Poem: Heat

I’ve moved somewhere more rural, though still close enough to Boston that I can continue working there. I’ve already found that my new habitat is better at helping me write poetry, which relieves me because of how many years it’s been since I wrote any poems at all. Unfortunate, however, that this first poem is in response to a terrible disaster in the region.

It shall go with fire & fire,
as the water shall be still,
with the red and gold flowing bloodlike to the sky.
Not one safe home, every earth-vent open,
belching death from the hard hands—
we say hard from heartless,
we say not laborers but stone lords—
and ever there is much to spend
on starting fires,
and none for ending them.

Wood booming, breaking, ashing,
bodies sheltered from the home,
the home sent them out,
not wanting them gone,
for in the flame cries a soft voice
that there had been love.

When we go it shall be so,
with fire & fire,
all regret hoarse from smoke.

Llywelyn Jones


Upcoming publication: “O Fortuna”

2017 was a quiet year for writerly news, and I seem to recall saying I wasn’t going to put anything here unless I really felt so moved. Even after keeping this particular blog alive for four years, I still haven’t entirely determined what function it ought to serve, or what sort of person is reading it. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing that always belongs here, it’s publication announcements, and I’m thrilled beyond belief to make one now.

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you already heard about this a few weeks ago, but let’s make this even more official: my sci fi novella “O Fortuna” will be appearing in Issue 6 of The Fantasist, with a publication date of March 15th! That’s less than a week away, and thus not too long that anyone can forget to check it out, wink wink. I have no idea how much to toot my own horn about this, but my astonishment and happiness stem from several sources. First of all, yes, I was a big award finalist four years ago and all that, but it was for a self-published work, so I have been trembling from the fact that I’ve finally gotten through the infamous query gauntlet— never before have I managed that for any work of fiction. Secondly, while I shy away from labeling myself as an “x genre” writer, the genres that feel like the closest fit are sci fi, fantasy, and horror, so I’m very gratified to break into the field. And lastly, I hadn’t given up hope for “O Fortuna” finding an audience, but I wrote it after coming to some very important conclusions about my own life. I’ve referred to it as my robot baby, and I can tell that baby has found a very good home in The Fantasist.

A little more about “O Fortuna”: inspired by the common but rarely sympathetic trope of the sexbot, this narrative focuses upon an android sex worker, Lux, who was once programmed to pleasure humans without thought for her own rights. Now living free, Lux has found that passing for a human with more legitimized employment also has its downsides; despite years of independence, she is caught in a quandary about what individualism means, and she’s searching for the person who can give her the life she really wants. Questioning the conventional wisdom about everything from sex and gender to future economies and the true role of AI, “O Fortuna” presents a nuanced, rebellious drama that draws a straight line from Frankenstein’s monster to the erotic dolls of some dystopian metropolis. This story’s future civilization does not glitter; it grinds, buzzes, screams, and cries.

That’s my official copy for it. I’ll also add that I’ve requested that the magazine include a content warning for implied sexual violence and discussion of sexual violence. The story isn’t a tragedy, but it’s not a walk in the park.

As for The Fantasist, the site link above should tell you a fair amount of what’s to read there, but one cool thing I’d like to explain about them is their innovative payment model for writers. If you want to read “O Fortuna” right on their site, you can go there as soon as Issue 6 is live on the 15th, and as far as I’m aware you don’t have to pay a penny. But if you would like to both support the magazine and my own future writing, you can also buy an e-book version of “O Fortuna” in their online store. Normally their e-books are $1.99, and from the 15th to the 22nd they’ll be on sale for $1.00 even (I earn the same cut either way). Furthermore, the magazine has a Patreon you can donate to, if that’s your thing; it would help them pay authors even more in the future.

I think that’s it. I’ve never released my own press like this before either, of course, so maybe I’ve done it all wrong. In any case, I’m very excited. Huge thanks to my husband and Sen Hardwick, who served as beta readers a while ago, and I’d like to dedicate this novella to Mary Shelley, Ursula K. Le Guin, and all the brave kinksters, inksters, weirdos, queerdos, revolutionaries, and cyborgs I’ve known.

