Finalist | Terrain.org 7th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
The Internet has been abuzz all week with a rare heavenly event and people have gone hashtag crazy—#perigree #penumbra #lunartetrad #septemberequinox, and so on. The full moon will be at its closest point in its orbit around the earth, appearing 14 percent larger and 33 percent brighter than other full moons, making it a supermoon. The atmosphere will absorb the sun’s blue tones, while the red tones will bend around the earth, making it a blood moon. And, the Earth will line up with the sun, and the moon will take its place directly between the two: a lunar eclipse. Journalists are calling it a super blood moon lunar eclipse. I’m calling it a #tripleconcidence.
I walk to the park, which starts at my doorstep in the university town of Moscow, Idaho, passes a strip mall, several tech companies, and, across the path and down a damp gully, a run-down campground. I’ve never seen people at the campsites, but there are a few canvas tents and campers with rusted sides littered with rotting rubber tires, broken flowerpots, and decomposing robins left by feral cats. Lessons in immortality.
I’ve never seen anyone at the park, either. This evening, as usual, I have it all to myself as I sit atop a picnic table, eyes to the west. Seventy-five fires are burning out of control in the Bitterroot Mountains 150 miles southeast of town. The smoke is so thick I’ve posted no filter Instagram photos that look drenched in old fashioned sepia, attaching the caption: Toxic Skies. Later, I will read that this is one of the worst fire season on record: hotter, burning more acres, and taking dozens of lives. I’ve spent the last several years traveling the Bitterroots, collecting stories for an oral history project at the university and as smoke singes the air, I know the stories are burning too. Sweeps of orange, red, and pink soar across the crepuscular sky. Sunset swag. I gaze and squint, but I don’t know exactly what to look for in the sky. Will the moon pop out from behind the leafy oak? Or leap from behind the campground? The mystery of it! We see with new eyes when something unexpected moves across our horizon.
And something unexpected does move. A man limps across the park in a baby blue tracksuit that, he tells me later, is made of silk. Blue ribbed cuffs and blue waistband. The tracksuit’s soft folds look odd against his general scruffiness. Skin pocked and sallow. Gray stubble. Gray eyes and hair like a blurry photocopy.
“I’m out here to see this moon,” he says. We stand in the park and chat. More accurately, he talks and I listen. He doesn’t get out much, he says. Ever since his accident, he mostly stays in. But he has to come out to see the blood super moon and the lunar eclipse. He would not have ventured out otherwise, no, not with this bad leg.
We go silent as the moon swings over Paradise Ridge, and I’m glad for the camaraderie sparked by our mutual interest in the sky. I thought the moonrise would be swift, but it creeps slowly into view. The moon is fainter than I had imagined. Earth’s shadow has already edged onto its surface.
“I won’t be here to see this again,” the man says. A gold chain swings from his neck. His face comes into focus; his eyes are crystals.
“Of course you will,” I say. The next super blood moon lunar eclipse will occur in 2033. If he’s about 50, as he looks to be, there’s a decent chance he’ll be alive 18 years from now.
“I won’t,” he says. His tone is not gruff. But he’s adamant. “Don’t worry. I ain’t afraid of dying because I already died once.” I ask what he means. He fingers his chain as he tells me how, when he had his accident, his heart stopped. “They worked on me for a good half hour.” He talks about how his soul left without a sound and the cicadas outside his hospital window carried on. I imagine his body, poised between two worlds, as doctors try to press the beat back into his heart.
When I was 17, I was assigned to help the school’s top competitive debater research a speech about near-death experience. Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life had come out a few years earlier, the first sustained study of near death by a medical doctor, a book that would go on to launch the modern obsession with near death, and it became our bible. Hour upon hour, I sat in a plastic chair while my partner stood, back against a chalk-stained board, rehearsing her opening statement to me until I had memorized the indicators of near death: I saw a bright light, my life played before me like a movie, my dead loved ones materialized, and I was at peace. In the years after high school, the stories in Life After Life followed me. I got drawn in whenever a new book emerged. And I longed to meet the people behind the stories.
Accounts from near death date to the Middle Ages, and even further if you understand the mystical experiences from ancient Egypt, India, Greco-Roman Antiquity, China, and Mesoamerica to be those of near death. In the annals of near-death experiences, reports by medical doctors are given the most credence, possibly because the innate skepticism scientists have makes them more credible witnesses of a phenomenon that cannot be measured.
