Each year on the eleventh of August the earth splashes through a belt of fractured stones that whirls through our galaxy. I have read that on that one night of the year you can see a shower of meteorites colliding with our atmosphere and burning into dust as they tumble toward earth. You can stand in an ordinary backyard as heavenly pebbles rain down around you, winking into darkness before they touch the ground.
One year I noted the date and persuaded my sighted husband Dick to come outside with me on the porch. I wanted him to tell me what he saw, so I could taste the excitement of this phenomenon through his borrowed perception. After a few minutes of waiting he said he couldn’t see anything special. The city lights were too bright, he explained. It was strange to think that light generated by flimsy mortal beings could overpower the light of the heavens. Perhaps it would be like listening for the chirp of a sparrow above the blaring music at a bar. It seemed I might never experience the meteor shower, even by proxy.
My yearning to experience celestial phenomena traces back to one of my earliest memories. When I was four years old our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Wilson, helped me balance on the top rail of the fence between our yards. “Now,” she said grandly, as I perched at that great height, “if you reached up you could touch the moon!”
I stretched on tiptoe and searched eagerly above my head, but all I found was empty air. Grownups often lifted me up to show me things that were beyond my normal reach–the living-room ceiling, the star at the top of the Christmas tree, an icicle hanging from the rain gutter–but this time there was nothing. Mrs. Wilson said she was only teasing; the moon was very far away. I began to understand that certain things could be seen with the eyes but were forever beyond the reach of my hands.
The sun was far away too, but it was directly accessible. It poured its heat through the front windows in the morning and the kitchen windows by late afternoon. At midday it blazed directly overhead. It shone a thin, welcome warmth on the chill days of January, and burned my nose even on a cloudy day in July.
Experience taught me a lot about the sun, but the stars, the moon, and the planets remained abstractions. At school I pored over diagrams made with raised lines on paper and learned the shapes of Orion’s belt and Cassiopeia’s chair. I read about nebulae and supernovas. In a strange way their remoteness made sense to me. Astronomy was no more unfathomable than that ubiquitous phenomenon known as color that mysteriously tinged every aspect of life. Color, like the universe, was a vast impalpable dimension. Whether I perceived it or not color was real, so why not stars and galaxies?
As a wife and mother, spending summers in the mountains of central Mexico, the wonders of the sky drew a little bit nearer. In San Miguel de Allende human-made lights are few and scattered at night. Sometimes Dick would call our daughter Janna to the flat roof of our rented house and show her the full moon or the Big Dipper. I hurried after them and listened hungrily as they tried to translate their vision into words. The moon I imagined as a warm round stone, big enough to fit snugly into my cupped hands. The stars were hovering dots of heat, so many that their complex patterns were hard to decipher.
In the summer of 1991, when Janna was seven, Mexico looked forward to a total eclipse of the sun. The news crackled with excitement and warnings. Don’t look directly at the eclipse, the public was told again and again. The light can burn up your retinas. Suddenly the threat of blindness loomed over the entire nation. I wondered if people studied me as I passed in the street with my long white cane. Did they think I had ignored advice and gazed at some eye-searing eclipse in el norte? Maybe they told themselves to stay indoors and skip the whole event, lest they should end up like me.
For a small fee Pan Bimbo, Mexico’s biggest commercial bread company, promised safety. At any grocery store you could buy a shoebox-like contraption with a peephole at one end and a mirror at the other. You were supposed to peer into the box and see the eclipse as a reflection. It would be a long step away from the real thing, but safety came first.
We bought a couple of Bimbo boxes and kept them on hand on the kitchen counter. I hoped that Dick and Janna would enjoy the eclipse, but I didn’t understand all the hype. What could be the difference between an eclipse and the sun disappearing behind a cloud?
On the morning of the eclipse Janna’s summer day-camp sent the children home early. She sat in our sunny patio, organizing races with the garden snails, while I worked at my desk. It was a little past noon when Dick gave a shout. “It’s starting!” he cried. “Oh my God! It’s incredible!”
I stepped out into the patio. Only the faintest trace of the sun’s warmth was left, and within moments even that was gone. The air grew chill and strangely quiet, as if some compelling life force had been siphoned away. The swallows that usually filled the sky at twilight swooped and twittered overhead, their daily timepiece unsprung. The crickets under the bougainvillea gave a few tentative scrapes, then broke into their full evening recital. And from every street in the town came a cacophony of barking dogs.
“Wow!” Janna kept exclaiming. “Wow! It’s so cool! I didn’t know it was going to be like this!”
