling the bird by its official name. Steve had a good ear for birding and could name birds based on their calls. Surprisingly, even I knew that call, as its name was mnemonic, resembling the sweeping pitch of its whistle, “bob-white!” But I had never seen one—I’d only heard it.

“Over there!” Steve exclaimed, pointing way out in the field, “On top of the post!”

And there it was, a lone male quail—the Northern Bobwhite—singing away, caught up in his own courtship song to find a mate and also another lifer I could add to my list.

Adding birds to my life list often carries with it urgency. Bird populations in North America have declined 29 percent since 1970, which is a drop of nearly three billion birds. And birds that rely on grasslands and prairies have suffered the steepest drop.

The notion of seeing a lifer, to me, is not a competition or race to see who has the bigger list, which often birders get chastised for doing. To have a fleeting encounter with a bird sparks optimism and hope. They are full of stories of the country, state, province or city I am exploring, with tales of survival and endurance. To get a full picture and sense of a place, start with the birds.

The prairie is still alive, I thought as we drove away. The 1% of remaining Coastal Prairie is still a vibrant habitat. I wish we could have preserved more but was thankful we at least have this.

I kept the window down while Steve drove on and I stretched out my arm to feel the air against my hand. The spring sun already felt hot in April and I didn’t mind the dust from the road that was stirred up by our car. Suddenly Steve slammed on the breaks and we skidded a few feet on the gravel. “Prairie-Chicken!” Steve yelled. I saw it at the same time he said it.

A male Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken was running on the opposite side of the road toward us and then he slipped into the tall grass and disappeared. It happened too fast to grab the camera. In an instant it was there and then gone.

We looked at each other, eyes big with disbelief, then smiled with excitement and caught our breath as though we had just witnessed a ghost. “Hey, where’s the field guide?” I asked Steve. It was on the dashboard in front of him and he passed it to me.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.

I took it and found the page I had dogeared the day before when I was doing my homework to prepare for the day. Next to “Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken” I put a check mark and wrote my name, our location, date and “Lifer.”


Lisa Boice writes about her journeys as she and her husband search for birds around the world. She blogs at TheAccidentalBirder.com.

Why I Love Baboons

April 6th, 2021

By Lynn Brindell

Adventure Travel Gold Winner in the Fifteenth Annual Solas Awards

I think Beatus did it because he felt guilty. Or because he thought we’d give him a bigger tip. He’d gently rustled our tent flap that morning, the bright slit of light slicing through dark green shadows.

“Good morning!” he softly called. “Game drive now!”

We, The Newlyweds, usually slept in. But on our last day in Africa we left camp early, bundled against the mist and chill, our jeep the first to growl out and bounce along the rutted, mud way that passed for a road.

I leaned into Rob, cold air rushing against my cheeks. We weren’t supposed to be in an open-air jeep, without windows or ceiling to protect us from the sudden onslaught of a storm or an animal’s pounce. But I think Beatus wanted to deliver, finally serving up that signature moment, an exotic and extraordinary miracle of nature, witnessed in the bush.

Careful what you ask for.

Our honeymoon had been glorious, gallivanting through Paris, then touching down at rustic bush camps in Kenya and Tanzania. Breathtaking sights dumbfounded us each day. We laughed at the normalcy of spotting giraffes in graceful parades, strutting and loping like the supermodels of the bush, or watching mighty elephants, trumpeting and ear-flapping alongside adoring, fumbling calves. Once, when we were in a jeep riding down a windswept, grassy slope, a zebra herd came thundering around us, swallowing us in their dust-flying gallop, the undulating black and white hides surging like a massive striped wave, the pounding reaching into our very souls. Once, sitting in Ngorongoro Crater’s prehistoric mist, Rob was talking, holding a grilled chicken wing, when a bird screeched above and swooped down, plucked the chicken from his fingers, cawing and soaring triumphantly away. We howled at our idiocy. How dumb we were, plopped down in this world.

One day we spotted two bloated lionesses, snoring and sleeping on their backs, legs splayed open to the sun, passed out, lunch-drunk, their innocence so deceiving. We’d seen them viciously gobbling a bloody carcass an hour before. Once, standing at a water flat, looking out onto thousands of stilled pink flamingoes, the birds rose up in a fluttering pink swath, raucous, flapping and honking, filling the sky, blanking out our view of snow-capped Kilimanjaro. We felt rushed, gone weightless, lifted with them, flying too.

Simply being on the continent was profound, timeless, humbling. We stared down from a plane’s tiny windows, awed by the endlessly stretching patchwork of green and gold vistas below. We were struck by how little we needed, our luggage limited to one twenty-pound bag each. Huddling together at night on our cots, listening to animals groaning in the darkness outside our tent, our New York City existence was instantly reframed. How vast and ancient and resplendent this world was; how small and hurried and repetitive were our concrete and glass lives. Each day I felt my legs swing further in strides, my senses heightened. Peppery sauces prickled and stung my lips and tongue; the touch of the jeep’s handle, cold and dewy each morning, was like pulling a wet bone from the slumbering earth.

But all that was rookie stuff. We still hadn’t scored big.

At night, around campfires low and crackling, sipping rum tangy with lime, we listened with envy as others recounted their game drives. They’d witnessed a baby hippo being born, sliding newly from its mother into water; had followed a cheetah, stalking, then slaughtering a gazelle; had watched a pride of lions, playful and tumbling with their cubs.

“Oh yeah, you guys flew Concorde,” a familiar guy tossed out one night, as if cueing us to tell our best game story. Everyone wanted to know: Was the plane really like a bus? Yes. Was the food great? No. I’d had a curly black hair in my tepid duck. Was it loud? No. Not inside the plane. The best part, I explained, was the flight attendant’s sultry French-accented voice coming over the loudspeaker, directing our attention to the flipping numbers on an electric blue digital Mach counter, up front.

“Ladeez and gentlemen!” she proudly announced, “we are flying at zee rate of supersonic speed!” There was a slight push like a wind thrust behind a sailboat; then our gleaming-white tin can of a plane zoomed even faster through the air. Twenty minutes later, the attendant proclaimed—even more enthusiastically—“Ladeez and gentlemen! We are flying at twice zee rate of supersonic speed!” Another thrust; it was New York to Paris, three hours flat.

But Concorde was a purchased experience, a ticket any money could buy. Out in the bush, we wanted sheer, fantastic luck. And for more than two weeks, our luck had been kind of lousy, gazing through binoculars over vast plains, only common hyenas or prancing ostriches breaking the view.

So it was our last day in Africa and Beatus parked the jeep at the foot of a rounded gray hill, rising abruptly like a tossed-off mound of clay, from the rain-washed Serengeti plains.

“This is Ngong Hill,” Beatus began. “A sacred place, where the Masai gather. See the big stones on top?” He pointed to a cluster of tall oval boulders, balanced vertically against all laws of gravity, like granite jellybeans rising to the stark blue sky.

“Those stones are hollow. The elders would bang rocks against them.” Beatus punched the air. “Gong! Gong! And the sound would echo out.“ Beatus ran his hand along the horizon. “They called the tribes. To gather below. For  a meeting.” Looking up at the smooth dark hill, then out at the stretching plains, I imagined an army of askaris, holding spears at their sides, serious faces upturned to the hill, listening.

“There are monkeys around here,” Beatus said, getting out of the jeep. “Baboons.”

“We heard about baboons at another camp,” one of the two women from D.C. said. We’d crossed paths with the women before, gone on game drives together. “The baboons surrounded a jeep and ate all the lunch. People had to wait for hours for them to leave.”

“Yeah. Baboons can be mean,” Beatus said. “Let’s go up.”

I clearly remember the first step of my boot feeling illicit against the hard, gray stone. We weren’t supposed to be on foot, had never taken a walking hike in the bush. I knew Beatus didn’t have a gun or a knife. But we started walking up the hill, idly chatting, the plains dropping farther and farther below. Beneath Rob’s humor and my smiles, regret and sadness, inevitable at the close of a long-anticipated event, bubbled. In a day we’d head back to civilization—the subway’s stink; our florescent-lit offices—and return to sitting like potted plants in corporate greenhouses. I had wedding thank-you notes to write, a dress and shoes to put away; wedding disappointments to put away, too. Things hadn’t gone as we’d planned.

Ah well, nothing did.

My boot slipped a bit on the dust and stone. Maybe the ground was trying to tell me something. Approaching the top, we’d all grown quiet. Rob moved off to the left, through some low bushes; the two women slowed to one side, behind. Beatus went ahead and stood surveying the plains from just over the crest. Alone, I headed straight for those remarkable boulders.

I have to admit we’d been warned. At a casual orientation, when we’d blearily first arrived in Nairobi, our chatty British camp director ran through possible predicaments in a most blasé fashion. “Don’t put your hand in dark places,” he said, running his rugged, tanned hand through his shock of white hair. “Or, your toes, either. Tarantulas like to sleep inside shoes. And for you, The Newlyweds,” he christened us, “people like to play jokes. They might string some meat above your tent at night. To attract activity.” The group chuckled. “Needless to say, this is Africa, not a zoo. We’re among wild animals. Be cautious. And do make sure you’re taking the Larium?” He glanced over us. “We had one got malaria two weeks ago. Had to be airlifted out with a cerebral hemorrhage.”

“Did he live?” a man with round spectacles asked.

“No,” the camp director sighed, shaking his head.

The next morning the bespectacled man and his wife boarded a jeep and left.

“Beverly Hills doctor,” the camp director muttered. “Too rustic, they said. I told them to go hook up with Abercrombie and Kent.” Sure enough, we later passed a van, the Abercrombie logo splashed on its side, and a man wearing an ascot, holding a drink in his hand, peering out from the pop-up top like a privileged gopher.  Rob hooted.

But that was the beginning; we were at the end.

It was quiet at the top, my every step loud over the dusty slipperiness. The steady breeze grew stronger, rippling. I passed a cluster of bushes, then stood at the towering ceremonial boulders. Their centuries-smoothed surfaces were decorated by ancient carvings, patterned slashes, geometric and repeated. I wondered if I picked up a rock and banged a boulder, would a deep timpani, like the heartbeat of the very world, echo out, over the plains? Would animals stop, alerted, listening? What messages had been passed down from this place? What joys, sufferings, urgent concerns?  I stood imagining, was almost transfixed, mystified and fascinated by the boulders and their carved, sharp strokes.

Two boulders leaned against each other, making a sort of shadowed cave, the carvings decorating their edges, like an entrance. I loved all things tactile, would run my hands over a tree bark’s ridges or brush the nub of a tweed; had been gripping the gritty rocks, steadying myself as I walked up the hill. I leaned to the darkness, my arm outstretched, fingers ready to slip along the carvings; a lion stepped out.

I dropped my arm, felt choked, unable to breathe.

He stood no more than four feet away, paws firmly planted, head raised, snarling. I went frozen, petrified with terror, yet felt awed by his ferocious magnificence. His mane was orangish-gold and messy, leaves and twigs stuck through it willy nilly, like ornaments poking from thick, matted parts. He was dirty and roughed-up; I had the sense I’d awakened him, napping. A damp, musky smell of mud and fur whiffed from him; maybe he’d smelled me, too. Yet it was his eyes, shining like lit honey, focused on me; his expression, flatly taking me in, that was so mesmerizing. My heartbeat was loud, thudding in my ears; I stood frozen, going breathless, so close he could kill me with a swipe of his paw. And I will never forget the words that came to mind: So this is it. You die on your honeymoon.

He snarled, raised one side of his lip in an exhale; it almost seemed he’d heard my thought. Something I’ve never felt before or since, like a hot white light, ripped from the base of my heel up my spine, exploding into my head. I thought this was how death came, a full sensory rush; I could so vividly see and smell the lion, feel the very air beating between us. I stood locked, shocked, humbled, like witnessing God.

And this is what my brain brought forward: You have to tell them. He’ll kill us all.

I took one small step back and pronounced in a flat voice, “There’s a lion underneath that rock.”

Beatus, above me, further off, turned and said, “There is no lion.” Then he saw its head and stood stunned, staring down.
Stark realizations came to me. The jeep was fifteen minutes away, at the base of the hill. We were alone in the Serengeti. Beatus was moving down, off to the side. In my peripheral view I glimpsed Rob moving down; then the white shirt of the one of the DC women, shuttling off, too. I wondered if my carcass would lie bloodied and ravaged on the rocks, offered up like a maiden on the pyre. I was growing dizzy.

The lion growled.

“Sssssss. Cahackkk! Grooowlllll!”

It sounded like he was clearing his throat, ready to roar. I wondered if his claws would slash my neck; if I’d feel his teeth, chomping into the bone of my skull. I remembered guide book phrases, glanced in the back of the jeep. Lion: Four or five hundred pounds. Runs fifty miles an hour. Leaps three feet. He could rip after me; I was doomed. I wondered what it would feel like when he bounded onto me, pushing me down, if I’d black out instantaneously. I grew sick, knowing how bad it would be; tears came to my eyes.

How stupid are we? I thought. How dare we come here and walk in this sacred place like righteous intruders? How dare I plop my silly, little, wedding-skinny self into this vastness, forever ruled by nature? I, and my ridiculous human condescension, deserved to be mauled. I dropped my gaze from his face in apology, head bowed, took another step back, fighting the urge to wail.

“Cahackk. Grrr!” The lion shifted towards me.

I felt off-balance, worried I might faint; considered the pierce of his teeth into my stomach, the hold of his jaws, throttling me like a rag doll. I wondered if, after he bit me, I might wriggle off? Get away with losing just an arm, half a leg?

“Sssssss! Cahackk. Grrr!”

Bile gurgled in my esophagus; I worried I’d vomit, be incapacitated; he’d pounce. I gulped, felt the throbbing heaviness between us. I wanted release, to scream, flee, but I was held there, every muscle clenched. I took one, two, timid steps back. It was a long way down, three, four thousand steps. I knew I couldn’t contain myself that long.

And then I heard the most beautiful sound.

“AR AR AR AR!”

It was above me, to my left.

“AR AR AR AR!” Barking, mean, challenging.

Ever so slightly, I glanced up. A baboon was planted on rocks, yelling down like an angry neighbor.

“AR AR AR AR!” the baboon accused, and the lion answered, aggravated.

“SSSSSS! Cahackkk! Growlllll!” He bared his teeth, swatting a dismissive paw.

Ooooh shit.

His open jaw was massive, big enough to swallow my head; his single paw was wider than my face. I clamped my lips to keep from screaming.

Undeterred, the baboon scolded more.

“AR! AR! AR! AR!”

“SSSSSS! Cahackkk! Growlllll!”

Clearly, they had longstanding issues, were quarreling like New Yorkers on balconies, yelling across an alley. And I knew: This is your chance. 

I quickened my little elf steps, back, back, faster, faster—not too fast. I was still facing the lion, hoping to God I didn’t slip on the dirt and stones and tumble off the side of the damn hill. I placed a foot behind, settled it, felt for flat ground; placed another, then another, thinking: Why I Love Baboons. Why I Love Baboons. Why I Love Baboons. 

“Ar Ar Ar!”

“Cahackk! GRRR!”

“AR!”

“SSSS!”

Their phrases grew brief, staccato, some bush-profanity exchange over a centuries-old Ngong Hill property dispute. I was still well within bounding range of the lion, but he was distracted, so I kept skittering back. Until I slipped, the slope too steep; almost fell, then froze. I lifted my eyes. The lion, alerted, stared at me; I lowered my head. In my peripheral view I glimpsed the others, clustered below at the side of the jeep, looking ready to jump in and take off when the mauling started. I believed that once I turned away from the lion, once he saw my back, he’d spring, attack.

I stood still, shuddering, trying to breathe,

“AR! AR! AR!”

The baboon reached crescendo, decades of dissatisfaction released; the lion strutted out fully from his cave, and stood planted, head up, chest proud, facing the baboon. His sheer presence was enough to silence anyone or anything.

But the baboon went off—“Ararar! Ararar! Ararar!”—barking a litany of woes, and the lion growled back.

I shifted, wincing, counting—one, two, three—and wishing I were invisible, turned away from the lion, scurrying down the hill, scraping through bushes, tripping on dirt and stones, my heart pounding, ears peeled for a predatory roar.
Which never came.

I reached the bottom and found myself panting, my mouth hanging open, standing next to Rob. I felt displaced, uncertain, not comprehending what had happened.

And Beatus spoke quietly, staring at me with glowing eyes.

“In the Masai,” he started, “we have the woman warrior.”

“Yes, Beatus,” I whispered, tears filling my eyes.

“You have seen the lion,” he declared with amazement.

“Yes,” I smiled, still whispering. “I have seen the lion.”

“You—” Beatus stopped, took on dignity. “You Masai Mama,” he pronounced, nodding, as if in honor.

“Oh! Thank you, Beatus,” I said, nodding in return. But I felt unsteady, thin and transparent, as wispy as onion skin; I thought I might float away. I forced my boots into the ground.  Every sensation—the breeze, that musky mane-scent, the gritty touch of the rocks, the warmth of the now-full sun—seared into me. I was overwhelmed, had to quell it, bring it down.

“Beatus, do we have any beer?”

“Yes,” he nodded, still staring as if astounded. He went to the little plastic cooler, handed me a cold one.

“We could all use one,” Rob said, helping pass the beers. He threw his arms around me, kissed the top of my head. “Pip,” he said, “let me get your picture.” I stood dazed, posing with the beer, my other hand pointing at the hill.

“I think we got a story for the campfire,” Rob grinned.

But our last day in Africa had just begun.


Lynn Brindell is a writer currently working on a memoir about her experience as caregiver to her late husband during his battle with cancer. The memoir’s title is “Driving Through Tornadoes,” and this story, about an experience in the Serengeti in 1996, is excerpted from it. She previously had a career in media.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie): Laura – Lady of the Mexican Nights

March 22nd, 2021

By Edward Stanton

You wanted to get farther away from home, beyond the border and Baja California, deeper into the country.  The city of Saltillo lay on a slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental, just north of the central plateau, about 5,000 feet high.  There you found a boardinghouse with a courtyard on Calle Xicoténcatl of sacred memory.

Your room opened onto the light-filled patio with a gurgling well, shade trees, cracked flower pots, a colossal zaguán or foyer with a carved wooden door.  The courtyard was the hub of life for everyone in the house: the landlords Don Alfonso and Doña Hortensia; their daughter, her husband and their children; Panchita, a plump Indian woman who did most of the shopping, cooking and cleaning; a bachelor who taught Latin and Greek at several schools to make ends meet; uncountable dogs, cats and birds in cages.  And then there was the woman who scandalized our whole house and neighborhood.  Laura.

She must have been in her fifties but she moved with the grace of a young woman.  She wrapped her lean frame in shabby scarves and shawls and wore long, rustling, flowered skirts that glided over the cobblestones of the patio.  Although her hair was disheveled in front, Laura gathered it into a neat Psyche knot at the nape of her slender model’s neck.  Every evening she left the house and did not return until late in the night, at dawn, in the morning or the next afternoon.  Laura’s arrivals and departures were staged in the grand style to attract attention and awaken anyone with the nerve to be asleep on such portentous occasions.

A few days after settling into the boardinghouse, you enrolled in a Spanish-language school for the summer.  Walking to class one morning, you passed a cantina on the corner and spotted Laura through the louvered, swinging doors.  She was seated at a table, alone.

She recognized you, calling in a voice that seemed too husky for her ethereal body: “Vecino!  Neighbor!  Ven a acompañarme,” Come keep me company.

You walked inside, past the bartender who was sweeping the floor with sawdust.  There were no customers except Laura.

Two bootblacks crouched on the steel footrail below the bar, their little shoeshine boxes at their sides.  They asked, jumping to their feet, “Le boleo?” Want a shine? in the forlorn mumble used by those boys who repeat the same question hundreds of times a day.  There must be more bootblacks in Mexico than anywhere in the world.  It may be the only country with a special verb for polishing shoes.

When you reached Laura’s table, she asked, “Eduardo, will you invite a lady to a drink?”  Her breath immersed you in the night’s effluvium.  On her table stood an empty shot glass.

“Of course, vecina.”

“Sergio!  Bring us a pair,” she told a second barman who was removing bottles of Bohemia from a wooden case.  Seeing her close, you noticed the glisten of tears in Laura’s eyes.

Sunlight slanted through the doors and windows, striking the time-stained mirror and rows of bottles behind the bar: Souza, José Cuervo, Tequila Añejo, Mezcal Xicoténcatl, named like your street for the indigenous warrior; Anís del Mono with a devil on its label; Johnny Walker Red, local wines and brandies from Parras de la Fuente.

The man brought us a round of tequila with two saucers, one filled with salt and the other with halves of lime.  “Salud, vecino,” Laura said, raising her glass in a toast and quaffing her drink as though it were water.  “By the way do you mind if I call you by our nickname for Eduardo?”

“No.”

“Guess what it is.”

“I don’t know.”

Touching my forehead with two fingers, she said, “I hereby christen you ‘Lalo.’”

Your shot did not go down as smoothly as hers that morning, but it would not be our last drink together.  She taught you to chase tequila with dabs of salt and juice from the lime, sucked after each swig, making the alcohol taste almost sweet.  Other times we would alternate with sangrita (no, not sangría), a reviving blend of fruit juices spiced with chiles.

“Sangrita works nearly as well as menudo for hangovers,” Laura counseled.

You arrived late to class that day and others. Laura would teach you much more than the teachers in the language school.  She took you under her wings of tarnished feathers.

While the jukebox played songs on those luminous mornings in the corner cantina, Laura would turn nostalgic and tell stories of her youth.  Listening to rancheras and boleros, getting drunk, wallowing in the pain of unhappy love is a collective pastime in Mexico.  Hundreds of songs sing of going on sprees, emptying bottle after bottle, drinking oneself into oblivion, all for love, usually lost:

Cómo son lindas estas borracheras…
How nice are these binges…

You did not have old loves to remember, but you grasped the music’s appeal, as enticing as a warm, soft bunk when you’re supposed to be in class or at work.  One could cultivate that sentiment for a lifetime.  Whole nations do.

Each time Laura evoked the past, her eyes sparkled and revealed the young girl behind her wrinkled mask.  In her prime she must have been a startling beauty.  Even with her body wasted by long nights, by drink and years, she preserved an air of faded elegance.

Like most femmes fatales she had known many men in her life but only one great love.  The facts of that affair remained unclear.  Laura stammered when she had drunk too much, and your ears were still learning the rhythms of speech in northern Mexico.  You had the impression that the man may have committed suicide.  Yet Laura could have fused his story with another about Manuel Acuña, the poet from Saltillo who’s supposed to have killed himself after writing a poem to his beloved.  She would often recite his famed “Nocturno a Rosario”:

¡Pues bien! Yo necesito
decirte que te adoro,
decirte que te quiero
con todo el corazón…
Well then!  I need to say
that I adore you,
that I love you
with my whole heart…

Laura knew this poem and dozens more by heart.  If the jukebox ran out of songs, she would stand unsteadily and recite, fondling the air with her blue-veined, bony hands.  She declaimed works by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Amado Nervo and all the nation’s classics.  And she sang corridos, ballads, especially those about La Llorona, the legendary woman of Mexican folklore who haunts lonely spots at night, weeping for lost loves: “Ay de mi Llorona, Llorona.”

As Laura chanted, a few lingering customers, the bootblacks of the moment and the bleary-eyed bartenders would turn silent.  Passers-by stopped to peek inside the cantina and listen: newsvendors with morning papers bundled in their arms, delivery boys carrying crates of Coca Cola, Fanta and Tri Naranjus; servants on their way to market, crippled beggars dragging their poor bodies along with crutches.  The oral tradition was alive in Saltillo, Coahuila, México.

If the onlookers requested an encore, Laura would sing her favorite ranchera:

No vale nada la vida,
la vida no vale nada.
Comienza siempre llorando
y así llorando se acaba.
Life is worth nothing,
It’s not worth a thing.
It begins with crying
and also ends in tears.

As long as she kept the verses flowing with rhyme and meter, the tragedienne could hold her public in thrall.  But if she forgot the words of a poem or the lyrics of a song, Laura would collapse in her chair, cover her head and cry her eyes out.  “Ay, Lalo, soy una mujer fracasada,” I’m a failed woman, she sobbed through her tears.

Between performances Laura talked about her past.  “Modesty apart,” she confessed, “I was irresistible as a young girl, vecino.”

“Ya lo creo,” I can believe it.

“Thank you, Lalo.  You treat me like a caballero—a real gentleman you are.  Anyway in school I suffered abuse from priests and nuns.”  She winced either from the memory or the shot of tequila that she had just swallowed.

Detrás de la cruz está el diablo,” The devil’s behind the cross, you said.

“Ándale, Lalo.  After the Revolution the curas, the priests, the monks and nuns weren’t allowed to wear vestments or habits on the street.  Served the cabrones right!  I haven’t crossed the threshold of a church since I graduated from school.”

Laura was the first anticlerical woman you would meet in Mexico.  She was also a matchless raconteur.  Quoting the Spanish proverb, she would say, “Good conversation is food for the soul.”

She could find a story in every person who entered our cantina.  When a ghostly beggar, an Indian wrapped in a rebozo, passed through one morning, Laura said, “Fíjate bien, vecino.  That man works on a ranch yet he has to beg in order to feed his family.  Notice his eyes.”  When the Indian passed our table, he glanced at us with palms extended.  His glacial look made you shiver.  “That’s the kind of citizen our Church and our caciques have created,” Laura said.  “One night he’ll stab somebody or wake up with a knife in his heart.”

Another day Panchita, the servant at our house, passed the cantina on her way to market.  The portly woman peeked inside, spotted you at Laura’s table and scurried away.  By evening the landlords had learned the dreadful news.

Feeling that she had a moral responsibility for her teenaged American boarder, Doña Hortensia summoned you to the living room.  It was your first and only entry into that forbidden sanctuary whose shutters remained closed day and night, where incense smoldered, where votive candles burned beneath an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The landlady sighed.  “I suppose she asks for money, Eduardo?”  She did not need to mention Laura’s name.

“Once in a while.”  A candle sputtered and a bird’s song came from the patio.  Suddenly you wanted to be outside.

“I’m going to give you a piece of motherly advice, hijo.  For your own good and hers, stay away from her.  Es una mujer perdida,” She’s a lost woman, Doña Hortensia lamented.  “Every month she’s behind on her rent, she promises to pay but usually finds an excuse.  You should not lend her one centavo.  Actually you should not see her at all.”  Rising on her toes, the woman cupped her hands and whispered in your ear: “I’ve been trying to get rid of her for a long time—so I can rent her room to another gabacho—I mean North American.  Your compatriots always pay on time.”

You did not heed her counsel.  It was clear that Doña Hortensia cared more about the repute and solvency of her boardinghouse than your probity or pocketbook.  You felt the fatal allure of ripe, forbidden fruit, sensing that Laura had more to impart, more vitality than all the other residents and their animals together.

The incident confirmed what you were learning about Mexico: it’s a machista society in public, a matriarchy at home.  Doña Hortensia, with Panchita as her loyal informer, ruled the roost at number 111, Calle Xicoténcatl Sur.  Sometimes her husband Don Alfonso, the nominal patriarch, pretended to hold sway, twisting his white, Porfirio Díaz-mustache as he mouthed empty orders around the house.  Nobody bothered to listen.  Everyone knew the women were in charge.

They were also the guardians of religion, the ones who attended Mass, who kept the faith by lighting candles beneath the Virgin in the living room, the house’s inner sanctum.  If Doña Hortensia and Panchita governed the home, the Guadalupana—Mother of Mexico, Patroness of the Americas—ruled the nation, the hemisphere and the world for those people.  You did not think about these things as much as breathe them with the incense, feel them in the light of the votive candles.

The boardinghouse was a miniature reflection of the whole country, where God the Father and Christ stand as titular heads of the Church, while the people’s worship centers on the Virgin Mary, María Santísima, Most Holy Mary, Nuestra Señora, Our Lady.  She and motherhood are so hallowed that a careless use of the word madre in Mexico can be more dangerous than a curse.  Speakers soften the incendiary term by using the more familiar mamá or the diminutive mamacita.  On the other hand their everyday conversation bristles with references to La Chingada, “the Fucked One,” the Nahua woman who betrayed her people to the Spaniards.  Doña Marina, as she was known to the invaders, assisted them in defeating the Aztecs, who called her La Malinche.  She slept with the conqueror Cortés and gave birth to one of the first mestizos, offspring of mixed blood.  Her crime was cleansed in part by a second mother, the Guadalupana, who manifested herself to a poor peasant near Mexico City as the angel Gabriel had appeared to a humble girl in Judea about 1,500 years before.  But in some ways Mexicans are still a people of orphans whose wounds have never healed, who need a personal and communal mother in the form of María Santísima.

Doña Hortensia’s hypocrisy and Laura’s history did not keep you from visiting churches in Saltillo and other towns.  The Baroque, Rococo and Churrigueresque façades enclosed somber, cool interiors, so bracing after the glaring heat outdoors.  Aromas of incense penetrated your nose and infused your lungs.  A few older men, but mostly women recited the Ave Maria over and over.  As your eyes adapted to the semi-darkness, you observed how many were dressed in mourning, head to foot.

Above the rows of candles shimmering in the gloom, behind the altars encrusted with bossed leaves and tendrils, you gazed at sumptuous pilasters, cornices, vaults and domes; reredos like fantastic grottos of wood, stucco, porphyry, gold and silver; a cornucopia of vines, flowers, fruits, trees, birds, animals, serpents, fish; centaurs, gargoyles, chimeras, griffins, unknown creatures; golden reliefs, moldings, marquetry, scrolls, curlicues, intaglios, escutcheons.  Walking down the nave toward the main altar, you passed a forest of columns, chapels with portraits or statues of saints in marble or polychrome wood, fat-buttocked Cupids, wide-winged cherubim and seraphim with faces of the sun and moon, Christs with gashes blossoming on their ankles and wrists, Virgins of Guadalupe in various local incarnations, their hands clasped in prayer, their head bowed to one side beneath their blue mantel of stars, their gown embroidered with roses, their feet cradled in a crescent moon supported by an angel.  O sanctuaries of Mexico, women in black, odors of frankincense, candles flickering in the shadows, bleeding Christs and tender Guadalupanas.

Raised in America’s male-oriented Protestant churches, you were drawn to the nurturing, female religion of Mexico.  Somehow being in these temples was a way of returning to your ancestors, to the beliefs of your Spanish great-great-grandmother and your mother’s Sicilian forebears, relinquished once she married your father, who was a reformed German through and through.  Compared to the severe, barren, overlit chapels of your childhood, those penumbral shrines embraced you in the warmth of a maternal faith and a tribal worship.

Walking into the ruthless sunlight, you saw the ragged children, the armies of dwarves and cripples.  Some sat on the stone steps with their brown palms cupped as though for communion.  Like most foreigners you were repelled by the brazen opulence of the Church amid the general misery of the people.  But you were learning that in Mexico devotion and suffering are wedded.  In some ways the beggars on the steps were just as hallowed as the clergy indoors.  You gave alms to those poor souls in exchange for one of the world’s loveliest benedictions: “Vaya usted con Dios.” 

As the semester approached its end, you invited Laura for a farewell drink one night.

After the first round she asked, “Lalo, shall we have la penúltima?” 

“What’s that?”

“We never say ‘the last drink’—for us it’s always ‘the next-to-last.’”

“Ándele.”

Laura surprised you by paying for several rounds of tequilas.  Then she asked, “Would you accompany a dama, a lady to her home?”

“Isn’t it early for you, vecina?

“I have not been escorted home by a gentleman for a long time.  I would be grateful.”

Rising from the chair, you gave an arm to Laura; hers seemed light as a bird’s wing.  When we reached our house at Calle Xicoténcatl, Don Alfonso opened the creaking zaguán“Muy buenas noches,” he whispered with a conspiratorial smile and a gesture that must have meant, Hurry up and go inside before she spots you.

But Doña Hortensia was ever vigilant.  As we crossed the patio, our landlady emerged by the well, standing with her legs planted on the flagstone and her arms akimbo, like some stalwart peasant woman in a painting by Diego Rivera.

Her eyes burned holes in your back while you held Laura in a final embrace.  “Hasta siempre,” Until always, your friend said with tears in her eyes.

After returning to Los Angeles, you wrote Laura several times.  Those letters went unanswered.  Months later Doña Hortensia wrote to say that her boarder had disappeared, “without paying her rent, of course.”

Where were you Laura, vecina, compañera?  Where had you gone, my Llorona?  In what bar, in what sunny cantina were you drinking tequila with salt and limes, reciting poems, singing ballads and remembering loves lost forever?


Born in Colorado and raised in California, Edward Stanton has lived in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, and Spain, as well as the United States. He’s the author of twelve books, some of them translated and published in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. Road of Stars to Santiago, the story of his 500-mile walk on the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, was called one of the best books on the subject by The New York Times; Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James Michener said of this work, “Edward Stanton recounts his adventures with stylish conviction.” Stanton’s environmental novel Wide as the Wind, the first to treat the tragic history of Easter Island, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Young Adult Fiction and three other international prizes. The Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Spanish Ministry of Culture have supported his work with grants and fellowships. “Laura: Lady of the Mexican Nights” also appears in his latest book, VIDAS: Deep in Mexico and Spain.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie): Marriage, Dubois Style

March 15th, 2021

By Colette O’Connor

“Just add three letters to Paris and you have paradise.” —Jules Renard

The family Dubois of Avenue Foch are French. That is to say, the family Dubois are different. In an age when nearly half of American marriages collapse, often in smoking heaps of anger, bitterness, pain, I often wondered, what does it take? Really, what does it take – to keep it together, if not forever, at least through thick and thin? So when I met the family Dubois of Paris’s Avenue Foch, I thought, Ah! A chance to understand how it’s done. I thought, Oh! If Tolstoy’s “happy families are all alike” idea was working out for the family Dubois, as it certainly seemed to be, given how they appeared so rich and thin and cheerful at lunches I shared with them, or quick aperitifs, then here was a family to study. So observe them, I did, like an explorer a continent foreign, with fascination. Here is what I found:

Monsieur Dubois is a successful Paris lawyer whose thriving practice rewards him well. In addition to the elegant Avenue Foch flat filled with Louis Quinze antiques, the Chamonix ski chalet and the seaside villa near St. Tropez, Monsieur Dubois has acquired the love and devotion of his assistant, the light of his life for the last 12 years and his “wife,” Madame Dubois. Madame, who bears the dubious distinction of having snatched Monsieur Dubois from his previous wife during a low point in that couple’s 22-year union, is quite the standard bearer when it comes to the myth of the “other woman.” Madame Dubois is blonde. Madame Dubois is buxom. Madame Dubois is so exquisitely ladled into itsy-bitsy snips of skimpy designer clothes that all you see coming on approach is a double-D-cup jaw-dropper. Looking beyond her vavavoom, however, here is a woman who is as sweet as crème Anglaise, a delight as kind as her waist is tiny, with a tinkly laugh and warm, bright smile.

