An eclipse used to cause a shit show down on Earth. Vikings yelled to frighten away demon dogs that had been sent by Loki to feed upon the Sun and Moon. People bashed pots and pans together to scare Rahu, an Indian god. The Ojibwe shot flaming arrows at the Sun to reignite the pilot light. A sub-Saharan tribe believes the Sun and Moon will stop fighting if we reconcile our differences. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, an eclipse occurs during the death of Jesus.
Was it unreasonable then to expect a reaction of biblical proportion on the morning of the so-called All American total solar eclipse? A great gnashing of teeth? Maybe a voice would rise out of my throat in an Ozzy-esque pitch. Maybe I would fall prostrate on the ground, begging for mercy.
My reactions were anything but biblical. As the eerie grin of the sun grew wider on the sides of its mouth and then narrower again as the moon continued its downward slide, I was desperate for a sandwich.
Unaccountably, a few tears sprang to my eyes. I ignored these, and made no mention of them to my friend. We looked at each other in the mercury-tinted light. All was cast in a silver psychedelic luminosity, including our faces. But it was too strange to look at one another for long. I felt pulled into a flashback of past drug trips. The sandwich craving passed. The chill fingered my shoulders. Venus glinted in the west.
My rational mind slapped down the primitive self rising from its crouched position. I knew what was happening. As did the others who had also traveled for hours to hunker down at this spot and wait. No screams came. Instead, applause and fireworks. My companion shouted a single, loud expletive. Someone nearby, in a German accent, enunciated the word “coooooool.”
Still and all, I cultivate my private superstitions. I believe I can protect my children with worry, by thinking about them nonstop, especially when they are not with me. Incessant documentation has always helped with this. Photo albums are the parent’s talisman against darkness.
I had realized I would get no photos on this day because my battery was dead. Same for my companion’s device. No way to document this light. This field. These people. And I was enraged. My body was in a camping chair, my retina witnessing. But my mind was in the black lagoon of my childhood, a place where there are no records of what happened to my family, no water marks of childhood milestones.
Across the way, from a site where the campers set up a telescope in front of their van, we can hear faint strains of “Dark Side of the Moon.” “Black Hole Sun” would have been my choice if I had been searching for a theme song. An apt description. This inversion of a full moon did look like a black hole.
“It looks like a Cheshire smile,” I kept saying. I wondered how a fellow like Lewis Carroll could have come up with such an image without having seen this illusion with his own eyes.
To keep saying this planetary slide across the sky looked like anything else was foolish. I looked away from the spectacle and toward the light in the field. This is what I would have taken a video of. This is what I would have shown to my children. It was critically important that I record the transit’s effect on land. I needed this footage to strengthen the anti-darkness spells.
“I can live with anything for three days,” I overheard one of our camping neighbors say. I overheard too much from this group. I watched them pose for group pictures, veterans after years of sorority parties. They made the interesting choice to play “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the chorus of which the young women warbled, while lying on their backs in eclipse glasses.
To feel safe in this was more foolishness. There are many things one can live with for three days. Mosquitos, an outdoor toilet, crusts of bread. But what of the things you cannot live without? Three days without sun would surely bring us near freezing to death. The world would be a hundred or so degrees below freezing within days; within weeks, the planet would drop to -50 degrees, an Antarctic climate. The atmosphere itself would also freeze and fall to Earth, leaving us exposed to harsh radiation. If the sun should doubt, we would all go out.
Once the diamond ring flash was over, the sun’s corona went back to stealth mode, the whole encampment seemed to beat a hasty retreat. We hit the road without looking back. I forced myself to resurface after this quick dip into the abyss. “I saw a total eclipse and it enraged me,” I said, testing out whether I would find any humor in my erratic emotional response.
It was hardly erratic, though. Vast eclipses in my memory have left deep troughs I still fall into where who I am and why I matter is mere guesswork. And the rage is what became of my grief when I pulled the scrim of adulthood over it. Rage is what puts the beast of fear back in its cage.
The beast lunges at me two nights later in a dream. I am shaken awake by my companion. Salty tears from the ocean of my dreams stream out of both sides of my eyes. I had dreamt of swimming in a grey sea of swelling white caps to save my drowning daughter. Just as I reach her, a faceless alien of the deep with 12-inch needles for tentacles grabs her from me and punctures her abdomen with them. I have saved her from a peril I recognized only to have her snatched by one I didn’t even know was there. The devil we know beats the devil we don’t, am I right?
I know to beware of darkness. And if I thought I could ward it off by banging on pots and pans, I absolutely would. Meanwhile, I will keep taking hundreds of videos and photos of my kids in doing everyday things, during unreal events, having a glorious time.
There is a large tan envelope on the kitchen table that came while we were away. I wait three days before I open it. Inside a note from my cousin: “Sorry not to send more cheerful stuff along with this. I wanted to get it out to you before I lost it again.” With this a copy of the coroner’s report from 1982, a completion of the investigation into the death of Doug Ruggles, my 36-year-old father. I read the report for the first time, then slide it into the middle of a sheaf of papers in a manila folder under a heavy stack of books. Now doubling down on the counter-darkness spells.