The earliest medical account, that of 18th-century military physician Pierre-Jean du Monchaux, feels weirdly modern, with its claims of bright lights and feelings of peace. Monchaux related the case of a man who had contracted a fever and went unconscious for such a long time, the blood letters pronounced him dead. The man revived. “He reported,” wrote Monchaux, “that after having lost all external sensations, he saw such a pure and extreme light that he thought he was in Heaven (literally: in the Kingdom of the Blessed). He remembered this sensation very well, and affirmed that never in all his life had he had a nicer moment.”
Rubbing his stubbly chin, the man in blue tells me that when he died, he had no memory of life on Earth. He was riding his motorcycle into a vast field, soft and multicolored, as if entering an impressionist painting. At first I think he’s talking about his accident, the one that made him limp and gave him the idea that he would not be on this earth in 2033. No, he says, his accident did not involve his motorcycle. He rode a motorcycle into the afterlife, into a shimmering light, into pure love.
Unlike my high school debating partner, the man is not trying to convince me. He speaks softly and evenly, like gold stitches. He seems ghostly, but he’s all too real. He smells of apples and tobacco. I’ve seen his white sneakers on sale at Shopko. He stands uneasily, lifting the sole on one foot and then the other, as the Earth’s shadow inches over the moon.
“I’m going home,” he says, though half the moon is still unhooded. I ask if he wouldn’t rather stay. If he’ll never see the eclipse again, why leave? “I’m cold,” he says, “but it was nice meeting you.” And he limps in the direction of the campground.
He disappears so quickly that I wonder if he has even been there in the first place. But I know he has because now everything is heightened: the cattail-tangled gully quivers, the sky flickers, birds on the electrical wires sing off-key. For a moment, life ceases being one ecliptic march across time.
When I was ten, Nellie Kelly was stuck in a nursing home with a strange ailment called hardening of the arteries, which made her forgetful and confused. She didn’t know who we—her great-grandchildren—were. She couldn’t recognize her own children. She didn’t know where she was. She had lost all memory of life on Earth.
Nellie was a petite woman with a sharp tongue. Because I was of similar stature, and because I could also make biting comments, relatives compared me to her, which made me feel connected to her in mysterious ways.
The nursing home was like a strange planet to me. Aging people sitting in wheelchairs lined hallways. Others lay in gauzy rooms, mouths gaping open. Their heads shined like fancy beads. Their skin hung like old lace from their delicate frames. They smelled light and metallic. At first I was scared of the emptiness in their eyes, but over the years of visiting Nellie, I started to believe them to be in the process of crossing over. What I originally thought was vacancy began to look like vision.
We stood by Nellie’s bedside, leaning over her birdlike shoulders hoping for a glint of recognition, but her eyes focused on something far away. Though my family wasn’t churchy, I knew about resurrection. We attended a Presbyterian congregation every Christmas and Easter, where I learned about Lazarus, how he was buried for four days, how he came back to life and shed his death clothes, how he became one of Christ’s most symbolic miracles. We can all rise again. The idea of a life after death sounded possible to my childish self.
But it has occurred to me since that Lazarus’s may have been an involuntary resurrection. Nellie Kelly herself was not asking to stay. Each year, when our visit ended, she closed her eyes. Paper thin, her lids fluttered and twitched the way water ripples and spins when fish glide just beneath the surface.
The man in blue is gone. I want to go home too, but I’ve committed to seeing the eclipse. I wander around the park bereft, and that’s when I notice something I’ve paid not one bit of attention to before. Commemorative plaques, like gravestones, dot the ground beside some of the park’s trees. Have these messages been here all along? On this night, with this moon, I rush to take photos with my phone. One tree is dedicated to Mary Nell Braun: Gracious lady. Another to an eight-month-old infant, Ryan Jason Murray: Our Precious Child. A few yards away, another tree to Anne Veseth, the 20-year-old fire fighter who died three years earlier, squashed by green cedar that, weakened by the fire, fell on her head in the wilderness where I had collected my stories.
And then I see a simple silver sign next to a sapling oak that reads: Donated by friends of Phil Druker.
I met Phil Druker only once, ten years earlier. Sitting in the corner of a stuffy hotel ballroom, I was drenched after lecturing to a crowd of a hundred about the wilderness, the one that is burning today. People milled around in fleece vests and blue jeans, bidding on silent auction items like rafting trips and pottery. My lecture was supposed to inspire them to reach deeper into their pockets. Their donations would help support trail maintenance and watershed restoration. In my lecture, I had mentioned Norman Maclean. His book The River Runs Through It and Other Stories is set in the rugged spires and ravines of the Bitterroots. But I felt cheap name-dropping Maclean, like those restaurateurs who line their walls with celebrity photos. Fame by association.