Never mind that Monsieur Dubois is still technically – legally – married to the first Madame Dubois, and for years has merely made his home with her successor, who incidentally insists on maintaining a bachelorette flat on the Ile St. Louis, which she visits on occasion just to sit and think and maybe read. After all, a Madame Dubois does need her me-time, especially since she and Monsieur not only work side by side nine-to-five, but also share the joys and challenges of their two children, a girl of 10, and a boy of 11.

That Monsieur Dubois has never gotten around to divorcing his first wife, the “official” Madame Dubois, is not a cause for concern. At least to Madame Dubois, the original, who lives luxuriously alone on the Avenue Foch in a flat exactly opposite that of Monsieur and his current yet faux wife. Her own two children with Monsieur now grown and off on other Dubois adventures, Madame Dubois the First is a stunning woman of a certain age who is perpetually salon-tanned a burnt sienna, travels about in a cloud of Chanel No. 5, and projects the confident aura of an impeccably groomed woman who just manages on 500 zillion euros of her ex-husband’s money. But just.

Though the ex-yet-actual Madame Dubois long ago lost her husband to his assistant, the new, or proxy, Madame Dubois, she is perfectly content to keep on as Madame Dubois because, frankly, family tradition since the 9th century under Pope Adrian II of Rome, dictates that a Dubois simply does not divorce. Meanwhile, Madame Dubois, the deuxième, sees no reason on earth not to dub herself a Dubois as well, and go about her life as Monsieur’s real wife. After all, she’ll argue if anyone asks – but they won’t, because this is France – she has lived with her “little cauliflower” for years; she is the mother of half his children. Is it not she who runs Monsieur’s law office? She who serves as mistress of the flat on Avenue Foch, the Chamonix chalet, and the villa at St. Tropez? In sum, is it not her dazzling smile and wasp-waisted charm that shows up on Monsieur’s arm at all those dull but essential social functions he is forced to frequent? You can bet your baguettes, believes Madame Dubois, the imposter. The family title is just as real when earned, she will say, as it is when typed on a license at City Hall, n’est-ce-pas?

Happily, by some quirk of Europe, the two Mesdames Dubois are friends. Fast friends. And why not? Madame Dubois the initial, with an absolute horreur of having to participate in Monsieur’s endless obligations – business, social, political – is grateful to the very roots of her glistening silver bob to Madame Dubois the ensuing. For it is now she, her surrogate, who assumes that loathsome cocktail party duty that for years kept Madame Dubois-the-authentic from her jigsaw puzzles, a passion. The charming blonde alternate, with an absolute horreur of having to listen ad nauseam to Monsieur’s boring stories of his glory days as bocce ball champion of France circa the Stone Age, is relieved to the very tips of her peach-painted toes that the starter Madame Dubois – still his friend, his confidant – will take his late night phone calls filled with the need to talk, thus allowing Madame Dubois-the-pretend to pursue her greatest passion: sleep.

All might be well with the family Dubois, then, if it weren’t for one petite problem: lunch. Lunch is when the former-yet-official Madame Dubois will telephone her replacement, smack in the middle of the stressful, frenetic workday, and invite herself over at noon under this pretext or that. These calls, to the never-ending chagrin of the acting yet undeclared Madame Dubois, come often.

“Hello, Madame Dubois? This is Madame Dubois,” Monsieur’s initial wife will say, her tone brisk from a morning of competitive bridge. “Luncheon today, then, if you will arrange it? Très bien.”

Très bien my tarts! Monsieur’s now-serving wife has been heard to grump. For what the first Madame Dubois fails to understand is that these little midday scenes à table are in truth a family fiasco in waiting. Just ask Odette. Odette? Yes, Odette, the Dubois family chef. The live-in cook has been with Monsieur Dubois since his bachelor days, well before the arrival of any Madame Dubois, real or faux. And how Odette has longed! How Odette has prayed! How Odette has wanted all along to be a Madame Dubois herself. The cook’s unrequited crush on Monsieur Dubois (he never once has looked up from his fig confit to notice her looks of love) has left her fuming over her flambés, and in a permanent, irreversible snit. Yet Odette dares not quit. These luncheons with Monsieur and his wives are a prime opportunity to figure out what on earth a Madame Dubois has that she hasn’t, how a Madame Dubois succeeds when she can’t.

“Ah, non, non, non!” nevertheless moans the chef, bathed in dread, whenever informed by Madame Dubois the Second that she should set an extra place at lunch for Madame Dubois the First. “I refuse to have said behind my back that my biftek tastes of old tires. I will not hear my soufflés are like suds!” She moans: “Ah, non. I refuse to cook for that woman.”

“That woman,” the ex-yet-official Madame Dubois, is a terror with a terrine de foie gras; she is exacting in the perfection of a béchamel sauce. Quite unlike the current yet unconfirmed Madame Dubois, who wouldn’t know a smoked duck if they were formally introduced, she can cook like nobody’s business. All the while polite, and throughout each course kind, the beginning Madame Dubois spares no luncheon opportunity to torment Odette for what she interprets as her culinary foolery. Her mealtime miserables. To hear Odette tell it, Madame Dubois the approved, with Madame Dubois the unsanctioned looking on and saying nothing in her defense, will with a wince of displeasure poke at Odette’s prize pâté en croûte with her fork. With her spoon she will not more than nibble, listlessly, at the cook’s four-star Fôret Noire. Is she worried about her weight? Already stuffed by too many late breakfast brioches? Whatever the reason she refuses to eat, the acting Madame Dubois, ravenous, sops up the meal’s last drop of sauce with bits of baguette and polishes off even the parsley garni.

“Really, ma chère, it is a fright, your fear of salt,” the first Madame Dubois will comment to Odette, while says the second, “May I please have more Pommes Anna?

Pleasing and feeding these two Mesdames Dubois so opposite in appetite is a job nigh impossible, Odette will admit. But she keeps on cooking, for what can she do? Monsieur Dubois and his wives, I and II, have so much fun at these lunches – enjoying their Château Minuty Rosé, snickering at secret jokes – that her sad, bitter heart can’t help but melt like the butter of her best sole meuinère when it hits the heated skillet.

“Madame Dubois,” Madame Dubois will say to her stand-in, “do you not agree that Monsieur Dubois is looking trés fit since he joined the gym?” Here Madame Dubois the imposter will catch the eye of her provocative predecessor and the two Mesdames Dubois will erupt: they will laugh and laugh as if they cannot stop. After all, when it comes to the husband they have in common, his particular Dubois oddities are such that…well, it takes a Dubois to understand. Hearing them laugh, Monsieur himself looks up from his steak tartare, takes in one then the other of his wives, and no doubt exclaims to himself, My, what a wonder is life! The family Dubois, like peas in a pod, simply get along.

And I, ever watching in awe, jot in my field notes that what it takes to go the distance is a marriage made in France. Whether it’s the wine, the women, or the ways, so civilized, the happy family Dubois – wink-wink to us all – makes it work, whatever the quirks.


Colette O’Connor is the author of award-winning articles, essays, and stories that celebrate the fun, the funny, and, above all, the wonderful in life and travel. When not thrilling to her fill of French pastries in Paris, she coaches writers from the beachy bliss of her hometown beside California’s magical Monterey Bay. She earned her B.A. in English literature from U.C. Berkeley and MFA in Creative Writing from San José State University. To learn more about Colette, please connect with her at coletteoconnor.com.

Grand Prize Silver Winner: The House Within

March 8th, 2021

By Jacob Kemp

When I turned twenty-one, I spent the better part of a year in an attic, hiding from Nazis.

The calendar read 2011. I had just graduated from college. I was offered a role in The Diary of Anne Frank, to play Peter Van Daan. So I packed a suitcase, a carry-on, my winter coat, and left New York only weeks after I arrived—for Amsterdam, 1942.

The actress playing Anne was a rising star in Chicago theater. A year later she’d be in a superhero movie, a blockbuster based on a comic-book. Onstage, she was a marvel. Scenes together, despite the long run of the show, the work and the sweat and the reaction of our energies each night, had that flinty and rare combination of absolute safety and vulpine unpredictability. We were well-matched. I awaited her articulation, her transformation into Anne, with the zeal of a tennis player anticipating a worthy opponent’s next serve. But in addition to being a formidable talent, she smoked.

Before the show, I’d watch her suck down smoke by the stage entrance, then pull the cigarette from her lips and throw it like a dart to the cement below. I always found it unsettling each night, when, during the play’s second act, I’d be leaning in as Peter to kiss a vibrantly alive Anne. Like some eerie harbinger, underneath the veil of mint toothpaste, Anne always tasted faintly of ashes.

We opened in Indianapolis and months later closed in Salt Lake City. And within that year, I spent less time in millenial reality than I did within the world of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, living out the most well-known coming of age story of all time. I recognize it is not everyone’s dream to be immersed in one of the bleakest nightmares of human history, eight times a week. But as a teller of stories, it was mine. And my time in that annex has proved itself to be a most unconventional isolation education.

In March, like most New Yorkers, I entered an altogether different shelter in place, no longer embodied onstage, or in the past, but in the very much alive, unpredictable Now. The global pandemic of COVID-19 has forced me to face, once again, annexation and concealment.

~ ~ ~

The first publication of Anne Frank’s diary in 1946 was titled Der Acter-huis, which can be translated as the house behind, or the house within. The world knows it now as the Secret Annex. This house within now offers me, years later, its own script for survival.

I politely excuse myself for the comparison of the coronavirus pandemic, which has swept its way across our increasingly smaller planet, and the world of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. There is a yawning gulf between the two and I have no intention of slating one aside the other as foil or comparison. The hundreds of thousands of deaths due to this pandemic pales in comparison to the six million people who were persecuted, tortured, and murdered while much of humanity did nothing. But the collision of my experience preparing for, and living in, the world of the Secret Annex: my own life now embossed by Peter and Anne’s true history, wholly felt, deeply imagined, and entirely unreal—with the here and now, the actuality of living in a time that seems more fiction than not, has been in unexpected rhyme for me these past months. A decade later, lifting the lid of that coffined time has opened an unexpected door.

~ ~ ~

There was no traditional curtain to open or close our production. Upon entering the theater, the audience saw only a looming, three-story dollhouse-style set, with a narrow staircase leading from a trapdoor in the floor. Once the actors entered the annex at the opening of the play, the eight people living inside never left the hiding place. The scripted text played out in the foreground but within dimly-lit rooms, silent scenes played out simultaneously. Every performance, we walked up the attic stairs as refugees, and were dragged down those same stairs to our imminent deaths three hours later.

This all happened, over, and over, and over again. And it was our job to make what followed onstage appear as real as if it were happening for the very first time.

The engine of a single performance of The Diary of Anne Frank would purr to life at warmup. The company met on stage for the Actors’ Equity union-required “fight call” as we tracked the more dangerous elements of choreographed simulated violence. The sounding cue was Mrs. Frank’s cry. My opponent and I would lock eyes, as the Nazi guard grabbed me by the collar. I’d whip around, left arm clattering two plates to the ground. Thud right into the wall, we’d stagger three steps (waltz, two three), he’d slam his boot into the floor as Peter crumpled to the ground. Done. Other choreographic passes were cleared by the fight director and scattered props from the counterfeit chaos were reset. Onwards, towards the half hour call—the actors received clean undergarments, hosiery, and costumes from the laundry department. Vocal cords were soothed with hot elixirs. The women bobbed and pinned their hair. Men shaved or slicked side-parts with grease or pomade. Prop suitcases were checked and repacked, a mink thrown over the actress playing my mother, a wool scarf spiraled around my neck, and we were all sprayed with water by a crew member as though we had passed through an Amsterdam rain. Into the hot stage lights, hopping onto the already moving carousel. The cruel spin of the show.

I spent day after day after day playing Peter Van Daan, though that aberrant word, play, fails entirely to represent the experience of embodying him, living out his story’s dangerous beginning to its devastating end, hundreds of times. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, I would cycle through it twice, when a matinee and evening show offered a double-dip. And by the end of that first year of adult employment, the walls of the Secret Annex had assembled itself into an unlikely first cubicle.

Most folks, I think, remember with fondness a play once-rehearsed. From cherished schooldays, at camp, or a holiday pageant; where their long rehearsal process quickly erupts into a handful of firework performances. But within a long run, the iterative wind-up toy of the play far outlasts its preparation. The lesson becomes the delivery of astonishment amidst a cyclic catalogue of repeated words and actions.

No one mentions in drama school that when a three-tiered set is being built to be run up and down, heel to step wearing thin-soled period shoes, your Achilles tendon will come to call. No one mentions that, even though it’s a simulation, in “selling” a violent punch—using your right arm, for months on end (or even being the recipient of said punch, with a whip of the neck and a bobblehead return) the human spine begins to shift and turn to compensate. Your body adjusts its architecture: your vertebrae becomes an anguine, scoliotic cathedral to the dictations of your job requirements. And no one mentions that, as the cycle of a show turns into the hundreds it erodes the carapace of who you were, and begins to change you in ways you won’t always understand.

Onstage meals often echo after a show ends, but for me, The Diary of Anne Frank’s survival menu was its own trapdoor. In the family dinner scenes, we ate sauteed spinach (its onstage iteration was canned greens, soaked in citric acid), reconstituted mashed potatoes (boxed potato flakes that puff up when exposed to warm water), and the sucker punch: pickles. The plate after plate of spears that Peter had to hungrily eat each night. He, after all, was starving. Eventually, onstage, full sours moved to half sours, which then had to be replaced with cucumbers—due to the fact that after a month of shows, the cast developed excruciating acid reflux. These were full-company meals, so I was not alone in this nightly acid trip. It was a long time before I could eat anything steeped in brine.

I will never look at a heap of mashed potatoes on my plate without thinking of Anne, Peter, Margot, Otto, Herman, Auguste, Dussel, Miep. This happens not just for mashed spuds—it’s any potato. I hauled a 10-pound burlap bag of them, down three flights of stairs, twice a show. And then there was the solid twenty minute stretch in which I peeled those bags of potatoes, in one of those silent scenes occurring on the fringes of the stage, supporting the action of what needed to be the audience’s primary focus. I can still hear the director during a rehearsal, calling out from within the dark womb of the theater’s seven hundred seat audience bank, shouting: JACOB, YOU ARE ACTING PEELING THE POTATOES. JACOB. PLEASE. JUST PEEL THE POTATOES.

Peel the potatoes. It is the most basic of acting lessons. It is also a good one for life. Chop wood. Fetch water. Do the thing.

The one food that was never substituted over the run of The Diary of Anne Frank were the strawberries. Each performance, Anne’s mother passed around that box of ruby jewels—moments of sweet exhale before the thirty-minute sequence of the family’s discovery in the Annex. The smell of strawberries, to this day, makes me uneasy. One whiff and I anticipate violence. Their flesh clutches at the back of my throat.

Throughout the run, our cast and crew participated in post-show talkbacks with teachers and students. Some were thoughtful, resonant; others chilling, confronting. I can still see the Salt Lake City students’ spooked faces when they learned that Anne Frank and Martin Luther King, Jr. were born in the same year and only months apart, the students’ eyes wide, the ubiquity of their round porcelain faces, their fair-colored hair. The way in which one teacher said to us: “How sorry for all of you that this happened!” Many nights onstage in Utah, we heard audible gasps. As widely-read as Anne Frank’s diary might be, there were seats filled by those who did not know how this story would end.

Within the American regional theater there resides amongst its makers and protectors a passion to bring art to those who may never travel to a major city like New York or Los Angeles. Ours is by no means a perfect enterprise. But I believe in the purpose of this work. Because it is, more often than not, far outside of our diverse urban epicenters that these stories need to be heard most. We itinerant storytellers live out of suitcases in order to dwell in the mansions of our greatest stories. It is a life chosen with the belief that poetry heals.

~ ~ ~

As an actor, I measure my years not in months but in chapters of preparing for, and telling stories—broken down first within rehearsals, then stretched to technical load-ins, the chrysalis of preview periods, the magic of opening night. Then, the slow osmosis in performance. For better or worse, these periods render you slowly, changing you. Closing night, the cast lines up for a final curtain call, then the jigsaw of each ensemble disassembles. Once inseparable from me, the character I have played is left behind. That soul flies off, like one of Marc Chagall’s painted lovers. My own grounded body remains.

At the end of a run, my suitcases are repacked, the members of this little fleet lift their own individual anchors and our hermetic skiffs go their separate ways. The span of living within an ephemeral story’s time or place, gone. The next pilgrimage begins. The temple of the open stage? Closed to me, temporarily, until the next contract. The gig actor’s life is threaded like a rosary, or its eastern beaded sister, the japa-mala, where roles and projects emerge like brief devotional gifts. Before and after the hallelujahs, there is a life to be lived in the space between.

This is a very different kind of in between.

