There are articles that document certain experiments conducted in the caves of southern France. In those experiments, scientists purposely stranded themselves underground, in the dark, away from the physical passing of the sun overhead. Assistants monitored their movements from data collection stations above, and they found that their body’s natural sense of time had little to do with the arbitrary tick marks across the sky we use to keep track of the passing of the days or seasons.
Creaking now, dragging but still led, I stagger-zagged along the trail through the underthicket for perhaps ten minutes, I suppose. It was noticeably cooler in the woods, away from the road. I floated in the lush green of the glade, drifting in and out of times past and the here and now, completely without regard or worry.
At the end of the trail, I slouched against a tree. Before me lay a “swimmin’ hole” of mythic perfection, a hewn rock pool, about two hundred feet in diameter, completely and neatly hemmed and hidden from the rest of the world by the fern, brush, and stand of trees I had wandered through. Massive, multi-hedral blocks of stone, tousled around the water’s edge like a titan’s forgotten playthings, formed a series of jumbled platforms that rose up, out of the depths, and afforded a neat, if necessarily gymnastic, means of egress for whatever brave aquanauts were privileged with the map or lore that gave clue to the pool’s location. The perfunctory kindly oak had been conscripted to donate one of its overhanging limbs as spar for a length of heavy, knotted rope.
I later learned that the pond was the result of a quarrying operation that had filled in quite catastrophically twenty-nine years earlier, when the mining company that owned it then, working to uncover ore using the steam shovels and doorless lorry trucks of the day, had inadvertently tapped through what turned out to be the capping strata over a spring at the bottom of their pit. The inadvertent unleashing of the rather energetic cold spring that resulted from that lack of good geological pre-investigation had resulted in a welcome, albeit an unwitting gift to the local youth.
A better tableau for Mr. Rockwell’s canvas could not exist.
And so yes, though it was the second lesson, the one that comprised the attempt to forcibly take his ability to subsist on the planet at all; though it was the second lesson that resulted in the forcible taking of his ability to walk, it was the first lesson he had been taught, twenty years before that day in 1978 and that place in Maryland that George Wallace was shot—it was the first lesson that Life (and Mr. Patterson) had taught him in losing the Alabama gubernatorial race in 1958 that had had the greater and more dire effect on him. It turned out to be the first lesson that had ruined him in ways far deeper than the lead-borne cry of the sad, desperately lonely man waving a gun at him from the crowd in 1978. He had, in fact, begun to die in 1958, and slowly, slowly, he had died each day since then. In his retrospective accounting, the pain and significance of that horrible event on the campaign trail in 1978 dwindled to the point of invisibility when he compared it to the rotting that had gone on inside him begun on that day, in that hour, that minute when he had decided, though young and strong and sure in 1958, to live a lie.
And to live a lie that was a lie to himself.
The source of the noise I had heard from the wreckage I left by the road turned out to be a group of a half-dozen or so kids vaulting into the air above the pond with their most magnificent airborne pirouettes, compulsory cannonballs, and jackknife splash-dives. They were using the gnarly old rope to launch skyward and out, over the deep, green-black water.
None of them, neither the fliers nor the spectators, saw me. There was a summer afternoon to be filled, after all. There was the cool of the clean, fathomless water to be dived into. No earthly man with his stuck-on white shirt and sad-assed loosed tie, hot leather shoes and hose—hose, ‘mind you—showing through torn pants—no wilted excuse for a corporate icon was going to stop or even slow the rite.
I remember one young girl in particular.
There is a brief stretch of time in most all our lives, usually spanning just a few consecutive summers, really, when our bodies brim with almost all the physical beauty and wonder that can or will ever manifest itself in our human form, as if all the best things whoever or whatever made us was thinking when he or she or it came up with the design bloom and mesh with one another in beautiful, holy concert. It is the time that begins just as the last vestiges of gangly adolescence wane away. It lasts until just before worry and sex and the insidious start of young adulthood all wax full. It is the time when we are beauty. It is a time whose archetypes are plastered across the pages of almost any fashion or pop culture periodical you can find. All our edges glow. The sun backlights us whenever and wherever we move, and our limbs, sheathed in lithe muscle, settle into easy rhythm, as though, like thoroughbreds, to move in just that way is exactly why we were born at all. Our skin turns just the perfect tan, and the little hairs on the napes of our necks bleach out to blond. We are fearless and giddy and clear, full of all the world around us and full of all of the world our minds can stretch to see and hold.
There is no end to us then, during that time, no sex, no fear or distrust or pause of any kind. All we do is move, and when we move, the world moves both with and around us, together. We are air and ground and sinew and bone and thought and light.