A man with glasses and brown-gray curls appeared after I’d spoken. Tall as a totem. Willow thin. I stood to shake hands. “I’ve walked every path through the Bitterroots,” he said, and by that he meant hundreds of miles of roadless trails. He spoke as if he had something vital to communicate. “I’ve been writing a piece about those mountains,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. “I won’t ever finish it, but I’ll send it to you and maybe you can.”
“I can’t take your writing,” I said. I remember thinking it odd that a man I’d never met before would ask me to finish a piece of his writing.
“Please, just receive it,” he said.
I looked into his eyes—they were gray, soft, and full like a thundercloud. They had a faraway look, like Nellie Kelly’s. Or maybe he was just tired. “Sure, send it along,” I said and jotted my address. And then he slipped past me so close that our arms touched, and he was gone. I didn’t expect to hear from him.
A few months later, a manuscript came in the mail from Phil Druker called In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean. Phil had attached a handwritten note; the script was small and faint. It said: “The writing here is not great, but I do present lots of good details, and I hope you find this useful somehow.”
For reasons I still can’t fully explain, I didn’t read the manuscript. I suppose I felt some pressure to use it in my own writing about the Bitterroots, which at the time was so much in its infancy I didn’t know how to incorporate someone else’s journeys into my own. Perhaps I also felt too inadequate, too inferior a writer to revive his work in mine. So I put it in a box in my garage.
Over the years, the manuscript nagged at me. It seemed important. But still I didn’t look at it.
And then I heard that Phil had died. Someone—an acquaintance, maybe—mentioned his name, and I put two and two together. Little by little, I learned who he was from people in the community. Besides a hiker in the Bitterroots, he was a beloved teacher at the University of Idaho. He was a Buddhist, though he’d been born and raised Jewish. He had even traveled to the Dolpo region of the Himalayas before he died and written a book about it.
Still, I didn’t open the manuscript, though it had more power than ever before. I was terrified to dig in and make something of it. It was his life after life. How could I possibly resurrect such a person through a chance encounter?
But Phil’s plaque in the park is a cosmic nudge. Enough to make me turn from the darkening moon and hightail it down the trail, unlock my garage, and sort through a box with my headlamp. Phil’s manuscript is just where I remember it: wrapped in a manila folder inside his original envelope. In the warm light of my house, I read:
The trail’s still there, wide enough for a pickup, smooth and flat enough for a ’57 Buick. It leads south from Hoodoo Lake at Elk Summit, along the end of Cedar Ridge, broad and easy, through the dog-hair thick lodgepole pine and spruce. It follows wide and true, one branch leading towards Maple Lake Ridge, the other continuing down Cedar Ridge from the East Fork of Moose Creek. Years ago, I hiked this wide trail down the ridge, past white and slightly pink granite points blasted out for the trail.
Holding the pages with a steady hand, I sense Phil reaching toward me from the other side. It’s a coincidence stranger than the man in blue. Stranger than the full blood moon lunar eclipse. For I know the trail from Hoodoo Lake at Elk Summit. A month earlier, when the forests were just catching fire, I walked south toward Cedar Ridge. The trail was uncommonly wide for a wilderness path. Wide enough for the sun to filter in through the pines and firs onto the pink granite shoulders. Wide enough for me to walk alongside my husband, a friend of ours, and my parents. Wide enough for history, for life and after life.
By the time I finish the manuscript, the sky’s dark. I’m on my porch and the moon is in full shadow. Without the moon, astronomers say, the Earth would tilt wildly and could cause climate changes so extreme that life would not survive. Though the Earth and moon will, billions of years from now, be consumed by the sun, the moon’s stability in the night sky seems an antidote to death, a hope, a promise. The thing about an eclipse is that it changes what we know because it changes the way things are supposed to appear. The full moon, the new moon, the gibbous, and the crescent measure our days, create our months. They are not supposed to happen in one evening. Those who spend time looking at the sky don’t often think about Earth’s shadow. But the eclipse reminds us that our planet casts something extraordinary into the depths of space caught briefly by whatever cosmic body passes by. The man in blue, Phil’s plaque, and Nellie Kelly, all near-deaths are like this.
Like my walk home from the park. Forest fire smoke hung in the air and frogs croaked. My headlamp flashed on a paper cup, a milk carton, and a lone red mitten in the gully, but the garbage didn’t annoy me as it normally would have. The empty mitten pointed, it seemed to me, to a full world beyond.
DJ Lee’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Narrative, The Montreal Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Her most recent book, The Land Speaks, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. She lives in Chicago, Illinois and Moscow, Idaho, and she teaches literature and writing at Washington State University in Pullman. Learn more about her work at debbiejlee.com.
Header photo by DJ Lee. Photo of DJ Lee by Amy Lee.