After three weeks of isolation in New York City, a car was leaving from Manhattan to my hometown the following morning. I was offered a ride. I took it.

When faced with the rush to pack and depart New York City, I prepared to leave my home behind, for whatever indeterminate amount of time that might be. But as I was assembling what I could into the pockets of backpack, suitcase, and winter coat—by rote, my hands completed a choreography that I did not realize was still committed to memory. In a matter of minutes I had simulated a version of the contents of Peter Van Daan’s suitcase that I had unpacked onstage hundreds of times. My body was seized and claimed by a performance I believed was left entirely in my past.

I was astonished by the bridge-building of my unconscious. This was nothing at all like Anne and Peter’s hurried packing to Prinsengracht 263. But there was some weaving of one experience in my life with another, the consilience of the two events, one real, one lived out onstage—stimulating the insight that I, in some uncomfortable and entangled way, had been here before. I had lived out this flight before. I had already packed this suitcase.

Living in other people’s stories is complicated.

My body lept into action without hesitation. I had the echoes of a plan, a schedule, at the ready. Somewhere, from some secret door, I’m walking back up that dark staircase, back to the Annex, living out one of the strange truths of creative living.

I’m not a fool here; I am unabashedly aware that I have survived no war. There had been no hiding. I had not, for a single night’s sleep, been locked in the Secret Annex. While on a proscenium stage, an actor isn’t even surrounded, it is a diorama with three walls, the audience sees the play through an invisible fourth. I hid in public, in front of eight hundred people a night. And yet, ripped loose out of some interior lining-pocket of my brain, came forth an automatic response.

Into my luggage went those delicacies of the World War II ration books, items that the Annex dwellers, and all of those who lived during World War II, prized—as borders closed and supplies ran low. In 2020, America’s borders were closing, and fast, so imported goods slipped into my bag. Without thinking, my palms wrapped themselves around the items in my own home that I had known to be rationed in my simulated World War. Chocolate. Coffee. Sugar. Alcohol. Any difficult medicines to obtain, and my stash of traveler’s antibiotics. I grabbed my passports, some cash. Snuck my few pieces of jewelry into the pockets of my clothes. I reached for specific items, instinctively, as swift as a cadet completing a drill—except the recollection was for an escape occurring over eighty years ago. I packed my winter boots, though the sun-drenched days of spring were already well on their way.

And so I left New York, and walked up a different staircase. The one in my childhood home. The home that I believed had already had its way with me. Now, it works on me again.

~ ~ ~

I was raised outside of Boston not only by my family and school teachers, but by a ragtag, kaleidoscopic, and multicultural collection of artists, storytellers, and makers who unknowingly taught me how to be human as I watched them from the corners of dressing rooms and rehearsal studios. The professional theater welcomed me into its wings, but it also taught me I had a pair of my own folded between my shoulders. I listened. And I learned how to use them.

Downtown hovered at a twenty-seven-minute drive from home, but a commuter train ran directly to Government Center. And that outbound train would call out like a loon each night, when my reckless imagination would keep me up reading the words and work of poets, painters, playwrights, the passionate and the profane. I’d be sleepless as that train whistled at 10:05, 11:05, 12:50. I would sit on the iron radiator under my bedroom window, knees-to-chest, palms-to-thighs, dreaming of (and also terrified of) becoming an artist.

That train so often carried me into the city, to the theaters where I lived and learned. Now, I barely hear its song at night. That very train to Boston, due to the pandemic, and so many working from home, runs on a limited schedule.

~ ~ ~

The performing arts have shuttered. My opportunities to work as an actor do not exist. Most production is halted in theater, film, and television. Theaters darkened, ghost lights holding court for months to empty seats. There is no clear path ahead. No new stories, of course, means no characters for which to audition. Film sets are currently attempting to bring full creative teams into group isolation. Welcome to our Petri Dish Production Company! Perhaps, there could be voice lessons, coaching, or class, but probably unwise given the need to save money until creative work resumes. My community was one of the first to shut down, and we are sure to be one of the last to reopen.

The arts employs actors, directors, dramaturgs, designers, engineers, musicians, choreographers, editors, gaffers, set decorators, key grips, PAs, and this meltdown of our entire industry and former way of both making art, and sharing it with the world, has spared few. None of the typical parameters of our storytellers’ lives exist anymore.

The repetitive patterns, the latitude and longitude of an actor’s work, are a kind of cartography that had always structured my days. As I have sheltered in place, in my cluttered childhood bedroom, I have found myself following the Annex inhabitants’ daily schedule. Its architecture structured their lives for the better part of two years. Otto Frank created a regimen suggestive of his days as a lieutenant of the former Imperial German Army. This was both due to the danger of the circumstances but also in order to break an overwhelming period of time in hiding and isolation into manageable, completable tasks. The days in the Annex began at 6:45am, when the first alarm went off—bathrooms were used for the brief period before the warehouse staff, working below the Annex, would enter the building. Every activity was planned based around the inhabitants’ movements not being heard by those below. Days progressed into timed and regulated periods of action and silence, of study and calisthenics, of food preparation and cleaning, intake of news and radio, and unstructured free play. Order was docketed with precise care.

For Peter, weekdays allowed for casual dress—while Sundays were for a “nice suit, neat shoes, a shirt, a necktie,” he says in an interview in Anne’s diary. “In any case there is no need for me to sum up all the rest, for everyone must know what decent clothing is like.”

Now I hear Peter, Otto, and Anne’s voices, reminding me to create order.  My days are now parceled into a three-act vernacular; eight hours of work, eight of play, eight of rest. Without a stage, I move to the page. I write. I write with hopes to turn whatever mud I have, into Golem. Because words, and stories, are the best currency I know to exchange the mysteries of my life for meaning.

I do not bake any bread. But I do surrender to one meal with mashed potatoes.

A friend has been telling me that all of her ex-lovers keep texting her. I tell her that a girl I once kissed has reached out, too.

And after a Zoom funeral ends, my family helps teach my eighteen month-old nephew to count to ten. There is a pause each time he reaches five. He waits to be told the answer.

I, too, wait. To be told what to do next. I wait for a director in the back of the darkened theater to call out to me.

Chop wood. Fetch water.

Five. Six. Seven. Eight, my sister says.

So there has become a new kind of curation. Twice a week, for the past four months, my peers and I meet on Zoom as a slapdash collection of actors, directors, designers—for what we have named Curtain Calls: round-robin readings of whatever plays we have on our bookshelves and hard-drives. We digitally recreate that ancient act of gathering around the fire and telling stories. Within this collective, playwrights have shared new works. Actors have conquered dream roles. We’ve hit the greats; read language that sent chills down our spines. While reading Diana Oh’s “My H8 Letter To the Gr8 American Theater,” we watched as her self-published Google Drive script was edited live by the playwright, even as we spoke her words aloud from miles away. We continue to speak these words without certainty of when we might share them again, either on sets or on stages, with an audience in camaraderie, breathing the same air.

“I live in a crazy time,” Anne wrote.

And as I write, my childhood house murmurs. Slice through its walls and this set is its own dollhouse of classes taught, meetings taken, lives lived simultaneously under one roof. This plays out over and over, as days cycle through a succession of acts, unbroken. “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me,” Anne wrote. “Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen year old girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.”

Small acts of creativity, much like rehearsal, and I think, a bit like prayer—add up. And when performed regularly, and with determined unattachment, these acts change us. Actors are ruled by repetition, and its byproduct, reinvention. And so this new role, and its particular and clear choreography, moves forward.

~ ~ ~

It is summer here. While sheltering in place, I have a habit of opening many windows in this house. Because, unlike Peter, I can. I leave the front door open, as a welcome resident of my own hometown, where the bulbs my parents planted over twenty years ago have emerged from the tilled earth of our front lawn. Where the perennials pop their crowned heads out of the underground. Where, from these hiding places, each verdant bloom cracks the surface after a year underground as a botanic jack-in-the-box.

Whatever I sow during this time will be reaped later, that I am certain of.

Each morning, I tread my neighborhood’s hills, which rise and fall in a pattern of naturally-occurring topography that, from a distance, always has the mysterious appearance as if it is, itself, breathing. I feel dropped out of time here. I worry that I will need to find a new profession. I might need to be melted down and recast.

Perhaps, I’ve actually done this before. It’s another role. Another mask. I will pack a new suitcase and head into the next unknown. I will create stories in my own words. For now, I am no longer able to recreate other people’s lives. I am only able to live within my own.

Change happened in this pre-Revolutionary town much like the way a stone’s face softens after years of running water have driven its crags and grain to something smooth, pale, essential. The Public High School now bears the sign “GOD BLESS AMERICA!” with rows of white stars running parallel above and below; and the three words “GOD BLESS AMERICA!” emblazoned so large that the O is bigger than a grown man’s skull. With any man standing in front of it, the enormous O, always looked to me like a great white halo. In 2020, it appears to me now like a noose.

How naive I was. I now realize that embodying Peter was nothing short of a dress rehearsal. Our fragile democracy lurches towards derailment, not just through the pandemic, but through intensifying social discord. Anne’s words reverberate: “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

I choose art and empathy in the midst of this canyon in our collective life. Our stories, when at their best, offer not only a chance to bear witness but a hospitality, welcoming each other into what we have in common, but also show us how much we have to learn.

We will mourn our dead. Masks will once again belong to the stage. The children, having grown over these months while in lockdown, will tangle themselves wild in playgrounds once more. The bachelors will stand on dimly-lit banisters and kiss new beloveds. When we all emerge with stories to tell, marked like a palimpsest in ways we won’t entirely know, by the houses in which we hid.

I hear a quiet voice, a speech I heard over and over again onstage: “Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad,” Anne says,“try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you are pure within, and will find happiness once more.”


Jacob Kemp is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. He appeared in the award-winning Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, 20th Century Fox’s feature film Why Him, Broad City, and Season 1 of Black-ish. He was also a lead in Disney’s hit musical NEWSIES, a Yale Trust of Boston Scholar, and a National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts Award Honoree in Theater. He graduated cum laude from Yale, where he was the recipient of the Louis S. Gimble Jr. Scholarship and the Glenn de Chabert Prize.

Grand Prize Gold Winner: Headlights

March 1st, 2021

By Marcia DeSanctis

There was danger, even in the presence of angels.

February is not the ideal time for a road trip to northern France, but the moodiness of the sea, wind, and sky appeals to a certain breed of loner like me, drawn to the echoing voids of the off-season. Coastal Normandy is famous for its dramatic weather, and in winter, it grows wilder still, with thrashing winds and squalls of frozen sleet that churn up from the English Channel. The region is a sweep of battlegrounds and fortified castles, stone-cold Norman abbeys, and craggy ports that have hosted centuries of departing and returning soldiers. Here, God and war forge their strange alliance, as they often do, and the backdrop of tempests, tides, and occasional shards of sunlight render it fertile ground for ghosts and their keepers.

I had endeavored to Mont St. Michel to seek some perfect solitude. One night was all I could spare for a brief reconciliation between me and my universe, an instant quelling of the racing brain. I had always wanted to spend a night in the small village beneath the monastery and the dead of winter seemed an ideal time to do it—with the theatrical weather but without swarms of visitors filing into the one narrow street. I hoped, just for a spell, to experience the abbey as the pilgrims had, in this place that brings such wonder to the eye that only heavenly devotion and fear of hell could have conceived it. Over a thousand years ago, men had achieved the near impossible and built a church atop a 276-foot granite rock in the middle of a bay slashed by monster tides and some of the fiercest currents on earth.

To get there, let alone ferry construction materials on their backs, meant to brave wind, fog, quicksand, and a rushing sea. Later, pilgrims were obliged to wait for low tide to cross over to Mont St. Michel, but there was always risk, one the faithful were willing to take. By the time they arrived to commune in silence with the resident monks, they had already weeded themselves out and proven their piety along with their mettle.

I suppose I sought some clue of the divine here, as well. In France, I often venture into the dusky wombs of cathedrals, basilicas, and rural parishes. While inside these limestone temples, I look for proof of the almighty (signs anyway) and the wisdom of saints. In Europe, crosses loom over every village, admonishing me with very little subtlety of what I can never really abandon. I’m a committed former Catholic, but the church I was born into and raised in still whispers to me daily. It is a firm, plaintive voice that offers one truth: This is who you are. 

I’m not brave enough to have renounced my religion outright. Instead, I chucked it aside. Sunday school did an excellent job of teaching me everything and everyone I was meant to fear. But not long after my confirmation, I began to crave adventure with boys—a definite no-no with the nuns. Soon word sunk in that women were outcasts in the church and the Pope was okay with that. Eventually, I learned that some of the priests in my native Boston might be criminals. I slipped away, stopped going to mass. All that I absorbed from catechism—guilt, sin, purgatory, mercy, the promise of heaven and intense dread of the alternative—still unwittingly shapes my life.

Most of the time when I enter a church, once I cross myself at the holy water font, the outline of faith emerges, as if this ancient gesture tracing out a crucifix on my head and chest offers entry not just to a place of worship but also to comfort and certainty. When I’m in a pew, the sacred space above me intuits my secrets, listens to and forgives them all. For what if not salvation would the ancients construct these elaborate structures, embellish them with statuary and stories told in colored glass? It is safer to believe, and in a church, I do.  And then, it dissipates as soon as I exit from sanctuary to sunlight.

These bursts of affinity with something ancient and vast bring not exactly euphoria, but calm. We mortals are not the most important force on earth, so I can get over myself already. Maybe, at Mont St. Michel, with its near miraculous back-story, I’d again find that holy, ethereal sunbeam I never stop chasing. All I needed was a few minutes.

Days earlier, I had passed through the Normandy battlefields under a wintry sky that one moment was glazed soft pink and the next, opaque under a concrete wall of sleet. It’s the least I could do: hike through spiky gorse, cross the beach and imagine the final heartbeats of all the living boys who had died exactly where I stood. I drove to cemeteries and gravesites and to the great Tapestry of Bayeux. The story of William the Conqueror, the local bastard turned king, unfolds in staggering detail on this thousand-year-old strip of linen. In one scene, Harold, the eventual usurper—at least from the point of view of the French—rescues two soldiers from the quicksand of Mont-Saint-Michel. Even then, the perils of this forbidden place were fabled and feared.

I steered my car among the flooded roads and highways, until, at last, I rounded the coastal route on the Route des Champeaux. And there it was, rising on the horizon like a volcano. The sight of Mont St. Michel is perhaps most sublime when emerging from night or sinking into twilight—now pink, now gold, now white, now black, now white again—but at 2 p.m. on a somber day, it still exerted an astonishing grandiosity. I pulled over into a gully and exited the car to offer myself fully to this encounter. In this heightened state, I could ascribe no words to my emotions that carried both wonder for its beauty and terror for its power.

A few minutes later I parked my car and took the bus along the causeway. I was last here two decades ago, in July. Then, I wore a tank top, and a water bottle sloshed around my purse. The heat had been severe, and I trekked barefoot across the tidal flats, sun baking my back, flip-flops in hand. It was suffocatingly, grotesquely crowded and all of us tourists gazed up hopefully at the monastery, as if vying for a gulp of oxygen. And there he was: Archangel Michael, the prince of them all, commander of God’s army and Catholicism’s literal angel of death. He descends in our final hour to assist the dying and escort us to heaven as long as we proclaim our faith. It was he, during a visitation in 706, who told the local bishop “to build here and build high.” His gold figure crowns the spire of Mont St. Michel and on that sunny day, his wings and raised sword seemed to throw sparks into the sky.

I was surprised when the bus stopped in the middle of a mudflat and left me a fair distance from the bottom of the hill and the village—it was supposed to stop right at the foot of town. The driver instructed me to walk the rest of the way. Indeed, the stormy February weather had made a mess of things, and the approach was also a massive construction zone. Bulldozers and Bobcats were scattered beside the path, as were orange plastic ribbons that formed makeshift do-not-cross fences. It was, I learned, the home stretch for the colossal reclamation project that would return the sea to the bay of Mont St. Michel, which had been partially silted over by centuries of agricultural development. The effect of this silting had been to inhibit the regular sluicing of water to and from the Cousenon River into the bay, so the Mont was no longer the true island it had been when the monks built the church.

The currents, though, were unchanged: still erratic and still deadly. High tide can rise up to 45 feet and water sweeps in at an astonishing 200 feet per minute. Occasionally a video pops up on YouTube of fools who try to beat the sea, fail, and get rescued by helicopter. Also, periodically some deluded danger junkie wanders into the quicksand—there is still quicksand, too—and must be pulled to safety.

Every bit of me was drenched and spattered as I traipsed toward the village, and when I reached the hotel, the desk attendant scurried to welcome me. I was desperate to peel the soaking clothes from my body, and she dispatched me to my room, where I filled up the tub. Steam erupted off my clothes when I draped them on the drying rack. The radiator crackled with heat and the panes of the leaded windows were coated with rainwater. Beyond was a sweep of bay the color of boiling milk. My body ached with comfort in the bath, and I struggled not to doze off.

When I ventured out later that day, the street that strained to accommodate half a million tourists a year was hushed with the absence of people. The biscuit stands were open, though, and the stacks of primary-colored tins of galettes and sablés were the picture of optimism. I climbed to the abbey, and walked around the monastery and the Merveille—the church—stopping at the cloister lined with boxwoods and tidy colonnaded allées, a green respite on this grim day. From here was a view up the Norman and down the Breton coasts and surrounding it all, the sea. It was gray and thick as wet cement while the sky bore the whites of drifting snow.

I wandered through the chambers and chapels, the vacant assembly rooms and grand halls that bore no reminders of their bustling pasts. I stood at altars and under crosses, friezes and seawater-green stained-glass windows. I gazed up at Gothic choirs, vaults, and across to fireplaces, crucifixes, and the gold-cloaked figure of Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Tombe. But I struggled to feel the presence of a deity in these rooms. The best I could do was reflect on the ingenuity of the men who believed in one so strongly they carried boulders across this godforsaken landscape, hoisted them up, and erected a monument in tribute. I yearned to experience this strength of conviction but all I could do was admire theirs. Here, in the emptiness of a medieval abbey, I felt strangely empty, too. I couldn’t even summon a prayer to murmur.

After dinner, darkness crept into the village while the rain dissipated into drizzle, then mist, and at last a cold, clear night. Spotlights replaced daylight and the building was transformed. From a mottled edifice coated with lichen, tarnish, and rain, it turned pale and fortress-like, stained by shadows from sconces affixed to the façade. The turrets, covered in charcoal slate, had receded into blackness. I descended to the bottom of the village so I could look up at the structure again.

There, perched on the tip of the great spire, was Saint Michael the Archangel, so airborne he seemed to have just touched down. Behind and above him, clouds leaped across the disk of what was now almost a full moon. The light shone on the sword that pierced the sky and his wings spread in both directions. Warmth seeped honey-like over me. I stared and stared. It—he—was spectacular, so high, so permanent, so patient, and somehow powerful. I could not look away until my neck started to ache.

Here, from below, I understood that on this island, faith was proportional to distance. Its power was in the ever-fluid movement of sky over weather over water over stone. The pilgrims must have shared my wonder, exhausted their supply of adjectives and exclamations, even if many met a merciless end on their way here. They ventured to this desolate place with a belief so vast only isolation could accommodate it. Here, now, was the moment I had come for, the elusive crucible of trust and awe and relief. This is who you are. And right then I believed. The simplicity of my certitude caught me in the throat.

At 4:00 the next morning, I gathered my clothes from the heating rack, and woke the desk clerk to confirm with her the special off-hours bus I ordered to take me to the parking lot. I had a meeting in Burgundy at 2 p.m., and it was easily an eight-hour drive. “It is waiting for you,” she said.

The rain had returned, hammering, and the structure on the hill that had choked me up hours earlier had slipped behind the gloom. My epiphany about the divine, too, got stuffed back in my travel bag. There was one lonely sound above the wind: my rubber boots clomping on the path down to the landing area. There was no bus. But given that the day before I had to get off and walk a couple hundred yards to the village because of rain and construction, I assumed that today would call for a similar contingency. So I stepped off the road, switched on my iPhone flashlight and took what I believed was the same parallel walkway toward the place I had been deposited yesterday.

I walked with speed and purpose, anticipating the relief I would encounter when I reached the bus and then, my car. Grit scraped the wheels of my bag, splashing mud on me as I proceeded. All at once, the trek seemed too far and too long. There was no bus, no turnaround, no clearing. There were no Bobcats or bulldozers. Only wind, sleet and desolation.

And suddenly, there was a proliferation of warning signs that alarmed me: “It is extremely dangerous to venture alone into the bay including immediately close to Mont-Saint-Michel.” Passing minutes, then a half hour, leeched my optimism until it hung emptily about me. My parka had absorbed many times its weight in rain and pressed upon my shoulders. The iPhone formed only a wan pool of light before me. I could not discern how close I might be to the water, the tides, blackout. On the bright side, my rubber boots, high and heavy, clutched and warmed everything south of my knees as if they were sentient beings. They seemed to be sacrificing their lives for the integrity of my ankles and feet, and I loved them with all my might.

“Good boots,” I cooed as if they might answer back.

But they were leading me nowhere. I stopped. I still had cell service so I dialed the hotel. “Where’s the bus?” I asked. Panic scraped my windpipe.

“It’s right at the bottom,” she said.

“But it wasn’t there!”

“He probably turned around when he didn’t see you.”

“I took a wrong turn,” I said. The call cut off with an echo of sheer hopelessness.

It seemed absurd to be lost only yards from the third most popular tourist attraction in France. I walked and walked, sloshing through a thin blanket of mud on what seemed like a solid path, disconsolate and captive on the road that had no visible beginning or end, composing my obituary. A mother of two, it would read, vanished in the quicksand of Mont St. Michel. Not embarrassing, exactly. Like a snakebite or a failed rip cord, it was an adventurer’s demise. But I was a traveler, not a daredevil. Exploring is great, but danger is for fools.

Fools like me.

It didn’t seem appropriate to appeal to the almighty, whose existence I pondered and doubted not six hours earlier. So I reluctantly turned to look for Archangel Michael on the spire but he was invisible, shrouded under the veil of winter and night. Maybe that was a good thing. God’s avenger was also the angel of death.

It was so frighteningly dark. I heard the lapping of water amongst the drone of rainfall. I set forth again. The wind swept around me, forming icy walls that I walked right through, emerging colder and wetter than before. There was little chance I was near the bay, because the dreaded high tide was three days away, after the full moon. But this sea is unpredictable, and I also wondered, when I put my foot in a deeper batch of clay, if this could be quicksand. Relief when I kept my stride, but for my level of clarity, I may have been walking in circles.  I pictured my husband, my children, our universe that was miniscule compared to this pitiless place. I craved the sanity of my morning routine: coffee, toast. Life.

And then, lights. Small, low ones seeping through the pearly curtain of vapor to form an incandescent glow. They approached me from straight ahead, and declared to my relief that I was traveling along a real road and not the soggy clay barrens. The car pulled up and someone reached across to open the door.

I never saw really saw him clearly. Blue eyes or brown, pale complexion or ruddy—I haven’t a clue. But I remember the grayish spikes of his hair and the sharp contours of his profile, both outlined from the glare of his car’s headlights, which froze amidst the wall of rain and bounced back through the windshield with the potency of a 10-watt bulb.  His voice was soothing, not quite caffeinated, and very annoyed. It must have been alarming to see my drenched figure shuffling in the inky pre-dawn and then, for this wretched human to take a seat in his car.

“Oh my God,” I cried, “I…”

“What in God’s name are you doing out here?” he said.

“I’m lost and I…”

Au nom de Dieu,” he said. “This is incredibly dangerous!”

“I couldn’t find the bus,” I sniffed.

“Didn’t you see the warning signs?” he asked. He shook his head again and again.

We crawled along a firm, mud-coated road, probably carved by landscaping crews to ease the wholesale re-shaping of the tidal flats. I never asked if the danger he kept pointing out referred to my general foolishness—the weather, the hour of day, my exposure and my solitude. My hunch is that his admonishments alluded to something more ominous: that I had wandered into a truly perilous place where I risked misfortune from construction debris, or more likely, from nature’s force, against which anyone throughout history—the saint, the sinner, the reverent, the skeptic—has been powerless. Mont St. Michel was never a place for the weak.

“I did but it was too late,” I said.

“You are very lucky, Madame,” he said, and as he spoke his voice shifted from reproachful to kind.

Lucky.

He drove to a well-lit turnaround and stopped the car. I should have passed directly through this clearing an hour earlier, but somehow, inexplicably, I had diverged. The bus was there, idling.

“Be careful,” he said. “Soyez sage.”

“Thank you,” I said to his nodding profile. “Thank you.” He brightened with a fraction of a smile, which caused his cheeks to shift upward. The dark swallowed his car instantaneously, as if it had never existed.

I have no idea who he was. I was too cold, distraught, and embarrassed to ask. Maybe he was a worker finishing up the night shift. Perhaps he was a cop on security detail. The site foreman surveying the periphery. I will never know how he found me roaming around this treacherous place in the middle of an ice storm, just when I was ready to call it quits and give myself over to quicksand or dawn, whichever came first.

What is certain is that ten minutes later, I warmed up my car just as daylight glided into place to reveal another soaked winter day in Normandy. As I rounded the highway, I gasped at the distant sight of Mont St. Michel, its jagged black form stark against the soft gray of the sky. How elegant the spire seemed that morning as Archangel Michael emerged, gleaming, from behind the clouds. How worthy of a prayer.


Marcia DeSanctis is a journalist who writes for Travel + Leisure, Vogue, Departures, and other publications. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling book 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, and has appeared multiple times in The Best Travel Writing and The Best Women’s Travel Writing anthologies. Her essay collection, A Hard Place to Leave, will come out in April 2022. 

The Trip That Took Me

September 3rd, 2020

By Marcie Kaplan

Elder Travel Bronze Winner in the Fourteenth Annual Solas Awards

The Himalayas helped her find intimacy, faith, and reassurance.

I had my first tingly feeling when we were hiking up through woods from a 10,000-foot Himalayan pass to a monastery, and we passed soldiers in camouflage. I expected surprises in Bhutan, a Buddhist country about happiness more than money, and had been surprised by the trail’s red limbs with bulbous, mossy growths that seemed to reach out at me. But I hadn’t expected soldiers in camouflage. My guide, Pema, greeted them, “Kuzuzangbo la,” and continued on, signaling me not to ask questions, I thought, so I nodded politely to the soldiers and followed Pema.

We emerged into what was a clearing with about 75 towering poles. Thin strips of prayer flags ran the poles’ length, waving, fluttering and rippling in the wind, making a soothing, hissing sound. We crested the hill they were on to a 360-degree Himalayan panorama, shrouded, revealed and laced by moving clouds. Before us was a goemba, a monastery with a temple of whitewashed mud and ornately carved wood—swarming with soldiers. Pema chatted with a robed monk and told me the Elder Queen Mother was there. Another tingly feeling—not apprehension but thrill this time—royalty! We removed our hiking boots, I leaned my trekking poles against the temple wall, and we went in.

Four days earlier, my plane had threaded through the Himalayan peaks to land in Bhutan. I’d exited the airport into a large semicircle of smiling Bhutanese holding companies’ signs and looking at me expectantly. The guides, required for every visitor. Traditionally dressed, the men in knee socks and ghos—knee-length, belted robes—and women in kiras—floor-length, wrap-around dresses. I spotted a 30-ish man holding a sign with my tour company’s name and felt relief to be claimed.

Here I was, a 69-year-old woman arriving for two weeks—the first, sightseeing, the second, a trek. Cortisone shots in arthritic joints, NSAIDs, altitude sickness medicine—check, check, check. To my surprise, I’d been the only person to sign up for my tour, so it was just Pema, a driver and me the first week, and on the trek, Pema and me hiking, plus cook, cook’s assistant, and horseman in our camp at night. I’d worried about talking with a stranger all day every day, but so far Pema and I’d gotten along. We’d even developed an in-joke, phrases following thank you—“You’re welcome,” “mention not,” “my pleasure,” etc.—which he said would earn us merit towards our next incarnations. I was familiar with Buddhist beliefs from my meditation practice at home in Boston, and also I welcomed this possible increase in good luck. The first seven decades of my life had gone OK except in the love department. Relationships had ended, and then I’d settled into a fun, loving, meaningful, safe life of women friends, with great conversations and activities, and no threat of past hurts recurring. At 49, I’d adopted my 11-week-old daughter. A single mom, I’d not had time or space for dating. Now my daughter was in college, and I was “free” again. I’d tested the waters a few months earlier and gone out with an architect twice. We were as different as Mormons and Jews, which actually was the situation, him Mormon, me Jew. He lived an inactive life on a shoestring, while I flew to far sides of the world to hike. Surprisingly, though, we could talk and laugh about everything. A friend and I had done the breast stroke around Walden Pond for an hour discussing what I should do about him. Around in circles we swam, me confused as ever. He’d canceled our third date and disappeared. Fine—I hadn’t figured out what to do, anyway. Then just before I flew to Bhutan, he’d surfaced and asked to see me before I left. I said I’d see him after I got back.

One thing I’d noticed in my first few days in Bhutan was how intimate the Bhutanese were. I sat in the front seat of the SUV with our driver, and Pema sat in back and leaned forward to tell me about Bhutan, his face near my shoulder. He and our driver and hotel and restaurant staffs all seemed attentive to my comfort. Did I want a drink? Did the space heater in my room work well? If I was wearing hiking pants with small pockets, Pema held out his hand, took my phone and tucked it into the folds of his gho, where the material was gathered and tucked into two pouches roomy as knapsacks. And this care wasn’t just reserved for tourists. On a hike past a construction site, the construction manager in hard hat knelt behind Pema to refold Pema’s gho, line up the material and re-tie the belt, while Pema stood staring out at the valley below us.

Built into the first week’s sightseeing and day hikes were conditioning for the trek and adjusting to altitude. We were about halfway from Boston’s sea level to the trek’s highest point, a 16,000-foot pass. We visited villages, nunneries, dzongs—secular and religious fortresses—all with cascades of Himalayan views. Pema talked about the Elder Queen Mother and her foundation’s wise, compassionate work: eco-stoves, women’s economic empowerment, climate resilient water harvesting, green technology, nutrition initiatives, hydro-electrification, early childhood care.

The Elder Queen Mother was the first wife of Bhutan’s 4th,king—a polygamous king, his 2nd, 3d and 4th wives, her younger sisters. He’d abdicated in 2006 in favor of his eldest son, the 5th and current king, to help Bhutan shift from monarchy to democratic, constitutional monarchy, “because a king is chosen by birth and not by merit.” His abdication illustrated another Bhutan quality I’d noticed: clear-seeing through conditioned views. Bhutan now had an elected Parliament, and a prime minister headed the government. Interviews with each citizen about what does and doesn’t work informed public policy and the Queen’s foundation projects. In 2011, when he wed, the 5th king announced he’d have only one wife.

Now, at the monatery, Pema and I stepped into the long, crowded temple. Twenty monks in saffron robes stood against the opposite wall, chanting. People sat at the far end of the room, and two people, a couple in Western hiking clothes, sat near me on cushions. At my end of the room was a gold-skinned Guru Rinpoche statue, almost the height of the room, festooned with colorful fabrics, glittery gold ornaments, dangling earrings, and lotus flowers and leaves. I’d already learned from Pema that Guru Rinpoche was “the second Buddha,” an 8th-century master who’d brought Buddhism from India to Bhutan. Now, in the temple, soldiers in camouflage and men in ghos milled about in Guru Rinpoche’s shadows.

I sank onto a cushion, listened to chanting and watched. A smiling man in a gho bowed and extended a tray to me with cookies and hot tea. How did he know before I knew what I wanted? Warm during our uphill hike, I was cold sitting in the temple. I ate a cookie and sipped tea and felt restored. Then gazed about and realized from billboard-size pictures I’d seen that one of the people I’d noticed at the far end of the room was the Elder Queen Mother. I zoomed in, studied her. She was dressed in a kira and kneeling, her legs tucked under her, on a raised platform. On her left knelt a younger woman. On the Queen’s right was a throne, and, sitting in it, a robed child who looked to be around three years old.

All of them completely still. The three-year-old staring, the Queen and the younger woman, dignified, relaxed, hands in prayer at their chests, gazing intently down the room at Guru Rinpoche. The child’s stare looked engaged, not bored or restless. How long could the three of them not move? I waited for the child to turn rambunctious and the women to shift positions. Didn’t happen. I wondered if I could sit that still when I meditated.

The monks stopped chanting and filed out. I wondered, where were they were going? Did they like their lives? The Queen turned her head and looked in the direction of us three Westerners and smiled, surprising me. Was she looking at us? She said, “Please come forward and be blessed by my grandson.” My God, not only was she looking at us, she was talking to us. The other two Westerners started to stand. I clambered to standing, my leg muscles having stiffened, and took faltering steps off my cushion in my socks. We three crossed the empty center of the room and, one by one, approached the throne and bowed our heads. The toddler touched the tops of our heads with a scepter. Well I actually didn’t know what he touched us with—I couldn’t see while I bowed and, busy trying to walk gracefully, hadn’t paid attention to the other two. Then the three of us were standing in the middle of the room, and I didn’t know what to do next—walk out, or get permission to walk out, or what? I enjoyed the clueless feeling and wanted to bask in unpredictability—what a pleasure in not knowing what I was doing next! The Queen smiled at us and asked, “Can you stay for a few minutes so we might speak together?”

My age seemed to plummet from 69 to 5, I felt so star-struck, like we three Westerners were the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man before the Great and Powerful Oz.

We made up a tiny half-circle, our two guides at our outer edge. The Queen smiled and asked where we were from. The couple said Italy, I answered, and the Queen gestured towards the young woman next to her and said her daughter, who now smiled at me, had gone to high school in Boston and did I know the school? The daughter looked attentively at me. What weird luck. I said my daughter had gone to that school. The Queen and Princess exclaimed and laughed. I felt my smile looked lunatic. The Queen said her daughter went to Stanford and Harvard Law School and was known as the Princess Lawyer. She asked the couple and me about our time in Bhutan. I said I’d been the only one to sign up for my tour, so it was just my guide and me. She said, “It’s auspicious.” Auspicious, hmm. I’d felt worried, she had faith.

I remembered a slogan on my tour company’s website—“You don’t take a trip. A trip takes you.” I considered substituting her faith for my doubt.

She asked our guides if they’d told us the monastery’s history. Pema said he’d been planning to once we were inside—his usual timing—and the Queen said she’d tell us, herself, if we’d like. Yes, we’d like. She seemed to want to. I felt drawn to her now, not to her royalty but to her warmth.