D. Llywelyn Jones

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 8

Last part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7

The road. We were back upon it one last time, and we were passing through increasingly familiar territory, with home before us rather than behind us. Of course the road has its own mythos; even cultures that have forgotten nomadic life remain obsessed with journey narratives, transit narratives, the entering and exiting of places that serve only as middle points to the destination. A special part of that mythos, in this country but perhaps also in others, is the experience of liminal uncertainty on the highway system and in the spaces one encounters while traveling it.

I journeyed with my mind focused on such experiences for those remaining hours, perhaps because the less liminal points of interest on the trip had already been visited. The eclipse remained as vivid in my memory as it had ever been and as I suspect it may always be, but with three days past, I had to expend effort to open that psychic door— rather than feeling it constantly blow open. And Philadelphia and Greenville and Asheville and Gettysburg had been what they had been, but I was no longer with them. So on that Thursday afternoon I began the drive by watching the landscape of rural Pennsylvania.

On that stretch, the most iconic thing that my husband and I both noticed were the hex signs. These halfway abstract images were painted on many a barn. They are not Amish, or at least the Amish reject claims of such association, though they most likely have some pedigree from the Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch as a whole. To scholarly knowledge hex signs also have nothing to do with hexes, witches, or Germanic pagan practices, and the etymology of hex in this case is muddy. But due to the symbols’ ambiguous lineage, naturally people in this region have appropriated hex signs for any purpose from connoting local pride to building a syncretic visual language for spellcasting. Besides this interesting history, I also simply enjoyed the artwork.

Eventually we found a diner for late lunch, not far past the New Jersey border in New York. I didn’t terribly enjoy the food, but a diner seemed another requirement of the road mythos, and we hadn’t been to one yet. The middling meal almost seemed like a requirement, too. All of this opened a gateway to certain other elements once we reached Connecticut: a painful traffic jam at sunset, a few wrong turns taken in an attempt to avoid the jam. Our tempers had strained slightly by nightfall, and our stomachs were growling furiously once we slipped back onto I-90.

We ate a very humble dinner at a rest area. Then the last darkness loomed. Here we were, night thick over the highway, our headlights illuminating the dashed lines of the lane markers, which pulsed past us again and again and again. It was a night that the shadow of the moon alone could not have provided. Real night. Sleep-night. The lengthening night of an aged summer. Those lane markers carried us under green signs and eventually under the artificial glow of the small but glittering city of Boston. We made our dive into the Big Dig, we took the turn off the highway, we coasted along and up and suddenly stopped in our parking lot.

It felt just like driving home from a single day out. I should have been more tired, surely. But when I finally slept in my own bed, I slept deep and long, and I knew that I had seen something three days before that nobody in this city here had seen. I had been gone, and I had come back with an eclipse of my very own. And, unfortunately, a travelogue.

D. Llywelyn Jones

Here concludes this essay series. I may return to sparse posting for the foreseeable future, but this is not easy to predict.

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 7

Seventh part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 8

By daylight I found myself out of place in Gettysburg almost instantly. Our hotel served a free but limp breakfast in a fluorescent-lit room with a depressingly industrial tile floor. The other guests wore things like flag pins, khaki Bermuda shorts, and shirts in bright but poorly coordinated colors; none of them seemed younger than forty. Hotel management also held the mindset that the first thing you want to do in the morning is watch TV while you eat— watch any channel, that is— and so Today blared from an unnecessarily large screen on the wall.

Our ultimate purpose here was to see the Civil War battlefield. It had been my idea, and I wasn’t yet regretting it, nor would I. I have always been nearly as interested in the Civil War as I am in the American Revolution. Nonetheless, I failed to grasp at first that the Battle of Gettysburg did not really take place on just one field; the battlefield was the entire town, spread over multiple fields and hills and streets. And as a town Gettysburg certainly qualified as a tourist trap, crammed with souvenir stores, the architecture of so many façades ambiguous as to whether they were renovated historic structures or merely built to resemble such. If my family had taken me to this place as a child, I would have loved it. As for now—

My husband and I fumbled a little for what to see. I think I wanted to go somewhere quiet, meditative, where dead bodies lay. I certainly did not want a guided tour or to spend an inordinate amount of money doing anything we could just do ourselves. So although we drove to the visitor center for the national military park, we spent minimal time at that location. For a hefty sum we could have viewed a museum of war artifacts, a presumably impressive cyclorama painting of the battle, and a film; but even if we wanted to pay, time was also limited, and we surmised the film would be intolerably patriotic.

However, we discovered from the information desk that the whole town had signage guiding visitors to various key sites— in other words, there was a self-guiding auto tour option. This naturally cost nothing, so we started to give this a whirl. This, too, failed on account of poorly marked turns, but as the sun climbed higher in the sky we finally found the right sort of thing to see. We found the military cemetery.

When we parked and exited the car in the cemetery’s grass-covered lot, and as we ventured through a gate, initially I saw nothing remarkable. The first graves before us were not from the Civil War, instead serving as markers for soldiers from various wars, either killed in action, missing, or buried here as dead veterans. White, neat little stones with impeccably matched lettering and religious symbols. I knew these stones from a number of visits to Arlington National Cemetery, both for tourism and for the burial of my paternal grandmother, who was the wife of a naval officer. We had to walk for several minutes under the shade of many enormous trees before we found the place where the soldiers of Gettysburg itself had been formally re-interred a few months after the battle.

Somewhere in that vicinity, Abraham Lincoln had made a certain speech on the occasion of said re-interment, but we didn’t look for that site. We knew the speech and we also knew that Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus during the war and had only made the Emancipation Proclamation as a strategic maneuver after repeatedly insisting that the war only concerned secession rather than the practice of holding human beings as chattel. Lincoln begone. We walked to a gentle hillside where row after row of skeletons were laid beneath our feet. It was hard to read the names on the flat stone markers, but it was harder to read things like “412 bodies from New York.” In those cases the names had never been figured out. About 50,000 people died in Gettysburg over the course of three July days, a tally nearly equal to the amount of US deaths in the entire Vietnam War; I almost couldn’t believe how with 50,000 corpses in the same town even a tiny fraction of them could be identified, catalogued, and sorted by state. The ground where we now stood could not remotely hold all of them, either. I wondered how many bodies were never buried and simply rotted in the summer sun and eventually had their bones swept away, months or years later.

The trees nearby were still thick and tall and majestic. Some had to be old enough that the fighting which took place on this very hill also took place under the same shadowing branches. Growing up in New England, I had visited my share of battle sites where I had to confront the knowledge that blood was shed right where I stood, long before I was born. Growing aware of this whole continent’s exploitative past, I have often had to confront the knowledge that there are many places where blood was shed that no one has bothered or known to mark. But as far as I know, too, until looking at Gettysburg’s great trees and anonymous graves I had never stood in a place of old, catastrophic horror. I was standing somewhere that could have still swirled with screams and entrails and flies and powder burns and death stares. And it was silent, so silent.

In that quiet, my eyes welled from time to time. I took one photo, capturing some graves of New Hampshire soldiers, because they came from what I would generally call my home state. In the town where I was raised, the common had a monument to Civil War participants, and this monument stood from the perspective of a small Northern population whose children had enlisted or, just as likely, been conscripted into a faraway festival of slaughter. At long last, I was now walking upon soil where some of those children had met their ends, never going home.

I still cannot describe why I am grateful to meet those hidden bodies at their final destination, especially not after all the bunting and commercialism I had to endure for that purpose. But I was grateful. And then I myself did get to go home.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be concluded in part 8.

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 6

Sixth part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 7Part 8

Let’s begin this by looking back at me, the narrator. I took this photo in the Asheville hotel. As my expression may indicate, my perspective after the eclipse and after witch country was increasingly melancholy. I was enjoying the journey, but I was tasting the end of summer, and the two minute apocalypse I’d witnessed on a Monday afternoon kept bringing tears to my eyes.

The next drive was the other long one. Once we left Asheville, we would stay on the road, aside from the occasional stop for food or gas or restrooms, until we were back across the Mason-Dixon. Though I remarked to my husband that our destination sat in some of the Klanniest country currently documented. Again, “the North” is no true sanctuary.

And the remainder of the South that we saw— this continued to steal my breath in beauty and pain together. GPS navigation sent us right up through more of the Blue Ridge, deep into the Great Smokies. I hadn’t even expected to visit Tennessee, but when we left North Carolina we found ourselves crossing that border as part of our transit to Virginia. The mountains were higher but greener, having just been blessed by recent rain, and low clouds clung as fog to the very tops, rolling down the sides in misty torrents. Smoky indeed. I could have walked in this land and mistaken it for an otherworld.

