For days after my body felt heavy. My flesh seemed to hang from my bones, seemed to drag along as I walked. It might’ve been the nine-hour drive back Monday night, detouring to graveled country roads to avoid the congested freeways out of Southern Illinois. It might’ve been wasp poison, from my first sting (followed immediately by my second and third), while we were hiking the day before. It might’ve been the pent up anticipation, the days and weeks and, for M who organized the trip, years, that was finally released when we saw the breathing hole in the sky.
It was over too fast. It wasn’t as dark as I’d imagined. “A 360-degree sunset!” Someone yelled. “It’s a portal!” Another person. Did I say those things? Voices, bodies, blended together. We were already in a portal. You don’t drive nine hours to come here without passing through a portal.
We were in the water when it happened. We sat and laid on inflatable camp mattresses, on paddle boards, or in thick clay, cold and slimy, at the edge of the Ohio River. We checked every few minutes with our glasses, the cardboard already so soaked that they stuck to our faces. People talk about the halo, the glowing crescent, the diamond ring, but they don’t talk much about the moments right before totality when the sun is just a thin gold line in the sky, a perfect arc, visibly shortening.
When you can’t comprehend what you’re seeing with your eyes you fall back to your other senses. The eclipse was a sonic experience. First we heard the insects. In the distance, to our right, the sound of shaking bells sweeping eastward with the darkness toward us, until it enveloped us. There was shouting. A person stood up and splashed out deeper into the river. It might’ve been me. We started howling like wolves. My ears were in the water. My whole body was in the water. But when I looked at that breathing skyhole, that portal within a portal, I could hear it. I could hear its drone, hear the sound of monks chanting in a faraway temple.
The night before, by the campfire, we talked about why we each were here. Why the dozen or so of us drove down, some in groups and some alone, for this event. When it was my turn I said something along the lines of I was looking for a marker of time, for something I could point to and say, Here was a before and after.
But now, a week later, I realize that I was looking so hard, too hard, for an answer. I saw it, but I missed it. I had asked a question, and the response I got was the punchline to some cosmic joke. I blinked, and the sun laughed.