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.