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.

Posted in Africa, Nature, Photography

The Backbone of the Night

Edge of Darkness

I sit on my heels next to a high-burning fire and rock back and forth, toe to heel, toward the fire and away from it.  Leaning in, I cup the palms of my hands to its heat.  Tongues of flame lick blackened lips of wood as if they want to tell my fortune with hot, strange words.

In Botswana, this close to the equator, there are twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness.  The earth rolls into night at 1,000 miles a minute – thirty minutes from sundown to dark.  No long sunsets technicolored by particles of pollution, no lingering light due to the earth’s tilt, no instant barrage of street lamps.

My night is lit only by flame and stars.

The fire spits an ember into the sand near the toes of my boots where it flares and dies.

Above my head a brilliant swath of the Milky Way spanned a vault of sky already crowded with stars.  Stars wheel toward dawn, the second hand on a clock face, the only clock that measures eons of time.

The beginning and the end are up there, somewhere.

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.  If I squint hard enough, long enough, the Milky Way knits itself into what might look like pieces of solid bone.

Each time I look up it births even more new stars.

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

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

I walk down the path to my tent.  Soft night shadows loom around the circle of my flashlight.  At the tent’s threshold, I switch it off.  I trace the outlines of gods in the constellations overhead.  I see Orion doing a slow cartwheel, his left hand already touching the horizon.  Leo naps on his back, the way most lions sleep.  Scorpio thrusts one claw into the leaves of a fan palm.  Buried deep in the Milky Way, a jewel box of stars contains the tiny, tilted Southern Cross.

Moonlight rains through mesh openings of the tent’s windows, spatters my blanket with shifting, delicate squares.  Sleep comes quickly, like an African nightfall.  My dreams fill with elephants as the backbone of the night arches over me and holds up the entire sky.

 

(an excerpt from my book-in-progress, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants)