After four years, Michelangelo has reached the end, and now Jonah, whom he has reserved for last, dangles his bare feet over the Sistine’s void, sharing his precarious aerie with a dead fish, two cherubs and a vine. A marvel of foreshortening, he reclines on his arm and eyes God, still arguing petulantly that he is not the man to undertake such a harebrained job, lacking both talent and inclination. His fingers point in opposite directions, one to the threat of Nineveh and Rome, the other to the safety of Tarshish and Florence, regarding his own death as a small price to pay to make a point. Yet as the fresco dries to stone, he gazes beyond the gap between his intractable pique and God’s intractable grace, dumbfounded at the resplendent vault arching above a city at peace.
These Yorkshire fells and dales appear ever to be falling away, toppling from Emily’s wuthering heights into wide accommodating valleys carved by Derwent, Calder, Ribble and the rest then trimmed by flocks of patient sheep that crop the slopes and shoulders round toward that verdant jeweled Jerusalem folk hereby love to sing about.
Up here, along the tops, however, driving tight along the teetering edge, mad vertigo hangs you out there in the balances, suspended in that stomach-clutching space between this summit and the next, flung far into the spinning turn, the terrible excellence of things.
Might it be that way also at the end, nothing all that dark and dreadful, but a life-demanding climb, agonizing to be sure, all the gasping way along and up some looming harsh escarpment grasping toward the final summit where, at last, you stumble forward into emptiness to find everything . . . all at once?
Last Sunday my grandma laughed at the memory of a clumsy silverware thief: one day she came home to a slamming screen door and a trail of knives that began in the living room and petered out in the yard. She said they were not precious. But my dad whispered. He remembered how she came in with them, all in one hand. In a delicate furious bouquet.
“The Department of Defense announced Friday that the battery operated ‘digital’ bugle has come of age and is a necessity with only about 500 U.S. military buglers to perform at the 1,800 daily funerals for veterans.” –Washington Times, 10/09/02
And now even this is pantomime— or worse—a kind of full-bodied lip sync at the gravest occasion. Someone in uniform lifts horn to lips to blow (one thinks), simulates the deep draw that hallows breath into note and moves us to that spacious human room where mourning sounds. And now even this is just charade, a button pushed (at least the fingers move), and though the tones are clear as night and sure as sleep, one wonders whether God is really nigh and what besides the soldier-child might die.
The walk back, more loss. When I open the door it’s over, so I set to piddling: tidy end tables, check the mail, draw a bath. The restless energy finally settles as I pass the mirror. I peer into it. My nose touches glass. Not much left, already effaced, not even a cross to speak of. A smudge. A few black soot stains like pinpoints on the forehead. The rest of the blessed ash has vanished to a grey amorphousness, to symbolize . . . not much. Except a wish for those hallowed moments to be followed by sustaining confidence. Except spirit, which means to shun its listless weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.