American Blue by Michael Malay
By Emily Mercer on May 31, 2021 in
For many days it did not snow; the skies were clear and the valley was still. Then it snowed for weeks, a gentle but persistent snow that buried the earth. At first, the snow settled lightly on the land, dusting the trees and making the fields shine out in a white brilliance. But as the snow continued it began to conceal the world, obscuring the garden, hiding the woodshed, and covering the hedge along the driveway. By the second day, we could no longer distinguish the land from the lake, and by the end of the week the small house by the woods had disappeared. We left deep tracks behind us during our walks; deep tracks in the snow.
Before the snow I had spent my evenings on the lake. The lake was at the bottom of a hill, a short walk from my sister’s house, and I would go there in the afternoons, just as the sun was setting. I would sit on the edge of the pier, lace up my skates, and then step out into the blue, onto the ice. Then I would skate for hours, travelling from the lake’s edge, where you could see dark reeds trapped in the ice, to the lake’s centre, where the ice was thickest. The ice was milky blue in the afternoons, but as night came on it became whiter and whiter, until it turned into a glowing disk of whiteness in the frosty dark. One by one, the houses around the lake would turn on their lights, and sometimes I stayed out for so long that, by the time I unlaced my boots, most of the lights had been extinguished, apart from a lamp in a neighbour’s kitchen or porch.
Late November, upstate New York. Earlier that month, we had driven from Illinois in my father’s Buick, with a box of his things in the back seat: hats and shoes, clothes and reading glasses, as well as letters from his bank. (‘You’ll have to arrange his affairs’, the funeral director had told us, after seeing that we were young and had no idea what to do.) At the service, people said that the funeral was ‘fitting’ or ‘beautiful’, but all I could remember were his shrunken feet on the hospital bed and the thinness of his face. Also the thinness of the gown he was made to wear, which seemed like it could not possibly keep him warm. Prepare a table before me, the chaplain had said. Anoint my head with oil… And when she left the hospital, she did not shake our hands, and I remember feeling grateful for that, for we did not want to be touched then.
Steel on ice; the wind brittle and cool; the valley washed in a blue light. I am on the lake again, moving in large, loose circles, going over the marks I have left behind over weeks of skating. And perhaps I was skating for longer than usual that night, because at one point my thoughts are interrupted by a voice calling from the darkness, my sister’s. ‘Michael, I was afraid. I thought you had drowned’. I look up, startled by the voice. I didn’t realise how late it had become. The moon that was low and bright had become distant and thin, and the woods by the lake were no longer visible. ‘I’ll come in soon,’ I reply. ‘Just one more lap.’ And as Melati walks back to the house, I turn once more for the lake’s far side, skating until I reach its furthest edge.
‘Which is the way to the Realm of the Dead?’, Gilgamesh asks, after losing his beloved friend Enkidu. ‘I must know! Is it the sea? The mountains? I will go there!’ His friend’s absence is astonishing in its painfulness. At the same time, it is not really credible. Hence his question, ‘Which is the way to the Realm of the Dead?’, as though his friend had simply gone to a nearby country, one that Gilgamesh could visit at will.
When you are gripped by loss you exist within two temporal frameworks at once. In one realm, time continues to move in its usual way: there is pattern, sequence and flow. But in the other realm, ‘before’ and ‘after’ no longer correspond to meaningful categories, since time has been frozen to its core. And so the naturalness of Gilgamesh’s cry: ‘I must know! Is it the sea? The mountains?’ In the world of ordinary time, Gilgamesh is living after Enkidu’s death; but in the world of suspended time, there is no such thing as ‘after’. How could there be, when he can still feel the warmth of his friend’s hands? Enkidu’s death is a fact about the world – and it is also an impossibility.
For a time after someone’s death, it is possible for us to exist both ‘here’ and ‘there’, in the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. And during this period of border crossing it may seem that our real existence belongs, not with the living, but with the dead. Suspended time takes on the depths and recesses of living time, while living time comes to seem oddly hollow or flat. Then we find ourselves spending our days in unlived time, whereas, in the realm of lived time, our days have become arrested and still. Our true life takes place in that other world, even though life cannot happen there.
This period of border crossing does not seem to last for very long. Our life in time – our immersion in sequence, pattern, flow – wrenches us away from that other world. And there seems to be no help for this. We betray that other realm simply by participating in the world of the living – as if, by allowing our days to move on again, we turn our backs on the dead.
