Posted in Africa, Nature, Photography

Solstice: The Longest Night

Edge of Darkness
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

(From an older post, revised for the Winter Solstice.)

I sit on my heels, rock back and forth, toward the fire and away from it. Behind my back giant looming shadows shift and dance in firelight. Palm trees fan dark silhouettes against the stars.

The fire spits a small ember beyond the stone ring; it lands near the toes of my boots and dies. My eyes follow as another ember is tossed into the shadows where it also flares and dies.

Leaning in, I show the palms of my hands to the eyes of the fire. Tongues of flame lick blackened lips of wood as if the fire wants to open its mouth and tell my fortune with hot, strange words. Above my head the stars wheel toward dawn, the second hand on a clock face, the only clock that measures eons of time.

Most of our Old Stories must have begun like this, at night, around a hand-warming fire.

Arching from one edge of the horizon to the other, a brilliant swath of the Milky Way spans a vault of sky already thick with white-hot stars. The people of the Kalahari call the Milky Way “The Backbone of the Night.” They believe it keeps the sky from crashing down on their heads.

The fire burns down to single chips of orange.   My hands make a small lid over the last of its heat.

I walk out to my tent and then switch off the bubble of light from my flashlight. Next to my tent a single leaf dangles from the bare branches of a thornbush. Held by an spider’s thread, basted silver by starlight, it spins a slow half-circle, then spins back. The panicked hawing of a lone zebra cuts through the silence. The Invisibles –hyenas, leopards, lions – are beginning their nightly rounds.

I trace the outlines of old gods in the night sky, see Orion doing a slow cartwheel, his left hand already touching the horizon. Leo naps on his back, the way most lions bitsleep. Buried deep in the Milky Way, a jewel box of stars contains the tiny, tilted Southern Cross. Scorpio is just rising, thrusting one claw into the leaves of a fan palm.

If I squint hard enough, long enough, the Milky Way knits itself into what might look like pieces of solid bone.  Along its spine and under its ribs stars coalesce into galaxies whirling towards dawn. They rain light into my uplifted arms.

The beginning and the end are up there, somewhere.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

3 thoughts on “Solstice: The Longest Night

  1. Cheryl – your thoughts are like dancing stars, dropping stardust to form words. Thanks for sharing your wonderful writings. Gorgeous photograph of my element, fire. With Love

      1. Thanks my friend, from both of us. FYI, by mistake typed a comma in the opening sentence – unfortunately there’s no “edit” button 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s