She said that in 2003, her husband, then king, led the Bhutan Army to the southern border to fight Indian rebels sheltering there. They wanted independence for India’s northeastern states, to their south. India had pressed Bhutan to eject them, and Bhutan had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with them for years, and now its military, in its first operation, would remove them. The Queen’s son, a 19-year-old Oxford student, left England to join his father in leading the troops. The Queen was frantic with worry, desperate for her husband and son to return home safe, and raced here to the monastery, in less than half the time she usually took, to appeal to Guru Rimpoche. Since she talked about her feelings—desperate and frantic—I felt connected with her as she talked. She found the monastery in ruins, only the Guru Rimpoche statue in reasonable shape. Distraught, she knelt before him and offered him a deal: she’d restore the monastery if he’d safeguard her husband and son. “Implicit was I wouldn’t restore the monastery if he didn’t,” she said, laughing. I felt connected with her because of her humor. Her husband and son returned home safe. She launched the monastery project. Laborers carried heavy stones and lumber up the trail through the forest of “ancient trees, primitive trees”—she and I saw those woods the same way. The laborers, whose praises she sang, took four years to finish.

She glanced towards the throne, which I now saw was empty, the child gone, and said her grandson was the reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche. She laughed, maybe guessing how this information might fall on skeptical, Western ears, and said that, a year earlier, when he was two and a half, he’d told his parents he was Guru Rimpoche’s reincarnation. They therefore had brought him to the Guru’s ruined monastery in India, to test his claim. When they arrived, a tour was in progress. The guide pointed to stones he said had been the library, and the toddler said, “No, that was the granary.” He was correct, the guide resigned, and the toddler led the rest of the tour of the Guru Rimpoche monastery. The Queen nodded to the empty throne and said, “The original him” and laughed. She said her grandson was an “old soul” and didn’t laugh—maybe she knew that concept was embraced in the West. She invited us to file past the Guru Rinpoche statue on our way out to make a wish. I was delighted for another possible shot at good luck. Before I turned from where I stood, about 20 feet away from the Lawyer Princess, I couldn’t stop myself from asking her when she’d graduated from high school. She laughed and said, “A long time ago! 1999.” The Queen asked, “When did your daughter graduate?” I said, “2016.” There was back and forth women talk that felt like home. The Princess said, “Please give your daughter my warmest regards,” and the Queen said, “Please give her my warmest regards, also.” I’d be on it that night on WhatsApp—this was one time conveying regards wouldn’t fall through the cracks.

We three Westerners filed past Guru Rimpoche, and I asked him for a boyfriend.

Pema and I retrieved boots and poles, returned to the trail to proceed to another monastery, and hiked silently, both of us moved, no inside jokes.

Our trek began three days later. My highest hiking ever was to 14,000 feet, and I’d had altitude sickness at 12,000 feet in two different parts of the world. Planning my Bhutan trip, I’d hoped my ascent had been too fast those two times, and the slower acclimatization of the Bhutan trek would make a difference. Now, as Pema and I hiked and gained altitude, my stomach clenched, and I felt nauseous and light-headed. I persevered. We talked about his cycling competitions on routes over passes, and my daughter. He didn’t ask if I was married, I didn’t say. I thought asking might seem rude to him. It didn’t seem rude to me—I asked about his love life, and he talked about his favorite girlfriend.

We ascended three days, the knot in my stomach tightening, low-level light-headedness and nausea constant, appetite disappearing. For acclimatization, we remained in the same campground the third and fourth nights before the 16,000-foot pass. After that third night, I roused myself before dawn and stood surrounded by dark peaks that framed the up-close, brilliant, gold-and-orange sunrise on the East face of Jomolhari. An unclimbed 24,000-foot mountain. In Bhutan, it’s illegal to climb peaks higher than 20,000 feet, because they belong to the gods. The unclimbed Jomolhari looked sacred to me, like a temple.

The night before the ascent to the pass, I lay in my sleeping bag in my tent, in long underwear, fleece jacket, down jacket, wool hat, mittens, my sleeping bag lined with thermal liner, the bag’s hood cinched over my forehead, exposing only my mouth and nose to air so I could breathe. I was tired of feeling sick, scared of feeling sicker, and freezing, and fantasized about reversing direction in the morning and going down. To a heated hotel, relaxed stomach, hot shower and restaurant buffet. I got up the next morning early again to see sunrise on Jomolhari again and, walking to the toilet tent in the dark, passing wandering yaks, noticed, to my surprise, I was breathing deeply. I hadn’t realized I hadn’t been breathing deeply, but apparently I hadn’t been and now I was. Again. Should I abandon my plan to turn around? I wondered. At breakfast, I forced myself to sit in the camping chair at the tiny camping table in the sun, yaks walking by, and eat muesli and eggs. Pema came over and said I needed to decide whether I wanted to press on or turn around, by 2:00 p.m., so he could call the crew and let them know where to set up camp for the night.

I’d postpone the decision. We started trekking, headed for the pass. By late morning, I was still hiking, plowing on, and up, past two long, narrow lakes, one emerald, one deep blue, in a brown valley with snow-covered mountains, Jomolhari and pointy, 22,000-foot Jichu Drake, in the background. Deschi, the cook’s assistant, arrived with lunch in his backpack, and Pema and he lay a cloth down on the grass to picnic. The thought of eating did not appeal. I asked if I could skip lunch and hike on, and they’d catch up, and Pema said yes, since there was only one trail, there was no chance of my getting lost. I continued on. Alone on the trail for the first time in Bhutan, I suddenly got on a roll and wanted to see how fast I could go. I practically ran. Up. After a while, the trail turned, and I saw the valley way below me, Pema and Deschi, tiny figures standing and packing lunch items in a backpack. Amazing how clear my view of them was. I turned and raced on. The pass came into view ahead, above me, a dip between two peaks, tiny prayer flags strung across. I was thrilled. I continued. An hour later, I heard Pema and Deschi behind me. Pema said, “We couldn’t catch up with you.” I was so proud—they couldn’t catch up with me! I didn’t tell him I was proud, since I felt guilty I’d maybe caused him stress. Now, the three of us hiking together, I relaxed. I saw I’d been nervous—I hadn’t realized I’d felt nervous—that I’d get lost in the Himalayas with scant chance of survival. Now I hiked, no longer nervous. Above us, the small, square prayer flags strung across the pass, whipping in the wind, became larger. I hiked looking up at them. I neared them, and my vision blurred from tears, not from the wind in my eyes but from relief and triumph.

At the pass, Pema took pictures of me with my phone, including ridiculous ones, like of me curtsying in hiking boots. I felt free to be ridiculous or whatever I wanted to be, for several minutes. I’d earned it.

What I didn’t know was that ascending was the easy part. Now that we were descending, the trail of slippery, dry dirt and rock slanted down, bordered by steep cliffs. I was terrified I’d fall. Horse teams came up from behind to pass. Where on this narrow path could I step aside? And there were big steps from rock down to rock—painful for knees, and scary, that knees would cave and I’d plummet. Pema at times walked slowly next to the trail, on the steeply slanted slope, holding my hand, or taking my hand to help me ease down a big drop from rock to rock. A trekking group streamed past, me inched up the inclined side of the trail to make way for them. I could never hike at their pace. I remembered the Queen saying having my own guide was auspicious. Was she right or what? Turned out I’d needed help, and I had it.

The trek’s last day, we descended more than 5,000 feet. I limited the frequency of my glances below to where we were headed. Way below. Flat ground, a river winding through it, teensy, tiny SUVs. Which stayed teensy, tiny no matter how long I didn’t let myself look, how infrequently I looked. As teensy, tiny as they’d looked an hour earlier. I despaired. I persevered. I had no choice. I was a walking machine.

It took me six hours to descend. It took most people four, and the trekking group that had passed me, two.

I didn’t care. I’d completed the trek. I was thrilled. I’d scored a personal best in altitude.

With one more day for me in Bhutan, Pema and I went shopping on a street of stores in the small airport town. I found a pair of silver earrings, wide as miniature chandeliers, with tiny bells dangling. I put them on and looked in a mirror propped on a shelf stacked with neatly folded yak wool shawls. Pema leaned in, our faces side by side in the mirror, his reflected eyes looking at my reflected eyes, his reflected mouth moving. “Those earrings will bring you a husband,” he said. So he knew without asking.

Eight months later, in Boston, sitting at my dining room table, wearing the earrings, I’m writing about the trip that took me. The architect is sitting across from me, drawing a landscaped building on a big piece of paper. I like working together, him drawing, me writing. Love has bloomed. Maybe my trip helped in a way that my usual problem-solver, talking with women friends, couldn’t. Who knows? The architect had taken a couple months’ break to think things through, and I’d visited Bhutan—to find intimacy, faith, reassurance I could get help when I’m scared.


Marcie Kaplan is a writer, forensic psychologist and mom. She has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Magazine and other periodicals. She lives in the Boston area and considers Walden Pond, New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Acadia National Park as homes. She is returning to Bhutan when she finishes the memoir she’s writing, since now it also feels like home.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie): Cubana Be, Cubana Bop

April 30th, 2020

By Tom Miller

The best guitar maker in Cuba.

Three events—baseball, Pope Jon Paul’s visit, and the Elián González case—exposed Cuba to the American public far beyond the embargo. Yet it was the improbable success of a handful of aging musicians that exposed a Cuba few knew and expanded the country’s audiences far beyond its bashers or its cheerleaders. The musicians went by the name of the Buena Vista Social Club, their music came from the 1950s and earlier, and their appeal was resolutely apolitical. On a visit to Havana, the American musician and producer Ry Cooder, not finding the musicians he sought, teamed up with Cuban producer Juan de Marcos to produce an album of exquisite sounds from another era.

One of Cooder’s Cuba visits coincided with Hurricane Irene which stormed through Havana one night inundating streets near the coast and knocking down power poles throughout the city. In San Miguel del Padrón, a poor, working class suburb southeast of the capital, Juanito Rodríguez Peña and his wife Marta heard the torrential downpour and howling wind, warily took note of the water entering their hundred-year-old wood house, and went back to sleep. The high-ceilinged front room had a few merciless leaks, and the wind overturned the couple’s only furniture, a straw chair and a wicker couch, yet in all they survived Irene better than most. The next morning the nimble guitar maker went to his back room workshop, took the plastic sheet off an instrument he was working on, brushed huge puddles of water from his workbench that came in through the porous roof, and began his day. Marta spent the morning sweeping water, which covered most of the front room, out the front door.

Juanito Rodríguez Peña had been making and playing guitars, treses, and lutes for much of his life. The tres is most succinctly described as a slightly smaller guitar with three sets of two strings each. The Cuban lute, commonly called a laúd, has a pear-shaped body, usually with eighteen strings. Rodríguez Peña, born in the nearby suburb of Luyanó more than seven decades earlier, had gained a measure of notoriety throughout Cuba for his regular appearances on the popular radio program, “Vivimos en Campo Alegre” and the television show, “Palmas y Cañas.” Both programs feature Rodríguez Peña’s forte, música guajira—traditional acoustic music from the countryside. Rodríguez Peña performed around Havana frequently and, drawing on precariously few resources, made and repaired instruments. His raw materials appear irregularly and sometimes serendipitously—much like the bus that carried him into town to rehearsals, studios, and performances. To follow the story of Juanito Rodríguez Peña and his survival is to likewise get a sense of Cuba today—it involves, in varying proportions, inventiveness, skill, resourcefulness, and occasional good fortune.

Rodríguez Peña’s most recent good fortune began about four years ago. Among the knowing musicians who have bought guitars from him was Compay Segundo, the nonagenarian Santiago de Cuba native who, with other elder statesmen of Cuban music, won a Grammy for his part in the Buena Vista Social Club ensemble. The music that Segundo plays comes from the far end of the nineteenth century at the far end of the island. During the initial Buena Vista recording session in 1996 Ry Cooder asked Compay where he got his guitar.

This was no idle chatter between musicians. There was something about Segundo’s guitar that piqued Cooder’s curiosity. As both producer and musician, Cooder has had the admirable distinction of having strummed quality instruments throughout the world, and his recordings over the years reveal a man obsessed with perfection. If you’re thinking about buying a guitar or a tres or a laúd in Havana, Segundo advised, Juanito Rodríguez Peña is your man. Two days later the guitar player from Southern California and the guitar maker from San Miguel del Padrón met, and right away the former bought two instruments from the latter: a reconditioned laúd originally made by Rodríguez Peña’s father Andrés, a guitar maker who died more than thirty years earlier, and a tres that Rodríguez Peña had converted from a requinto, a small similar instrument from Mexico. Cooder considered Rodríguez Peña a master craftsman. Rodríguez Peña thought of Cooder as a tall and amiable foreigner.

A year later Cooder asked Rodríguez Peña to build an instrument for him from scratch. “As a luthier he stands apart from any other string instrument maker I know,” says Cooder. “He is an old-world folk artist. Since there are no music stores per se in Cuba, one simply has to know of the makers. In America and Europe musicians have two or five or dozens of their own instruments. In Cuba, you have one. Musicians bring their battered instruments to Rodríguez Peña and he makes chicken soup from stones. His guitars tell a certain story when you play them. There’s something about how he positions the neck, how he frets an instrument. I look for the joinery and the woodworking, the angle of the neck where it joins the body, the height of the strings at the bridge, the set up of the stress points. That’s what determines how it sounds. It’s what makes a Stradivarius a Stradivarius.”

A visit to Rodríguez Peña’s workshop can be disorienting. One expects the mild disarray of a carpenter, with tools of his trade, stacks of wood, and sawdust lying about. Instead one is confronted by an almost barren workspace. The only objects in sight were a small throw rug, a hand saw, an almost empty can of ninety percent cane alcohol, and a Stanley electric saw. “I haven’t tried it in a long time,” Rodríguez Peña tells me. “I’m not sure it works.” A single fluorescent light bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates more spider webs than guitars. Additional light shines through the windows and great gaps in the roof. The front panel of an old stand-up bass rests against a far wall. “It comes from Luyanó. I haven’t decided what to do with it yet,” he explains. Rodríguez Peña has lived in this house since 1939, and it was right here that as a young boy he would sit in the corner and watch his father at work.

“My father’s workshop used to extend a little farther out. He would make furniture and doors as well as instruments. Eventually he devoted himself to the luthier trade. He allowed me to cut wood sometimes, but I couldn’t use his electric sander. He was proud of me, but he never let me make instruments by myself. The parents of that era were real strict. Domineering.” Rodríguez Peña turns his fist as if tightening a faucet. “I really didn’t begin my work until he died.”

Rodríguez Peña has few supplies but a world of suppliers. He has no tools to calibrate depth or measure width, yet by eyeballing the wood his pieces fit snugly together. Somewhat by happenstance my family found itself in the middle of a typical Cuban problem and its typically Cuban solution. My wife Regla was visiting her father, a retired Havana carpenter, and dropped in, on my behalf, on Rodríguez Peña. The guitar maker told her in passing that he needed a particular type of lacquer for his work. Regla mentioned this to her father, who allowed as how he had some of that lacquer he no longer used. She relayed this news to Rodríguez Peña, who, the next day, rode the bus to my father-in-law’s. The two elderly woodworkers chewed the fat for a while, and Rodríguez Peña got his lacquer.

Fulfilling Rodríguez Peña’s professional needs was usually not so easy, but he did rely a lot on friendships. As a licensed independent craftsman he could get wood from the government, it never seems to be the right type or age. For many years carpenter and luthier friends would simply give him planks of wood. Or he would go scavenging, traipsing through sites where the ruins of once-splendid homes might offer up the right wood. Sometimes he’d explore the trash built up on the streets of Luyanó. Such excursions are now rare for Rodríguez Peña, who when I met him had recently celebrated his seventy-first birthday, but on an unseasonably muggy winter afternoon he and I accompany one of his suppliers, forty-two-year-old guitar maker Luis García, on his wood-hunting rounds.

García, who learned guitar-making from a Mexican master, lives on the first floor of an enormous apartment building across the street from a cigarette plant and a bicycle repair shop. “I made guitars in a factory,” García said as we pull away from the curb and drive by the nearby baseball stadium, “but I didn’t like the production-line work.” He directs our driver down pot-holed side streets in the Cerro neighborhood. “Pull over there,” he instructs, pointing toward a narrow street. “Sometimes there’s a trash pile on the far side.” Havana’s anguished efforts to keep up with itself means fewer trash pick-ups, hence more and bigger trash piles. This can be good if you’re dumpster diving for wood, but at this particular corner, after walking the perimeter of the junk heap, García and Rodríguez Peña both shake their heads. “I go out looking just about every evening after dinner,” García explains as we get moving again, “either on foot or bicycle. Often I don’t get home until midnight. I stop to visit friends and family. In the last six years I’ve found six complete mahogany beds. I hardly ever skip a night. If you miss a night you might miss a bed. Let’s try over there.”

Scavengers are either trash collectors or object hunters, author Paul Auster observed in In the County of Last Things. “A good object hunter,” notes Auster, “must be quick, you must be clever, and you must know where to look.” García agrees with Auster: “What another has seen fit to throw away”— Auster again — “you must examine, dissect, and bring back to life.”