We saw more churches again in the mountains’ embedded hamlets, and we counted our last flags of Confederate war. I wished the total eclipse had touched this land; I wanted to watch an eclipse at such elevations; I wanted to watch an eclipse anywhere that shimmered with such a sense of its own place.

Eventually, the GPS promised we would be entering West Virginia. This came as less of a surprise than Tennessee, but it excited me in a certain way; this much maligned and mistreated state actually held a taste of the familiar to me. As a child I would visit there about once per summer, joining my parents and their friends at a folk dance camp tucked away in what some people might call the middle of nowhere. My memories of that camp were sacred, not because my parents were still married, and not because of the attention I received for learning the dances very well; instead, because of the site itself. At night most of all. At night I would sit on a hillside and stare down into the valley at the pavilion, the dining tent, the other cabins, and I would hear the last music carrying from a Hardanger fiddle, and then I would look at the slopes around me in the starlight, and then I would gaze at the velvet sky and the million gems of the Milky Way spilling all across. There was music and warmth and stars and the sweetest darkness and in those moments I believed myself an immortal being of grace and wisdom. Of course I was very young, but I felt old in better ways than I can feel old now.

That was West Virginia to me. It held stillness and wonder. And when we drove through it, there were too many lights on the highway and the land nearby was too flat, but I trusted in my memory. We stopped at an Arby’s for dinner and the people working there were young and diverse. The state is very much a state of miners, but if I may make one plea, please remember that there are also other workers, and all of them, the miners and the not-miners, they are people.

By the time we finished that meal, it was past twilight, and we progressed into a thin strip of Maryland and then beyond. This was the Klan-land I had warned of. Estimates by the Southern Poverty Law Center put the highest number of “hate groups” (a complex term) in California, the next highest in Florida, the next in Texas, the next in New York, and the fifth highest in Pennsylvania. Some reports I’ve read have indicated that the southern part of that state holds the most obvious activity although fascist membership certainly doesn’t confine itself county by county.

We saw no burning crosses, no hoods, and no swastikas, but as we turned onto smaller and smaller highways, going directly through various towns, many of the buildings looked run down, and the businesses on major thoroughfares carried a certain aura. Bars, gun shops, strip clubs, motels, often with failing neon signs or little signage at all. There were few streetlights. These may have been pleasant places to live— I couldn’t extrapolate anything like that based on such fleeting impressions— but at night the towns looked liminal, and certain modes of thought can spring up in such in-between topologies, iron-clad ideas that serve as anchor points for people struggling to maintain material roots. I wondered what an eclipse would be like here as well. It would be dark, but not as dark as this. I still couldn’t see the Milky Way, but as we drove out from under a patch of forest, I looked up and noticed dozens of stars that I hadn’t been able to see in years as a citydweller.

And with those stars overhead, easily ten hours since we pulled away from Asheville, we arrived in Gettysburg.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be continued in part 7.

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 5

Fifth part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 6Part 7Part 8

I shot video of our journey into the Blue Ridge, but I managed no good photos. The image here is instead a final capture from South Carolina the night before we headed north.

I love mountains— they are one of my favorite landscapes, one of my favorite places to be— and I was eager to see Asheville for that reason, although other reasons abounded and affirmed themselves. I had heard all the talk about that city serving as the hipster capital of the South, an enclave of craft breweries and tattoo parlors and liberal bumper stickers; unfortunately, a certain parasitic variety of person is attracted to places with artists, artisans, and nature-stewards. But usually those artists, artisans, and stewards themselves have been gathered in those places for the sake of meditative beauty, deep history, and what I will call a witch current— an energy of collective memory grounded in the land. I wondered if the beauty, history, and current were still alive in Asheville. (Some would probably say Asheville sits on a leyline; despite my occult practices I put no stock in such concepts, but I would allow that Asheville is at least haunted in the way I’ve described earlier.)

With the diamond flash of the sun’s corona still glimmering in my mind from the day before, we drove through green and green and green, the elevation climbing. Today’s time on the highway would amount to only an hour, but I savored every minute of it. The closer we drew to this unfamiliar city, the more I noticed houses on mountainsides that made my heart ache. Perhaps those homes were expensive, or perhaps they weren’t, but if you are the sort of person who chooses a house on a mountain, then you are not the sort of person content to live in its shadow. You will live close to this rocky breast of the earth.