“She is tall for her age,” I remember thinking. I could see, even from behind the trees and bushes across the breadth of the pool, that she was not yet shaving her legs. The hair on her tawny thighs was fine as tiny strands of silk.
She thought the boys were dumb, the way they cavorted around the end of the rope while holding it at the jumping-off point, jockeying for position, angling for next in line and sometimes gang-jumping on and falling off it, all tangled into the water before having swung out to the extent of its swing. She thought they were dumb and cute, and they made her feel a good kind of strange inside. She knew a little about what those feelings meant, at least with respect to the immediate future; she had read all about things like that in her magazines, and the girls in the locker room who had already gotten real bras used to talk about it last year at school. She didn’t understand everything about it just yet, but here, this summer, she knew she liked those feelings.
For her, it was one of the very last summers she would know that were like that.
The high, thin maples and oaks circled round us all there, the cute and dumb yelling boys and the laughing tall girl and her friends on the one side of the water, and I, hidden in the undergrowth and bushes on the other, like the pins that hold the globe in its stand in every elementary school classroom you have ever been in, separated by a round, deep green-blue, unimaginably large world. The trees leaned in on us all, closing the pre-storm, colorless circle of the sky high above our heads. The staid office building and the world of people who hadn’t even swum at all, at least since they were very young, was gone.
I could see, across the water, that her smile was wide and clean and like the smile of every pretty girl or boy I had ever seen, all getting their favorite, asked-for Christmas or birthday or graduation or Grandma’s-visit present all together, all at once. It made her cheeks bunch up under her eyes, and there were just the perfect number of tiny freckles on her nose. Her lips were fuller than they should be, but it would be years yet before her mother would allow her to wear lipstick. Her hair was blond, long just past her shoulders and thick, strong. It was only barely gathered in a calico kerchief shred she had tied to make a ponytail that morning.
Now, I am no different from you. I am no genius or savant. I am sure that my near-constant sharpening of these pictures in my head has changed their edge, distorted them—as when in trying to "fix" the lines of a first, hasty draft illustration, I move them from where they were first drawn. Still, there are things I remember with the clarity of images on a shiny new coin. I can touch them, and these are held in bas relief: the color of her eyes, the length of the frays on her make-shift denim swimming shorts, the only-suggested size of her budding breasts beneath her tee-shirt, knotted down by her navel. *****
Lightning strikes the substation. The charred body of the poor little squirrel will be found much later by the power company linemen. The last, chance flick of its nervous, twitchy tail shorting out the ground fault protection in the station. The surge of power through the grid that includes the lighting in the parking lot outside the grocery store that is on the way home for the lady in the SUV too rapidly heats the sodium gas in the fixture above and in front of Jeffrey, who has stopped and stooped to make an attempt to resolve the shoelace knot in his cute little left sneaker, perfectly in the center of the path of her oncoming luxury tank. *****
A finger of electrical energy, an offshoot of the same bolt that strikes the substation, cracks into the tree against which I am leaning. There is a ball lightning flash and a loud, hollow zzzTOK! Sparks and sparkling shards of the plastic housing of the parking lot streetlamp lens above Jeffrey and shower down like the tendrils of a firework. Everyone flinches; me, people in their cars and tanks, shoppers and bustlers inside the store, little Jeffrey—everyone stops what they are doing, stops looking where they are going, and ducks.
Chloe, after that split second, spins like a dancer on the toe of her right sneakered shoe at the sound. Guilt and horror and fear crash down on her like a dam burst’s deluge.
And the lady in the tank who is now fully inside the buzzing parking lot hive, and who is driving so slowly that surely everyone can see her, thinks that now it is safe to reach down for just one second and retrieve the angry buzzing bug from the passenger’s side floor. Surely now it is safe to—she hears the explosion and reflexively jams all of the force in both her shaved and attractively panty-hosed legs down on the brake pedal from the very odd angle she has taken there while trying to reach her phone.
And John, hungry at home and unaware of explosions or pirouettes or really much of anything at all, grows increasingly irked.
She, the lovely lady in the tank, will spend an equal number of hours at the chiropractor and the psychologist’s office over the coming year and a half as a direct result of her small, heroic act. It will cost several thousand dollars, her job, and her marriage to John, who remains, to the end, irked and bothered by all sorts of things.
Chloe will not be mean to her little brother again until they have both left home, many years later, and are arguing about where to store their mother until she dies.
Jeffrey looks up, first at the noise and light, and then just as quickly at the sound of the giant tires’ short screech. His head is at the exact level, as he is crouched there in the thoroughfare, of the vehicle’s monstrous and shiny chrome bumper. He can see his reflection in its funhouse mirror finish, and it is the first time he has seen and now understands the idea that his wide, bright eyes are a quite pretty blue.
I was raising my hand, leaning against the tree that was hit. I was gathering my rattling breath to call out to them before they scampered off.
The first pebble drops of rain crashed into the water, undeniable. They all had the good sense to look up at the now-dramatic sky above the circle of green, to squint to gauge the time left, to realize that it was not long, and to get out and begin to make their way to their homes.
And here is almost the last jump.
In the summer of the year 1979, I decided, on a whim, to join the United States Army. I knew nothing of what the world had to offer me. I knew nothing of what I would become, could become. I simply needed to be someplace, and I knew that it needed to be a place that was decidedly different from the one where I was at in the summer of 1979.
Thousands, perhaps nearly millions of things happened to me, around me, and through me because of that decision. On a whim, on a lark, on the off chance that it would return some benefit to me either then or at some point in the distant future, I had without malice, without thought, without concept, set a course of countless, microsecond-long events into motion. And because of that, because of that one, isolated decision, then, just as certainly as anything else, just as surely as anything can be proved—anything at all—through all that happened in all of the time that flowed around and past me between 1979 and the instant years later when the lightning struck, I was there. I was leaning against a tree on the rim of a pond in Maryland. I was leaning against a tree, watching children play across the water. I was waiting, had been waiting, perhaps, for all those years to get there, to lean against that tree in the gathering dark of the coming storm and be hit by lightning.
It was unspeakably cold and good. I remember feeling as though I had been thrown high into the air, but rather than hitting the water after falling from that height, I entered with the force of a fine, fired arrow. I was plunged deep into its dark, streaming great white strands of roiling silver bubbles behind. I sank like a stone, somehow still awake but sure with the clearest vision I had ever had that I would not be for very much longer. I sank into the dark—darker and darker, colder and colder—until I was too deep.
Changing form then from cormorant to octopus, I hovered, looking but seeing nothing. It was too dark. Down below me, at the bottom of the pit, underneath all the climes of cold and dark that had been there since the flood, I imagined the great, riveted steel arms of the steam shovels reaching up, the jaws of their rusted buckets agape and streaming clouds of silt reaching up to claw at me. I imagined they called. I imagined they beckoned. I imagined they wanted to keep me there.
After a few diaphanous seconds suspended in the void, buoyancy pointed me upward and I rose, dazed, out of myself. New.
And yes, of course, they were all gone. And yes, of course, they are all gone.
What is the name for the feeling one gets when, having repeated some action or pattern of motion over and over and over, on one particular repetition, suddenly there is an unmistakable sense that there has been the adjustment of some key muscle group, some aspect of the design of the body that lends itself, at once and finally, exactly as designed, to the task? What is the name for the aligning of nerve and chord and muscle to facilitate the passage of our motion from the ungainly to the gainly? Is it a reification of Beauty? What is the name of the experience of “flow”?
I went back to that pool again today and for the first time since that day. I was on the way from one home to another of mine. It does not matter where. I found the pool. It was not much changed, or not much changed in ways that matter. It was like visiting an ancient altar, a relic in the wood. The cool stone blocks were slippery in the depressions where the water from rain and dripping cutoff jean swimming shorts collected.
Across the pond, not twenty yards from where I treaded water, the rope swing swung, lonely in a slow circle. Drops of water fell poink, poink into the water. I was breathing loudly. The sound of me, alone there, in the water echoed off of the theatre of disapproving trees all around. Until the thunder boomed above, it was the only sound. I didn’t see any lightning, but I could tell by the smell of the air that very soon the surface would begin to boil with the crashing down of the mocking rain, and that I needed to get out, that the visit was over.
George C. Wallace died in 1998. I do not know if he was ready or not. Nixon died in 1994. He had a stroke just before dying, and he probably did not get a chance to think about much of anything with his crippled brain as he breathed his last. As of this writing, Bremer and Laurel continue.
I live. I live quite far from that place and time now, some place larger.
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Mike McGrath has written for technical and trade
journals in underwater acoustics engineering,
electronics, and software development for many years.
"Sins" represents his first foray into the deeper,
more personal and hopefully meaningful realm of those
who read and write in celebration of the word, who
mark and wonder at the subtlties of human interaction
and relationships and of self. He lives, loves, and
works in a little town on the coast of southern
California where he shares this good life with his
beautiful wife, his hale and vibrant sons, his dumb
dog Fred, and his disconnected cat Joe.
Contact Mike McGrath at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Mike McGrath at email@example.com
January 30, 2003