Bimbo boxes forgotten, we clambered up the twisting stairway to the roof, as close to the sky as our human bodies could carry us. Dick said the sun looked like a doughnut–no, it was thinner than that, much much thinner, it was a ring, and in the middle hung a dark spot, the moon, but not a moon he’d ever seen before, it was an emptiness, a not-being. And around the moon that ring, the outline of what the sun ought to be. I thought of the ring the way I thought of the auras some people claim to see over the heads of their friends–a drifting substance light as a fine silk scarf. In the center the moon was a cold vacancy, shapeless and deep.
In less than an hour a bit of sun-warmth slid down to us, and the air seemed to lighten in welcome. The swallows went back to wherever they spent their daytime hours, and the crickets fell silent. The dogs gave a few last yips and were still. We climbed down from the roof into our sunny patio, the early afternoon world fully restored.
Later we trekked up the hill to a friend’s house for a post-eclipse celebration. To my own delight, I found I could take an active part in the recap, describing all the evidence of strangeness that I had perceived. I fully agreed with the others that the eclipse had been a spectacular experience. Most had taken photographs. Janna sat on a bench and made a series of sketches to capture what she had seen. No one, as far as I could tell, had viewed the eclipse through a peephole, and everyone’s retinas seemed intact.
The eclipse was a sensory medley–the sudden chill, the sound of the animals, and for most the sight of the moon and its mystic aura. Yet the event possessed a magic that surpassed description. “Awesome!” people called it. “Utterly amazing!” “Like nothing I ever could have imagined!” And to think I had asked how it would be any different from a passing cloud!
In the days that followed I thought a lot about the crickets. How did they know that the sun had disappeared? The dogs might have looked up and seen the change. I could imagine the swallows noticing strange goings-on above them; after all, the sky was their element. But the crickets hid deep in the tangled shade of the bougainvillea, or crouched in the hollow places under stones. Even on a sunny day they lived in cool darkness. What difference did they perceive?
Maybe the sudden drop in temperature woke them from their silence. But suppose it was something more. The ancient Greeks wrote about the music of the spheres, a faraway harmony sung by the stars and planets as they coursed through space. Might some celestial hum reach the earth at registers beyond human hearing, but within the range of dogs and birds and even insects?
Or perhaps the eclipse caused a shift in the earth’s magnetic field. Maybe the animals were stirred by some deep, visceral tug. Did we feel it too, dimly, far below consciousness? Did that nameless pull add to our sense of wonder?
The summer was over, and we were heading back to Chicago. I realized suddenly that I hadn’t paid attention to the calendar. The eleventh of August had slipped away. In this unlighted country I could have called Dick and Janna up to the roof and shared the delights of the meteor shower at last. I had forgotten all about it, and now it was too late. What surprises might the shower bring — tiny sizzles in the air? Little dots of heat upon my skin? A pitted pebble tumbling to the roof at my feet? Next summer, I promised myself, I’ll remember. Next chance I get, I’m going to find out.
We were packing to leave San Miguel when Janna asked me suddenly, “What would happen if everybody in the world was blind?”
“You mean,” I said, “if everybody went blind all of a sudden, like from staring at an eclipse for too long?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Nobody’d know how to do anything. It’d be totally scary.” She was thoughtful for a moment before she added, “If everybody was born blind, though, that’d be okay. They wouldn’t know any different, so they wouldn’t worry about it.”
As we carried clothes down from the line on the roof we imagined aloud a world in which sight was unknown. Vehicles would run on tracks, like trains and trolleys. Airplanes pilots would navigate using exquisitely precise radio communication. Doctors would read X-rays on a screen with minute tactile points activated to show the form and position of an injury.
“I guess people wouldn’t figure out much about astronomy,” I said. “They wouldn’t know about the moon and the stars.”
“Sure they would!” Janna exclaimed. “They’d want to know what’s over their heads and they’d come up with ways to find out.”
Perhaps one morning, in that hypothetical world, a woman finds a large, rough stone lying on her roof beside the clothesline. The sun has barely risen but the stone is hot to her touch. Where did it come from? And perhaps, on another day, the temperature suddenly plummets, the swallows chatter and the dogs begin to howl. The greatest minds in the land would ponder what had happened. They would ask questions, and somehow, over time, answers would be found.
– In 1978 Deborah Kent published her first young-adult novel, Belonging, which launched her on a thirty-year career as a writer of books for young readers. Now she is exploring other forms of writing, particularly the personal essay. Her most recent book is The Tragedy of the Japanese American Internment, published by Enslow in 2008.