The trash pile García points to on the corner looks more promising, and we all climb out. Across the street sits a once-lovely building now in its final stages of decay. Its Greek columns lay prostrate and broken on the ground with chunks of concrete lying about the rubble. A dog barks from a third floor window in a nearby building; children shoot marbles on the corner. García reaches carefully into the pile and pulls out a flat piece of dry wood about three feet by four feet and hands it to Rodríguez Peña. “Rosewood,” the master craftsman says, tapping it as he holds it up to his ear. He runs his hand over it and taps it again.

“Rosewood,” he repeats. “Too new. New wood is no good. It has to be forty or fifty years old.” A few blocks away we stop again and find another piece. Rodríguez Peña lifts it to gauge its heft. “Nails. It’s got nails in it. It won’t do.”

“See that corner?” García asks. “One night I found a piano top there. Another night I found some furniture. It’s my best place. I always check it out.” Yet by the end of our hunt all we’ve collected is a warning from a traffic cop for drifting slightly over the center white line.

One evening not long thereafter, Rodríguez Peña, laúd in hand, traveled by bus into Havana with his wife Marta to perform with his group, JRP, at a cultural center in the heart of town. Juanito’s five-man group attracted upwards of a hundred appreciative spectators, including the tall foreigner and his wife. Many in the audience were themselves from the countryside, and this was one of the few opportunities they had in the city to comfortably connect with their culture and see live música guajira. Rodríguez Peña, his thin, five-foot ten frame clad in a freshly pressed guayabera and dark slacks, played the laúd that evening, an instrument as refined in sound as it is in verse. The late Andalusian poet Rafael Alberti used the laúd in metaphoric verse to set the migration from North Africa to Spain and on to the New World. “In the beginning was the laúd,” his poem opens. His poet’s-eye view of history described the break-up of the Spanish empire: laúds, he wrote, “ignite their bridges in sparks of gold, along the stars that Spain has lost.”

It’s an instrument that ignited Efraín Amador, a Cuban who has devoted his life to the laúd and tres as both composer and performer. Amador, his country’s leading authority on the two instruments, has strummed Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart on the laúd in concerts throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas with his wife accompanying on the piano. “It took me years to convince the Instituto Superior de Arte here that these weren’t just some hillbilly instruments,” the fifty-three-year-old told me in his home in Guanabacoa, outside Havana, “that they deserved to be studied alongside the piano and violin.” In the late 1980s the laúd and tres got official approval, and Amador is now their champion. His personal collection includes a laúd from Rodríguez Peña.

Six months after Cooder ordered his instrument; Rodríguez Peña had given it a lot of thought but not much time. Although Cooder has become associated worldwide with Cuban music through the success of the Buena Vista Social Club, in Cuba itself radio did not play songs from the CD, stores did not sell it, and, with the exception of a few special screenings, theaters had not shown the film. The guitar maker, clueless to the Buena Vista album or its producer’s identity, continually referred to Cooder simply as “the tall foreigner.”

When Cooder next visited Rodríguez Peña, he brought along enough wood for his own instrument and plenty more, and enough lacquer and glue to build and recondition a dozen used instruments. “¡Que bárbaro!” Rodríguez Peña cried out when he saw the gifts. “Outrageous!” It was a reunion of sorts, and the player and the maker hugged warmly. Rodríguez Peña picked up a sheet of Alaska sitka spruce from Cooder and tapped it next to his ear, listening for its resonance. He did this often, testing the wood with the intense wonderment of a child. “Hear that?” he said, holding it next to my ear. Actually I didn’t hear what the master guitar maker heard, but I did see the gleam in his eye. Rodríguez Peña and the tall foreigner talked about the pending construction of the instrument, a tres. Neither the world-class guitarist nor the world-class luthier spoke the other’s language, but they chatted amiably about the tres with very little help from a third party.

“In the modern era of guitar making you may have master craftsmen,” Cooder told me later, “but a number of different specialists’ hands work on the same instrument. Rarely do you find one shop where one maker works on one instrument from start to finish. You simply can’t get instruments like this anymore, not in the competitive marketplace. Rodríguez Peña doesn’t work in the contemporary commercial environment so he can make the effort to bring forth the best. We live in an era of technical proficiency, but this goes far beyond that. You could not replicate an instrument from him in New York, London, or Los Angeles.”

Cooder returned to Rodríguez Peña’s modest home the next day, not to further along the tres, but for a lesson on the laúd. With the master and the teacher at work, it hardly mattered that they come from very different backgrounds, occupy extremely different stations in life, or that neither of them reads sheet music. Cooder was learning to play the “Zapateo Cubano,” and Rodríguez Peña was showing him on his own laúd how best to position his hands. Never have I seen twenty such educated fingers at play.

A day later Rodríguez Peña unlocked an old tobacco-scented armoire in the bedroom and showed me where he keeps two of his own instruments. Then he pulled away a blanket on a table to reveal two more he is working on. After that he took me over to a bookshelf and uncovered yet two more. Most of his instruments were safely stored in the house’s only room with no overhead leaks. Finally he escorted me out through the workshop to his narrow backyard. We passed by a painting of Rodríguez Peña’s younger brother Orlando, whose death in a traffic accident some twenty-five years earlier still brought sorrow to his usually cheerful face.

“As soon as I finish the tres I’ll build a new cinderblock workshop,” he announced, designing his new workplace with his hands. The backyard, where Marta hung clothes to dry, yielded bananas, mangoes, guayaba, and frutabomba, and their sweet aroma wafted through the house. A pig Rodríguez Peña was fattening up for the family Christmas fiesta snorfed by, and the guitar maker drew a hand across his throat and smiled.

The laúd teacher still beamed from the previous day’s lesson. “The foreigner learned the ‘Zapateo’ in its entirety! It was in 6/8 time. He’s extremely talented and intelligent. He has an excellent sense of rhythm. What did you say his name is?”

When we passed back through the bedroom I noticed a Bible next to some plastic flowers, open to the Book of Luke.” Rodríguez Peña goes to Pentecostal meetings. “We sing. We talk of God. It’s every Wednesday night for an hour or so. With all my music and guitar making, I haven’t had much time for it lately.” Rodríguez Peña was also a member of Cuba’s Communist Party, and had been for more than twenty years. “We had a study session last Saturday,” he said of his Party chapter. “We discussed the problems of the revolution and read some of the country’s laws.” Likewise, he serves on the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. “We keep the streets clean. It’s volunteer revolutionary work. We paint the curbs. We discuss neighborhood problems at our meetings.”

A couple of evenings later I was chatting with Rodríguez Peña and his wife in their daughter’s house just across the street from their own, when the electricity suddenly shut down throughout the neighborhood. It was time for the weekly two hour blackout. I commiserated with them about this hardship, but almost as one the entire family rose to contradict me. “No, don’t you see? We used to have blackouts every day for hours at a time. Things are getting back to normal.”

Rodríguez Peña stood on his daughter’s front porch and plucked out a riff on his tres. The next day he would ask local municipal officials for a permit to patch up his hurricane damaged roof with wood and corrugated metal he hoped to find. On the way he plans to stop at the bank to pay his monthly eighty peso license fee to maintain an independent repair shop. He assured me he will get to the tall foreigner’s tres as soon as things are in order.


Tom Miller has brought out eleven books during his fifty-year career writing about conflict and culture in the southwest borderlands and Latin America. His titles include The Panama Hat Trail, Trading with the Enemy, and Revenge of the Saguaro. He has won three Solas Awards and was editor of Travelers’ Tales Cuba. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, LIFE, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New Yorker, and many other rags and mags.

Grand Prize Gold Winner: Our Ravaged Lady

April 16th, 2020

By Erin Byrne

Little by little, his spirit expanded in harmony with the cathedral.
—Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

She’s had many lives and here was the burnt offering of another.

Notre Dame’s lace spire sizzled and crumbled as it fell, and the gigantic hole it created became a cauldron. Flames, golden to orange to red, assaulted the lavender-tinged Paris sky, and smoke billowed in gray and white explosions. Silhouetted against glowing cinders, her bell towers stood dignified but unprotected.

Four hundred firefighters wrestled with the blaze as the stone edifice trapped heat and smoke, which rendered much of the higher flames in the “forest” of 850-year-old ceiling beams unreachable. The beams had been catching fire like kindling for a half hour before anyone was aware that a false alarm had indeed been real, and it was out of control by the time the firefighters arrived. Scorched by fierce heat, some ran in to rescue precious relics, the crown of thorns, a piece of the cross, while others faced the inferno.

My friends and I stood on the edge of Île Saint Louis and watched, mouths agape, tears stinging our eyes, joining in a collective, horror-filled gasp as the cathedral battled for her very existence. The hollow, meandering roar of the conflagration was punctuated by the thunder of falling wood and stone, and the screeching of twisting iron and crackling flames.

Hugo’s “vast symphony of stone” had Stravinskied.

~ ~ ~

Louis XIV, that long-haired hippie of a monarch (was not Versailles a manicured version of Burning Man?) is said to have posed in his ermine robe, hands on hips, and declared, “L’état, c’est moi.” The state, that’s me. I myself had noted in an essay a few years earlier, in an obsession with Notre Dame’s mysterious yet innocent psyche, that in some way, she and I were one.

As she burned, my gut echoed the sentiment. During the past few years, I’d broken my shoulder and had two concussions; my father had died; I’d gone through a divorce after a 32-year marriage; moved from Washington to California and started over; and ushered my two twenty-something sons into the world of adulthood with all the attenuating letting go. I had suffered a stroke, had a heart recorder inserted surgically, and sustained two more concussions, the most recent of which I was in the midst of recovering from the night of the fire. The glow was extra-rosy, and the cries of onlookers deafening as the crowd edged ever closer to my dizzy, claustrophobic brain.

In spite of this, I was in Paris to do research for my novel and a few literary events, and to see friends. In hindsight, I sought escape.

The next day, Emmanuel Macron addressed the people of Paris: “Notre Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery. It’s the place we live our greatest moments from wars to pandemics to liberations.”

Notre Dame, situated in the precise center of the starting point of the roads of Paris and of France (kilometer zero), has lived several tumultuous lives. Her first stone was laid in 1163, and it is easy to envisage the faithful lighting candles around that one stone. Our Lady was completed after roughly two hundred years of hard labor. She was graced with her bell towers and received her best feature, North and South Rose Windows, glittering eyes from which her spirit shone forth.

When she was about three centuries old, Catholics slaughtered Protestant Huguenots en masse over a three day killing spree, which was celebrated at her altar as a great victory. Soon afterwards Huguenots attacked her façade, starting the fad of hacking the heads off of her statues that would continue for centuries.

When she was four, our hippie friend, realizing that Gothic was out, Baroque was in, ripped out her eyes. Later, Hugo would rant, Who has installed cold white glass in the place of those stained glass windows that caused the astonished eyes of our ancestors to pause between the rose window of the main entrance and the pointed arches of the apse?

When she was five, fanatics came after her again, this time Revolutionaries, hacking off more statues’ heads, melting down all but one of her precious bells to make cannons, attacking her spire (flèche, which also means ‘arrow’), and renaming her The Temple of Reason.

Soon after this, a great rudeness was performed at her altar. The Emperor Napoleon seized the moment, forever memorialized by Jacques Louis David, grabbed power from the Pope and crowned first himself and then his empress Josephine. The French abhor bad manners; Our Lady may have been embarrassed.

Through all of this, people lit candles under bright or colorless glass, in turmoil and in peacetime, in sorrow or in joy.

Then Victor Hugo took up his pen, and with the flourish of a virtuoso, created a character whom, in the slickest conceit ever penned by a writer, was so intertwined with the cathedral that …

He was its soul. To such a point was he, that those who knew that Quasimodo once existed, now find that the cathedral seems deserted, inanimate, dead. You feel that there is something missing. This immense body is empty; it is a skeleton. The spirit has departed; you see the place it left, and that is all. It is like a skull: the sockets of the eyes are still there, but the gaze has disappeared.

At the time, Notre Dame was a spectral wreck, perfectly matching Hugo’s image. The people demanded a fitting abode for Quasimodo and the city renovated, adding new window-glazes, new statues and murals, even a new spire. It was a total makeover, but the hunchback had to wait twenty-five years for his new home.

Bombs, bullets and shrapnel punctured her skin during the first World War. She is built of sturdy stuff, stone, but by this time she may have felt disaster-prone. Again, her eyes were removed during the occupation of Paris. She endured four long years of blind silence, with her bells mute. By the Liberation, Our Lady’s demise was imminent. Hitler ordered his agent in Paris to detonate her, and it is by the luck of von Choltitz’s defiance, or (as the French prefer) the timing of the Liberation, that she was saved.

On that day in August 1944, Charles de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Éysées and took a car to Notre Dame. Parisians had fought the Germans from the barricades—piles of tables and chairs and desks and stools, with any weapon they could get their hands on—and chaos still reigned. German snipers remained high in the Gothic arches.

BBC Correspondent Bob Reids radio broadcast described the scene:

And now, here comes General de Gaulle.

The general’s now turned to face the square and this huge crowd of Parisians [machine gun fire]. He’s being presented to people [more machine gun fire]. He’s being received [shouts and shot] …. marching [more fire, even when the general is marching into the cathedral].

De Gaulle walked straight ahead, shoulders high, his 6 1/2 foot tall frame never flinching, with bullets zinging from all sides, and people scampering for shelter, into a blizzard of fire from the rafters. He remained for a fifteen minute celebration.

Her bells rang again that day. Our Lady of Paris, who had waited a long time for this, envisioned a new future, and sang.

She had acquired much wisdom, but she had aged. Her toilette couldn’t keep up with the layers of grime and dirt that time had marked upon her, so in 1963, she had a bath. Cleaned from top to toe, she shone pristine again, just in time to witness the riots of 1968. She continued to be a site for protests, and after the terrorists attacks of 2013 and 2015, was often branded with a red or orange terrorist alert, with machine-gunned guards roaming her grounds in a state of constant vigilance.

Through her years, she offered sanctuary, repose, and contemplation, as millions filed into her glorious interior to meander, listen to music soar to the heavens, and light candles. The faithful in Notre Dame, when they have paused to ignite a votive, have been in the company of universal humanity. Pagan Romans lit wicks near images of their emperors, and in Jewish culture, a perpetual light has always been kept burning in temples and synagogues. Some Muslims light lanterns during Ramadan and on the graves of their loved ones. Hindus ignite diyas, and Tibetan Buddhists yak-butter-lamps.

But those who ignite candles in Notre Dame are not the ones providing the light. Our Lady has been imbued, whether by legend or literature, with human qualities, and it is she who illuminates.

~ ~ ~

The week after the fire, I had been invited to read as guest writer at a popular Spoken Word series, and chose my original essay about the cathedral. I had analyzed her inside and out extensively, going deep and using my intellect with zest, for my brain was my center, and I’d written the best essay it could conjure. But my chest burned all day, dizziness and chills wracked my body. By the time I took the stage in an underground cavern packed with poets, artists, and musicians, my throat raged and my voice faltered. “Her scars and sweetnesses were mine,” I read, wondering if my connection to this cathedral was a blessing or a curse.

This trip was intended to be a hiatus from my own life. I had had three books come out in one year, and in the midst of book launches, my father had a heart attack and stroke and died. As I grew up, he had taken me sailing, taught me to worship jazz, and been intertwined in my boys’ lives. He had given me a strong foundation and infused my existence with humor and love, and his death hurt in a place that seemed unreachable.

After the stroke, I had failed to accept the fact that my life expectancy had lowered, and that at times my brain was toast. Daily tasks like pressing garlic or doing dishes caused my head to explode in migraines, I forgot appointments, struggled to find words, and mixed up numbers. Depression and anxiety are part of concussion damage, and emotionally I went from zero to one hundred in a flash, and was so tired that I had to nap frequently. It takes time, the doctors said, to recover.

I’d assumed, falsely, that I was emotionally prepared for the divorce, so had been shocked when grief tore through me. I had not calculated this. I pined for our old house in Washington as I put precious items from it on the mantle, on walls and shelves in my California home. Scenes unspooled like film reels of vacations and holidays with our sons. The grief of this split ignited others (as griefs always do), and I mourned again my sister, who had died in 2006 at the age of forty-two, and the more recent death of my dad.

When the divorce was final, I did not see a way forward. I had not ‘dated’ since I was in my twenties but had no desire to be a nun. I raged at the ravages of age on my appearance, but ventured out. I received as with a branding iron the experiences American society seems to expect of single women, and chocked up soul-sapping, time-wasting endeavors with Louis XIV types that fizzled out.

John O’Donohue, Celtic poet, wrote about this in-between time:

You are in the time of the interim

Where everything seems withheld.

The path you took to get here has washed out;

The way forward is still concealed from you.

The old is not old enough to have died away;

The new is still too young to be born.

My brain worsened. Even so much as a sip of wine caused vertigo, events siphoned my energy at an alarming rate, and I had to concentrate with extra care to maneuver around Paris, a city I knew like the back of my hand, as if I’d lost my compass arrow. I began to wonder if I should have taken this trip. Writing took twice as long; I could work on scenes but had trouble integrating them into the whole book. Something was missing.

In addition, the gilet jaunes (Yellow Vests) angrily prowled the streets on Saturdays en masse, with the ruined Notre Dame a new target for protests, and I was sick with bronchitis. I recalled another stanza from O’Donohue:

What is being transfigured here is your mind,

And it is difficult and slow to become new.