And so, without really meaning to, we stray from the border – and the border shuts.
I consult the medical literature. I read papers on mourning and grief, but find few descriptions of ice-time and border crossings, and never any practical information on what is most needed, which seems odd. Which way, exactly, to the realm of the dead? And how do you go back after you’ve been made to leave?
There is a blue in America I haven’t seen anywhere else, though I sometimes look for it. It is a blue unlike my childhood in Indonesia, which by day was fierce and tropical, and by evening ashy and dark; and a blue unlike my adolescence in Australia, where skies were thick and smoky in summer, dry and parched in winter. Quiet blue, lonely blue, American blue. In the months after his death, riding the train from Poughkeepsie to New York, it is the blue of winter, of light modulating over the Hudson. And it is also the blue of the ice on the river in December, which by day reflects and scatters the world’s blueness, and which, as evening arrives, draws it in and makes the surrounding valley grow bluer too. But it is also – since colour moves into us – the blue of feeling, of distances. The blue of opposites, I have come to think, in which childhood and loss, innocence and guilt, are commingled. A blue of ravelled, worn things, and of things newly born.
New Hamburg, Beacon, Cold Spring. For the months I am in America, these stops are part of the blue hour, the towns I pass through when I leave my sister’s house in Shokan for the city of New York. Sometimes I go to explore Manhattan, the streets busy with tourists and Christmas shoppers; and sometimes to visit Grand Central Library, or to read in the cafés near Bryant Park. Always, though, on those return journeys home, the light would no longer be blue but black, and the Hudson invisible save for small lights thrown onto it by houses built along the banks. Ice in the darkness, the moon low and heavy, the trees tall and skeleton-thin. ‘Poughkeepsie next’, the conductor would later say. Not, we are floating in the dark, or, we cannot see the land. But simply, ‘Poughkeepsie is next’, and at that hour it would feel fine and easy to trust him.
During those winter journeys I began to see what I had not seen before: a crack in the surface of things, a vulnerability in living forms. It lived in plain sight, on faces and on skin: a man lighting a cigarette in Union Square, a woman’s arm lifted in farewell. At times, the most ordinary things came to seem insubstantial, as though they could be whisked away at any moment. In my notebook after the funeral I had written down the following lines:
Afternoon light: the way presence fades on faces
A thought walking past Union Square – everyone here will be dead in 60 years
This garden of disappearing things, the question of memory
And then there were the dreams: dreams of waking up to an abandoned New York, or of a miraculous tide overflowing the Hudson and swirling towards the cities of the north. And dreams of a blizzard so vast it covered the entire country, burying the deserts of Utah, the mountains of Colorado, the cornfields of Illinois. Dreams which began to merge with my daylight experiences, so that I had to ask myself, ‘what is real and what am I imagining?’ One day, while crossing the Kosciuszko bridge, I remember glimpsing a graveyard from a taxi window, rows of headstones glittering in winter light, undulating for miles across grey fields, behind which, echoing the tombstones in form and colour, stood the towers of Manhattan. Years later, when I read about the cemetery, I learn that it is one of the largest graveyards in the country, that it is called Calvary Cemetery, and that three million people are interred within its grounds. But what struck me then – what filled the body with ice – was the proximity between city and graveyard, and the knowledge that, with each passing day, hundreds of souls were crossing the river, as it were, swelling the ranks of the dead. Another note from the diary: the night ferry from Manhattan.
When I revisit my notebooks from that winter – small, battered diaries I carried everywhere, the pages now soft with time – I do not know what to make of them. I remember where some of the notes were taken, but I see now that the cursive is smaller than my usual handwriting, and that occasional passages are indecipherable. And as I look out from my window in England – it is a warm, summer day, many years since his death – I try to remember what that time was like, those days when I took to walking for hours on end, or when, skating into the evenings, it became so dark that I could barely see my hands.
I wasn’t my usual self: so much is clear. After the practicalities of the funeral, followed by the task of sorting through clothes, papers and photographs, my sisters and I said very little to each other. It was as though we had been lowered into a realm without language, a cold, silent place. Anyone walking past the house, stopping to peer through the window, would have thought us a family of mutes: Kathleen reading her book, Melati looking at the lake.