Rather than check in to our hotel right away, once in Asheville itself we stopped first for lunch at a chicken & waffles spot. I’d have gladly sought out such a meal without someone else’s suggestion, but this was chiefly a pretext to rendezvous with a friend of mine from bewilderingly distant college years. I had seen her only once since college itself, and we had only been schoolmates for a little while because she transferred to a different university where she finished a horticulture degree. Now she was living in this part of the country, farming and foraging and practicing various crafts. Though not of Appalachia herself, by this point I could have assumed she was, from her new drawl to her encyclopedic knowledge of local plants. Like me she was a witch, and it was good to speak with another witch after the eclipse.

Catching up with this friend, I was stunned by the true extent of the region’s interest in living off the land. Not only was my friend able to successfully provide most of her own food for herself during the summertime, but she could further make ends meet by teaching other people to forage. I have not encountered such widespread interest in New England; I suspect that the classes and attendees are there if you truly look, but suburban sprawl inhibits all but certain varieties of homesteading in the main population centers, and the rural areas are too thinly peopled for an entire foraging school to function. Meanwhile, the Asheville metropolitan area boasts close to half a million people, and yet the land seems better preserved. For now.

Regardless, I also received the impression that in the heart of Appalachia live a larger proportion of people who have preserved local folklore, traditional agrarian or hunter-gatherer lifestyles, etc. This is not due to some lack of old traditions in other parts of the United States, and it is not due to some greater indigenous presence; for good or ill, the majority of indigenous people in this country live in urban centers, and many of the Appalachian traditions come from settler cultures, though indigenous influence and voices are not gone. I am not in a position to comment further along those lines, but my core thought about Appalachian residents following “old ways” is that the region has stayed desperately impoverished more or less since colonization— so along the Blue Ridge and surrounding vicinity, skills like subsistence farming have proven more important there than elsewhere. There are some hipsters in Asheville, indeed I saw plenty of them, but outside of the downtown temples to Quirkiness™ is something else, something older, and it moved me to hear my friend explain it.

After the lunch, my witch friend fittingly showed us the way to a witch shop, always a complicated notion in my mind but a beautiful set of rooms in this instance. I did buy several things there for private purposes. And then, following some frozen custards for dessert, my husband and I had to bid my friend farewell so that she could go about some evening commitments, but the two of us continued our Asheville excursions after finally stopping at our hotel.

Once we had washed and freshened up, our stomachs were very ready for dinner, and that taste of barbecue the day before had assuredly not been enough. Here in this western part of the state, we paradoxically tried Eastern Carolina style pulled pork, and although my favorite style to date has always been Memphis, this might now come a close second. I can’t remember the last time I gorged myself so thoroughly; I virtually inhaled pork, fries, hush puppies, and other wonderful Southern delicacies until I could barely move my body. I will be eternally grateful for my friend’s recommendation to that restaurant, though my digestion probably hated us both.

The Asheville stint concluded— appropriately, perhaps— with a trip to the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, after we were up the next morning. I had already known that one day wouldn’t be enough, but I hadn’t expected to feel the need for an entire week or more. The Folk Art Center was filled with beautiful things, half of which I would have gladly given my left arm to buy and support the local artist, and the other half of which I would have gladly given some other limb if it meant I could learn how to make such beauty myself. And the parkway itself was so peaceful and atmospheric that I could have driven aimlessly on it for hours. Yes, there was a witch current. I felt it in the sighing of the leaves and the shape of the foothills. I will go back: to learn and revere.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be continued in part 6.

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 4

Fourth part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

I could position the eclipse itself as a political happening. And I do not feel shy about that option. Of course eclipses are omens. They are omens even when nothing specific happens afterward, and they are omens even though many people have entered a “rational age” of placing little stock in supernatural foci. I might even venture to say that they are omens even when no one is there to see them.

An eclipse is a statement of continuation. The moon will continue to obscure the sun every eighteen months or so, no matter what humans do. In many millions of years, total eclipses will then cease because the moon will have drifted too far away from the earth to provide the precise coverage, and humans will likely have no reason nor means to counteract this. Eventually the sun will be too big for any moon of ours to eclipse it. Eventually the sun will eat the earth, rather than the Fenris wolf eating the sun. It is all continuation. It is all a reminder, not of human insignificance, for in fact we are quite significant and beautiful and terrible, but a reminder of all the other significant things that happen beyond our lives. We toil and murder and love and violate, and these events occur however they do, but we are all in orbit about something greater, and that greater thing is only one of billions of its own kind. Our significance is a jewel to cherish in the web of so many other glittering gems carpeting the cosmos.