The Sun King also, according to the memoirs of the Duchess of Orleans, so hated to suffer waiting that after one courtier appeared at the last minute, he was said to have drawled as he flicked his hair, lounging in leisure at Versailles, “J’ai failli attendre.” I almost had to wait. He considered it his Divine Right never to deign to do so but Parisians have learned— through revolutions, wars, reigns, and riots, in queues and métro stations, in bistros and museums—that most of us have to wait a little.

Attendre also means to expect, a difference in meaning that fills a wait with visions and possibilities. A long line ahead of the entrance to a Dalí exhibit at the Pompidou gives one a chance to consider the mustachioed genius wielding his paintbrush or pencil (or just about anything he got his hands on) with panache. A cluster of diners in the foyer of a bistro allows one to be overtaken by celestial scents and anticipation to stir the blood.

People flocked to the Île to ponder Notre Dame’s cinders and ash, her gaping hole in the center of her flying buttresses, her singed but intact rose windows, like eyes with smudged mascara. Other languages were heard, but French voices were silent. The people of Paris just stood and looked at Notre Dame—an elegant Parisienne in white, a swarthy father holding the hands of twin boys, two old men dressed with old-fashioned tidiness— for they have learned that the past is prologue.

I had seen this kind of homage before, when the bells of Notre Dame were replaced in 2013. That winter, the new bells had been displayed in the nave of the cathedral. Bleachers were set out in Place Jean Paul II so that people could sit on freezing-cold metal seats, view the bell towers and meditate on the sound of the old bells and the new. Tourists fidgeted, but Parisians sat still as statues. Three old ladies in black wool coats and colorful scarves and hats, their lipstick fresh, sat just so; a family of five, looking bedraggled in worn coats, nodded; a young couple snuggled side by side with intertwined legs and heads together. All sat considering the bell towers, knowing that soon the new bells would be in there and imagining the sound of them. Would they be sharper or gentler, hollow or full? The people honored the old and envisioned the new, for to Parisians they are one and the same. To wait is to expect.

After the fire, although fever and chills persisted, I dragged myself out to observe the people of Paris and scrutinize the cathedral from all sides. I’d noticed the week before that my favorite verdigris statues of the apostles who usually stood at the base of the spire were covered with scaffolding. I’d wondered at the time whether they were still there; I couldn’t tell. Henri Cartier-Bresson had photographed them in 1948 and in his photo, I’d always thought they appeared to move as if transformed to humans. It turned out they’d been removed for the renovation so had been spared incineration.

One day, as I wove my way to Café Saint Régis on the tip of Île Saint Louis, music soared, piped in on loudspeakers. Violins climbed and dipped, flutes danced. I pushed through an extra-thick throng gathered on the edge of the Île, and when I reached the intersection with Notre Dame on my left, I saw that gendarmes were removing the orange cones by the bridge, which had been closed to all but essential foot traffic. Was the bridge open?

I settled in a tiny booth facing the cathedral. The music became a voice, chanting, and the people chanted back. It was Good Friday; Easter was in two days. In the middle of Pont Saint Louis stood a priest in a blindingly white robe who conducted a full mass in a voice so deep and resonating that it stirred something inside of me. People filed onto the bridge for communion, while in the background Notre Dame, humble and helpless yet majestic, looked on. She has learned that the way forward is through. Through revolution and renovation, through chaotic firing from all sides, through coronations and turmoil and grief. She would rise again.

~ ~ ~

Five months later, back in California, I find current news and photos. The cause of the blaze has been narrowed to either a cigarette tossed by a construction worker or the electrical system of the bells. “Clumsy human response and false assumptions” contributed to the extent of the damage, but ingenious strategy helped save her. The bell towers had been a mere fifteen minutes from crumbling from the heat, but the firemen had arced water over the blaze to dampen them. Hundreds of tons of lead in the spire and roof were released and children at schools nearby have been at risk. The scaffolding on the exterior of the spire welded together, encasing the cathedral and heightening the danger of collapse.

All summer, her roof was opened to the elements, and is now covered, but no one can move anything, because all has not yet settled. Her interior is a jumble of accumulated debris. Wood charred like pick-ups-sticks and chunks of stone lie everywhere—on the floor in pinpoint rays of sunlight, on shredded cane chairs, among piles of ashes. Everything could cave in at any moment, so she is still precarious and nothing can be done. Notre Dame remains a ‘triage site’.

Upon my return home, it became obvious that my brain symptoms had worsened. I was tested by two neurologists, who diagnosed post-concussion syndrome. I asked why I seemed so prone to concussions (among other things), and learned that when you have one concussion, you are exponentially more likely to have another, an even higher chance of having a third, and a forth happens more easily. The testing revealed a chasm in memory, in word retrieval, in vision. The fender-bender bump had sparked the cumulative effects of the stroke and all four concussions.

My summer has been spent resting my brain. Writing has been jagged and is an act of faith, but improving. I have had long, luxurious visits my sons, with more down-time than usual. My friends have overlooked my scatterbrained spaciness and last minute cancellations. They have made meals and daydreamed with me about meeting an intelligent, silver-haired surfer or a swarthy, sweet-natured poet (sans branding irons). Attending my first big family event as an ex-wife, I was warmly embraced by the new incarnation of my old family.

During this suspended summer-into-fall, I often wake up all alone with an iron band of fear sinking into my chest: My brain is not yet strong enough to be my center and has left a terrifying void there. But I have come to see that Hugo’s belief in Quasimodo swinging from those flammable rafters, Charles de Gaulle’s heroic stride, and the resilience that Our Lady herself displayed in all her brokenness are qualities not of the brain but of the heart.

Recently, my family scattered some of my dad’s ashes into the bay of Puget Sound, Washington. It has been almost three years and we agreed it was the perfect time to do it; we were glad we waited. As his ashes floated and swirled, then sank into the murkiness, chips and clumps mingling with the water, we spoke of his humor, the music he played on the piano and drums, and his fiercely loyal love—all that is left of him.

I look around my home in California at what remains of my previous life: The Greek vase and the Swedish plate on my mantle, the crystal candle holders on the table, photos of the four of us as a family in the old way and the new, my dad’s bongo drums, my sister’s silver bracelet. I have had to wait like Quasimodo, but I have a new home where I live my greatest moments, my wars, my pandemics, my liberations.

What remains in the interior of Notre Dame, the center of Paris? Inside the strong stuff of which she is constructed, among the detritus and dust, stands the altar with its gold cross, and next to that, the marble pietà where the cathedral’s namesake holds her departed with love. She is in the time of the interim, when everything seems withheld. She’s been there before and will be again, but the center of the center remains and the rest is reimagined.

Each night I light a few candles and let them burn awhile while I contemplate them in the way I learned from the people of Paris. Three candles in a row: Past, present, and future. Sometimes the past fizzles out (gratefully), or it’s time for a new present (a fresh start), or the future grows dim (but still illuminated).

A few nights ago, the past and the future went out at exactly the same moment, so tonight fresh candles burn brightly, with the lower flame of the present in the center, creating a silhouette of Notre Dame as she now stands, with her tall spire gone, and her low center flanked by her bell towers. I remember that cauldron of violent flames licking the sky.

Parisien magazine, in their commemorative issue, wrote, La catastophe nous renvoie à nous humilité et notre impuissance. The catastrophe refers to our humility and our helplessness. It is during those times when I am aware of both that what endures becomes clear.

What will Notre Dame’s next life be like? Images of ideas from a worldwide contest to design a new spire include a glass solar roof with an urban farm; a greenhouse sanctuary for birds; a new home for Notre Dame’s 180,000 bees; a blue-tiled roof made from recycled ocean plastic; and a swimming pool with the verdigris apostles as lifeguards.

Until Our Ravaged Lady rises from the ashes, we will just have to do as she always has, to feel our universal humanity and stand with dignity in our humility and helplessness, light a few candles … and wait a little.

Author’s note: Now, nearly a year after the fire, I am once again in Paris. Christmas came and went with no mass, no restoration, and very little movement. Her eyes were once again painstakingly removed, and robots have cleared bits of rubble, but her iron cage must first be removed piece by piece, and there is still a high chance that her roof could cave in. She stands patiently in the winter-to-spring air while workmen compare plans and people stop to stare. She will endure.


Erin Byrne is author ofWings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, editor of Vignettes & Postcards from Parisand Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco, and writer of The Storykeeper  film. Erin’s work has won Grand Prize Solas Awards for Travel Story of the Year, the Foreword Indies Book of the Year, an Accolade Award for film, and the Pinnacle Achievement Award. She has taught writing at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, at Book Passage, and on Deep Travel trips, and is host of LitWings event series in the Bay Area and Paris, which features writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

Erin is Collaborating Curator of Travel Writing and Photography for The Creative Process Exhibition, which was launched at the Sorbonne and travels to the world’s leading universities. Her screenplay, Siesta, is in pre-production in Spain, and she is working on a novel set in occupied Paris, Illuminations.   www.e-byrne.com

Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie): Dark Train to Cusco

March 31st, 2020

By Chase Nelson

A modern-day rescue mission raises questions of life and death.

With her husband looking on, we took turns pumping her heart for her, pushing blood to her organs, to her extremities, hoping for a gasp to bring her back, tearful and afraid, from wherever she was now.

Technically, they were called compressions. Less technically they were called rib-breaking, breast-exposing, desperate attempts at resurrection.

I kept thinking of a painting I’d once seen of King Philip II of Spain: the small dark brown irises afloat in the white globes of big round eyes, pasty skin, hair a regal red. Lying in the aisle of the train, the woman looked like Spanish royalty. We beat the woman’s chest on that train, as it drummed and snaked through the canyons of the Peruvian jungle. The same jungles and canyons that had once watched the Spaniards bring the Incan Empire to an end. Back then, Death had arrived on horseback.

This time, Death rode with us.

***

Earlier that I day I stood among the ruins of Machu Picchu—a citadel built on a thin saddle between two jagged peaks, surrounded by thick highland jungle and sheer cliffs.

“The truth is no one knows what it was or what they did here,” said my guide Carlos.

He was of Quechua descent, the name of the language and the people of this region who would have been part of the Incan Empire. But even he knew little for certain of the beliefs or history beyond the day the Spanish arrived. “Many theories, but for now just theories.”

We walked through the ruins. I saw a team of archaeologists scrubbing at the dirt with over-sized toothbrushes. No matter where I stood, I could smell the cologne of Europeans and the fried food from the mountain-top cafe. As groups of other visitors swirled around and past us, I heard German, and Japanese, French and Spanish. But no Quechua.

All of us filed along the restricted pathway, taking turns touching the old altars, a procession, like an open casket funeral for a once great civilization.

“You have to remember,” said Carlos, “This place was forgotten for four hundred years. Left and covered by jungle.”

***

Fingers tapped my shoulder and I followed them to an arm to a neck to dark hair, that framed a face with big dark eyes and full lips — just as I’d envisioned all Argentinean women — a face that in any other case I’d be falling dangerously and prematurely in love with.

“¿Listo?” she said.

It was both a question and a demand: asking me if I was ready to stop performing chest compressions, telling me it was time for the next person to take my place.

It was a gruesome game of musical chairs and with each switch, hope dimmed in the aisle of that train where four of us squeezed in between seats and passengers to straddle the woman’s body. She seemed too young for this. Perhaps sixty-five. She was saturated in her own urine, ribs loose, broken, eyes wide and unsearching, unburdened, and unbelievably far, far away.

Her hair looked perfect.

***

Just an hour earlier, as I’d boarded the train to Cusco from platform four,  the conductor had asked me to move to this train-car so that a young boy could sit near his parents. I was traveling solo and I didn’t protest, particularly when I discovered that my new seat was at a table with three Argentinean women in their thirties, all of them doctors.

Just my luck, I thought and smiled and got breathlessly nervous because they were pretty and dark haired and had accents and even at 34, I hadn’t quite figured out how to speak around pretty.

Keep breathing, I remember saying to myself.

***

Listo,” I replied. I finished up a few chest compressions and dismounted the body, standing and backing down the aisle, careful not to step on toes or bump elbows. Our train rolled on toward the next town and we rolled on and off the body.

***

For five days, I had pounded up and down the canyons to reach Machu Picchu. Carlos guided our small group as we walked along the Salkantay Trail — an old Incan road. We were high in the mountains, above the tree-line. A place of bare, jagged rock and clouds that swirled around peaks and into the valleys below.

“Look at these stones. This is Incan,” said Carlos. Cinderblock-sized rocks were laid into the ground, cut to fit tightly together. “Most of their roads were laid like this at one point.”

We breathed hard at the high altitude, thin crisp air stinging our noses and faces. The rectangular stones in the ground meant that six hundred years ago, someone had carried them there, cut them, and placed them as pieces in the vast puzzle of a thriving civilization.

“How big was their road system?” I asked as we moved on.

“Almost 40,000 kilometers,” he said, “25,000 miles…That we’ve found,” he added.

***

My chest had slowly tightened when I’d boarded this train-car, squeezing at my lungs and pressing on my throat until my heart thumped with the train. I thought it had been something I ate, then I thought it was about pretty Latin girls with accents. But it grew until it was so hard to breathe that I was just plain scared.

¡Señora! ¡Señora!” The shouts came from behind me. Then, “¡Ayuda!”

Before I turned, before I saw the woman collapse, before all of that, I saw the face of the doctor sitting across from me. A face can say so much.

The woman’s husband cried out — a cry that, even in memory, makes me want to cover my ears.

***

The world came alive on our second day of the trek as Carlos led us into the buzz of highland jungle. Every few miles he’d point out another set of stones, what remained of the old roads.

It had taken the Incan Empire 300 years to grow from a tribe of herdsmen to an empire that stretched from modern day Columbia into Chile along the western Andes. Three hundred years of walls and roads built stone-by-stone over the steep mountains we had climbed, cut through the unyielding green mass of jungle in which we now traveled.

We plodded along on a blanket of a million leaves and barks and rotting woods and insects which melted to an earth so rich it muddied everything it touched a blood red.

Vines hung above us and hugged to roots and strangled trees. One plant feeding on another, pushing its branches and foliage higher than that which it consumed. Layer upon layer of life held in an earthly womb.

***

Night came quickly to the train in the canyon, the jungle trees thickening the darkness around us and the peaks of the Andes towering above, hiding the sky.

Cuarenta minutos,” said one of the doctors. Time was an irrelevant construct here. We just kept working.

The screeches and saw buzz of night birds and insects were hurled through the windows into our passing train, screaming haunting questions into my mind. How does a train carrying tourists every day not have a proper med kit or defibrillator? Why are we still doing CPR after forty minutes? Where the hell are we? And, where is the god damn hospital?

***

Conquistador. Spanish for conqueror. The title was given to Francisco Pizarro before he left Spain for the new world.

I looked for sadness or anger or any emotion in Carlos as he recounted this history. But I found none — not in his tone, and not in his face.

Pizarro had arrived on Incan soil in 1526. First, he brought disease, mostly smallpox. It decimated the population, killing the Incan ruler and his only heir. Civil war broke out and the empire was already teetering when Pizarro returned ten years later with cavalry, muskets, and canons.

Fifty years. That’s what it took for the empire to be engulfed by a new world. In 1572, the head of Tupac Amaru — the last Incan chief leading the last small resistance in the mountains — was set on a Spanish pike. Conquerors.

“The stories we know of them now are only what the conquistadors chronicled for Europe,” he said. “Everything disappeared.”

I imagine it was then that the vines began to crawl over the stones of Machu Picchu.

***

Slowing, the train rolled to a stop. A sea of curious faces floated outside. The ambulance lights dyed the world red. Two Peruvian medics brought a wooden backboard down the narrow aisle. Hands fumbled at the emergency exit window, no one quite sure how it worked.

Finally, it popped free and the car was flooded with the cool night air and the loud whispers of a curious mob. And then we stopped and looked at each other. One by one, a glance.

It’s over.

Thank you.

I’m sorry.

We counted to three. We turned her on her side and placed the backboard under her.

We counted to three. We rested her down.

We counted to three. We lifted the body.

Our tired hands and backs worked together to make something heavy feel so light as we passed it, her, the dead, out the train window.

Volume returned to our world, the window popped closed, I found my seat, and the train drummed and snaked off down the canyon again. A drink service cart rolled by. Someone giggled at the end of the car. Others returned to their phones and flipped through pictures of a dead city. The world turned. Less a woman.

***

Months later after I’d returned home, I found myself searching online for a painting of King Phillip the II. I think I wanted to see her face again. The likeness was certainly there. The same eyes and the red hair. Below the painting were the dates of his rule, 1556–98.  He had been the King of Spain when the Incan Empire took its last breath.

***

When we see the way the jungle melts to red earth, when we touch the old stones that will never speak, how can we even wonder what is coming? Death is a heavy body passed out the window at a small town at the mouth of the canyon. The train will slow, and hardly stop, and then, will just keep going.

It’s just a matter of when and how, and maybe, what stone citadel we leave behind, waiting to be unearthed once more.


Chase Nelson is an explorer and writer. He draws from his diverse life experience as a software designer in San Francisco, an English teacher in Florence, a backcountry skier climbing peaks from the Alps to the Andes, and a raft-guide in Idaho. He is curious and writes about diversity in nature, culture, and their convergence in humanity’s evolution. He is also the host of the Chase Wildly Podcast, which explores rites of passage and personal growth in the past and now.

Travelers' Tales