Yet it is also true that I have never experienced so much as I did during that time, felt so cracked open to the world, and sometimes I wonder whether what we call sanity is a secluded port, and if, during moments of grief, we are in touch with deeper waters we did not know existed. I think of photographs I once saw as a teenager – long-exposures of a reservoir under moonlight – and the oddness of what had been captured: the water being worked by wind and light, its surface tense with movement and pattern. Stretched out on the canvasses were a series of energy-lines and wobbling forces, the look of water burnished by light and scalloped by wind – the textured flow of time itself. But also: a white breath above the reservoir, attending the scene like a ghost. But there was also something else: a white breath above the reservoir, a spectral trace of milky light. Later, I would learn that mathematicians have a name for the fractal patterns that surround us, the ‘strange attractor’. And much later still, I would learn what we all learn: that grief too is a form of exposure, and that it works by prising open the aperture of the self, showing you light from other spectra. ‘There is another world,’ Paul Éluard is supposed to have said, ‘but it is in this one’. Faces before your eyes, brief as thoughts.
The early days of March. We are standing on the lake, grinning and laughing like fools. We have found that, by sliding rocks across the surface of the lake, we can make the ice warble with a strange, alien music, and we find that we can do this for hours, listening to the lake’s many tones. When it begins to snow – big heavy flakes that we catch on our tongues – we retreat to the house and build a fire. We do not know it at the time, but this will be one of the last snow days of the year – for the weather has been changing, the days have been lengthening, and another kind of light is coming into the world, the warm, frivolous light of spring.
I look around the house. For weeks now we have been collecting objects from our walks: bones, feathers, rocks, strips of silver birch, a snakeskin, a rabbit’s foot. Also books and curios from the thrift stores: a painting by a local artist, a history of the trees of New York, fading photographs of the Hudson Valley. Over time, our shelves have begun to resemble an eccentric museum, although one with no clear order, or the wrack line of a beach, with its assembled mess of wonders. Looking back, though, I realise that this disorder was a kind of progress. If the outside world was coming in, it was because we were venturing out: meeting friends, visiting local shops, relearning the pleasures and costs of living. We had started to live among a confusion of things again, which meant that something in us was beginning to thaw.
One afternoon, I come across a stream on the other side of the valley. Thin sheets of ice had formed above the water, smooth as glass, and I begin to strike at the surface with a stone. Earlier that winter, we had started a tradition of bringing back ice sheets from our walks and sticking them into the ground, where we would watch them melt over a period of days. The sheets could be prised loose with rocks, lifted out of the streams, and then held up like small window panes. Looking at the sky through these sheets, you could see into a funny kind of heaven, all glistening shapes and palpitating forms. But as I chip away at the ice that afternoon, I am distracted by a sound in the woods, and when I look down again I see the wound that I have made: gnashed fingers, blood running into water. I wrap my hand with a scarf and walk back to the house, the ice tucked under my arm.
The cut heals in time, the weather changes, the ice retreats from the lake. And one day, on the train from Poughkeepsie to New York, I notice that the ice on the Hudson is also breaking up. More of the new light is falling over the river, a warm, irresponsible light, and not long after, on another train journey, I will see large patches of blue water pushing back masses of grey ice. That train will take me to Central Station, and from there I will take a bus to Newark Airport, before returning to Bristol, England, where I had been living before his death.
Soon, New York will feel like another world, those winter nights from another age, and I will find myself knocking on a friend’s door in the city centre. We will cycle to the Downs, a green commons in north Bristol, and peer over the steep-sided Avon Gorge, standing there as gulls, cormorants and rooks fly towards the Bristol Channel, carrying glimmers of sun on their backs. And as we watch the birds, I think of the lake-ice melting by my sister’s house, the sun pouring into the valley, the bears rolling out from their dens, and the wind moving through the trees, laughing as snow thaws before the green of growing things.
‘American Blue’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Life Writing.
Enter the 2021 New Writing Prize here – deadline 31 May.
Michael Malay is a writer and teacher based in Bristol. He is the the author of The Figure of the Animal in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, and is currently working on a book called Late Light, a book about eels, mussels, crickets and moths.
The author would like to thank Emily Mercer for her generous and careful editing of this piece, as well as Josie Gill and Steven Lovatt for their helpful suggestions.