South we drove still, the earth gradually turning to shine the sun right into my eyes in the passenger seat. The more that I caught the sun’s rays, the more I became cognizant of how this would be the last time watching light move across the world before the sun would rise and climb and then briefly disappear at a wholly unexpected time. We were chasing an eclipse, and as an amateur I knew all the key astronomical details, but I was not looking to see the presence of the moon right in front of the sun. I was seeking an absence. A void. The very face of primeval terror.
In just one day, I would see that.
First we had to pass through hauntings. Hauntings are real, not in the sense of real-yet-ethereal spirits with their own wills, rather in the sense of sometimes a thing will occur in a place that makes it impossible to enter the place again without thinking about it, even if you were never there. This psychotopographic shroud drapes itself over the vicinity like cobwebs or mold spores. You will only enter and exit unaffected if you arrive and leave in perfect ignorance, though the right atmosphere might challenge even the purest emptiness of memory.
As soon as we were back on Interstate 95, I had the haunting of returning to territory associated forever with childhood and family. While I never called the Beltway area my home except from my birth until about age five, I was not simply born in the Virginian suburbs of DC. Three out of four grandparents had once lived on the Maryland side (the fourth, too, if you made the funny mistake of calling Baltimore a “suburb”), as did an aunt and numerous family friends. Some of those people are still there. My parents both moved a great deal in their youth, but I think this constituted their “turf,” if nothing else did. They met there, married there, had children there, and divorced only after leaving there. Until the divorce, and even after, I returned annually or semi-annually for Thanksgivings, vacations, eventually funerals. I owe another visit to those remaining, but on this day I passed through as merely a spectator.
I wasn’t a wayward thirty year old returning to xir roots. I was a pilgrim crossing the Mason-Dixon and inundating myself with heat ever hotter, ever wetter. But still I knew the burgundy sound barriers of the Beltway, the glass and metal structures of defense contractors and think tanks and death machines, the signs for touchstones like Chevy Chase and Bethesda and Glen Echo and Tysons Corner, the carpets and columns of lush kudzu. And this land was not even mine; all of these familiar sights came after colonizers stole land from the Algonquians. Even the kudzu came after.
Passing into Virginia, my driving playlist happened to turn up an arrangement of “Strange Fruit,” not long before we took a turn that sent me into a part of the state I’d never known, the so-called real Virginia. Virginia is quite big, at least for the East Coast, and most of it has little to do with the Beltway area. As far as most are concerned, it’s the start of the South, both geographically and culturally, and I found myself thinking that despite its relatively northern location compared to the rest of the former Confederacy, so much of it sets a precedent for those other states.
After a coffee stop in Manassas, the town itself a war battleground, all I noticed at first was farmland— horses, cows, crops— on beautiful rolling hills. Then I started counting churches, and quickly lost count. Their architectures were varied, but their denomination was almost always Baptist. I realized that our current highway, US Route 29, constituted part of the Lee Highway, named for who other than Robert E., and thus the green and gold landscape suddenly took on another hue. Around the same time, we saw our first Confederate flag pestilently mounted on the side of the road, and we started counting those. We would eventually count seventeen for the whole trip— eight, actually, but one was so enormous that it deserved to count as ten.
The Confederate flag pictured by most individuals is specifically a battle standard. In its square form it was used by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; in rectangular form it was used by the Confederate navy. (Eventually the design found its way onto the left corner of a white field for the Confederacy’s national flag, and there was considerable debate about how much white there was, considering connotations of surrender. I mention this only to highlight the irony of Confederate fears about something being too white.)
By the time we needed lunch, we’d made it as far as Charlottesville. The fascist rally and ensuing violence there had only happened a week prior. We saw no trace of it, not particularly, and this didn’t seem strange but felt unsettling in its own way. Our best lunch option was a Popeye’s, and as we stood in line waiting to order, people around us were speaking in relative harmony and ease, just as they had probably done at the beginning of the month. Nobody talks about certain things in this country unless they are actually happening to them; and the people most directly affected are then still punished for existing, never mind opening their mouths.
Ultimately, we left Virginia as the shadows were growing long and the sun was going saffron. Nightfall in North Carolina stopped the hauntings for a little while, because I saw less to think about, only summer darkness and headlights and taillights, and I was eventually growing too tired to think at all. We didn’t rest until reaching my aunt’s residence in South Carolina. Greenville. Ground zero for our own eclipse, although we would watch it later than some other people.
D. Llywelyn Jones
To be continued in part 4.