When we are keeping the right rhythms, it is well to look up and take the occasional eclipse as a sign of favor. When we are keeping unsteadier rhythms, it is well to look up and think of our place.

All the same, on the 21st of August in Greenville, I did not think much about whether specific reactionary individuals were calling the eclipse a sign of the deity’s wrath, or whether others glibly framed it as a celestial curse upon specific ruling powers. Such a specific astronomic occurrence, lasting barely two minutes, only a couple hundred heartbeats, demanded generality and openness.

I had spent another restless night by the time I woke, if I even slept at all. It was about seven in the morning, much earlier than my usual stirring. I described it to my aunt as feeling like a child on Christmas morning. We had a prolonged, meandering, lazy breakfast in her little apartment, which was relatively new. She had decorated it with her typical eye for art and design, making a compact one-bedroom environment feel like a contemporary museum. Her calico cat kept winding around my legs; since my aunt had no children, any cat of hers was my cousin instead. I was sad not to see my uncle, who had died of Alzheimer’s several years prior, but it was an acceptable compromise that my aunt had been building a happy life in his wake.

Once she, my husband, and I were all sufficiently awake, she took us on a short tour of Greenville, only the second city in South Carolina I’d ever seen. The heat clung to every fiber of my frame, and soon so did my clothes, and my sweat was salty in my eyes. There were unfamiliar species of trees and bushes, but also the familiar red bricks of a former mill town, reminding me of New England despite the flora and the accents. I was struck by the number of art galleries, performing arts centers, and outdoor installations, the whole environment seeming that of people who cared very much for aesthetics and stimuli. For better or worse I consider that welcoming, even though many creative spheres do have certain notable barriers to participation.

We walked across the beautiful bridge above the beautiful Reedy River in the beautiful Falls Park, a staggering achievement of botanical experience. The park was already overrun by eclipse chasers. Some were even sitting on the rocks in the very middle of the falls. Hundreds of telescopes and cameras were already trained on the sky, and the greenery was covered by all the impossible colors of beach towels and camping tents. So far, we could see no clouds.

To make our final preparations, we bought barbecue to-go for lunch, and then we returned to my aunt’s apartment for camera tests, water stockpiling, viewing glasses, and a little rest before going back into the ninety-degree temperatures. I kept fanatically checking the time; there seemed no point in having ourselves and our camera all positioned appropriately right when partial coverage began, but we did want to experience a decent portion of that phase. Once it was supposedly about ten minutes underway, we ventured back out.

The apartment complex sat a couple of blocks across from a stadium where some event was taking place; I was never entirely sure if it was just eclipse viewers or that a sporting match had been scheduled that afternoon, but various individuals on the PA kept making remarks about the eclipse regardless. I could imagine those disembodied voices proving a distraction for some people, but I liked the feeling of a nearby communal gathering, just as I liked that we weren’t the only people standing or sitting about on the grass-and-dirt lawn that my aunt had previously scouted as our viewing station. The next eclipse that I watch— and there will be another— I would equally enjoy perfect solitude, but for my first I looked forward to experiencing many other humans’ reactions, not merely my own.

Within a minute of setting out our things on the nearest bench, the three of us were already wearing our glasses and craning our necks to get our first glimpse of the moon’s silhouette. I don’t remember which of us caught it first, but whoever it was made a noise of glee. Through the special glasses, the sun looked like a sweet tangerine in a sea of black, with a small bite taken out of the upper right edge. Very small, but there.

To my initial dismay, this sight then went behind a cloud for perhaps a quarter of an hour. Clouds, now there were clouds! Although a known risk from the outset, we could have taken no precautions against them. On the street I’d seen at least one vehicle parked with some sort of radar equipment for tracking clearer skies, but none of my viewing party owned any such luxuries, nor did we want to go driving, even if the streets weren’t as congested as feared. So we simply had to wait the clouds out. We could only hope. When the one cloud passed, another loomed and eventually took its place, then the pattern repeated several more times.

We ate our barbecue, sucked down water, sheltered in the shade of a tree. I watched some other onlookers staring up at the sky even more than I was doing, and I also watched some who were perfectly happy to ignore the partial phase. I certainly didn’t understand that. When I was a child in elementary school, we viewed a partial eclipse with a pinhole camera, but with the glasses I could look directly at the sun, an uncanny thing in its own right, and I could more profoundly appreciate the oddity of its ever-shrinking crescent shape. The moon was supposed to look like a crescent. Not the sun.

After a while, we didn’t even need a pinhole; nature gave us one. The tree over our bench had its shadow cast before us, and the gaps between leaves were fine enough that we suddenly noticed that dozens of tiny crescents were dotting the ground. I started to understand we were passing some threshold and the world was irrevocably changing. In cities and towns and fields and forests outside the belt of totality, this quaint effect would function as the only material alteration by the eclipse, but in our case it heralded more to come.

Not long after two o’clock, barely half an hour from the object of the pilgrimage, more things began happening. “Isn’t it darker?” we asked each other, wondering, fascinated, entranced. I had read that darkness would not really fall except for those two forthcoming minutes, but everything I looked at still seemed dim, like a filtered or underexposed photograph. White almost seemed lilac. It was like the last hour before sunset, but with short shadows that grew ever sharper as the light creating them now narrowed and narrowed.

I had also read that totality would bring a cold air, but I was cooler already. The sweat was drying on my skin. I started to shake. All my research and enthusiasm could not stop my body from confusion and foreboding. I took off my straw hat, no longer needing it.

I checked the sun again. It was growing as thin as a fingernail cut close to the quick. “Oh my god,” I said to no god, soft and afraid. My husband and I hurried to set up the camera’s tripod, to aim the camera approximately where the sun would be shining and then un-shining in just a few more minutes. I’m shaking again just remembering this. We almost dropped the camera altogether. I fumbled to start a timelapse video on my phone, for curiosity’s sake. The roar of the crowd in the stadium was growing very loud. I thought of every essay and every explanation I had read about what an eclipse is like, and they were all right, and they were all wrong.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” declared the voice on the distant PA. “Ladies and gentlemen.” I was not a lady and I was not a gentleman. I have always been an eclipse myself, one object obscuring another, the moon and the sun making dark love, the being that dwells in the emptiness and is the emptiness. I was about to look at myself. The voice heightened, expanded in visceral awe, echoing across the entire frozen city.

“We have totality!”

I was mouthing prayers and praises and nonsense to myself through those three words, and then I whimpered and then I did scream, tearing off my glasses to blind myself with something beyond light.

It is as they say. It was a hole in the sky.

Everyone can grasp that it was only the moon before the sun’s disc, but it was not only that at all. It was a hole, truly. The sky turned a brilliant, rich blue, purest azure, and in what seemed like the center hung the shimmering diamond fire in an apocalyptic ring with absolute blackness in its middle. I immediately wept. No poet ever quite knew the sublime if they did not see this. No mountain was grand enough, no storm furious enough. I started to grow faint, losing my balance from weak knees and tilted head.

My last vestiges of common sense forced me to look down for half a minute, drinking in the rest of the miracle. The whole horizon glowed with dusk in panorama. I saw Venus. “I can see Venus,” I sobbed. Somehow I hadn’t dropped my phone, somehow the timelapse was still recording, shuddery though it would eventually look. Our own bodies were dark, and my husband was struggling to get a good photo. I urged him to stop trying in a few more seconds, it wasn’t worth it, not if he didn’t have a proper view of what my aunt and I could see. We burst into laughter as we realized the camera’s lens cap was still on; my husband then tore it away and managed several shots at different shutter speeds.

Time and space are very much relative. In two minutes I wept and cried and worshipped a lifetime’s worth of tears and moans and gods. And we cheered like ancestor after ancestor did when the bright light flared back and the hole went away. I am now weeping again. Hail the sun, and hail the moon, and hail their love, and hail the great absence.

I have experienced endorphin rushes from a number of different sources, some legal, some illegal, some occupying a ground in between. None of those highs have lasted as long as what I felt humming through my body in the eclipse’s aftermath. The humming stayed in me for hours and hours, carrying me through a mouthwatering dinner of trout and rice and sweet Moscato and crème brûlée, then through an evening walk back through Falls Park. The real sunset held not a candle to the false one, yet it was still beautiful for having seen the false one first. As for the photographs, only one came out well, but it too is extremely perfect, though purely as an image, not as a representation of something real.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be continued in part 5.