With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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But what if you find yourself walking north out of the city, right behind your friend, who started out just a heartbeat or two before you? You know some of the landmarks — the big, distant ones — but the shop fronts and houses are unfamiliar to you. You’re past the part of the city you know best. You’ve been walking for a while already. The sun is going down. Ordinarily, if you found yourself walking behind your friend like this, you’d have questions. You’d say, at least, Where are we going?
I’m not saying it happens like this, but what if you find yourself in the countryside north of the city, walking up a hill, walking straight up the steep slope without slowing? The sun has gone down, and the moon is a thin crescent, so you have only starlight. Starlight is enough. What if you crest the hill and come to a drop-off and keep walking? And what if, instead of falling, you find yourself simply continuing to walk at the bottom of the cliff? Or what if you come to a body of water, and your friend keeps walking, and you keep walking, expecting to wade, but instead you both walk on the surface? What if you come to trees and don’t bother to go around them but walk through them? What if you walk through moving cars as you cross the highway? You walk through houses. You pass through a living room where the television blares to an empty chair, then through a darkened hallway and a bathroom where a bald man is reading in the bath.
Then you would know, wouldn’t you? You might try to say to your friend, What’s the last thing you remember? You might find that you can’t speak. You might try to whistle and discover that you can’t do that either.
When the sun rises again, you see the familiar skyline of another northern city. You walk past a mother who is saying to her little boy, “The banana is the only fruit that does that,” and you want to ask, Does what? But there’s no slowing down for questions. She can’t see or hear you, anyway. You think about bananas, about how they are designed, about how the peel comes clean away from the flesh, about how the fruit breaks under the pressure of your teeth. Banana. The name makes you smile.
Everything makes you smile: the sunlight in the rubbishy alley you pass; strands of spider web on the breeze; the beautiful gravel in the gutter. You want to linger over each faintly colored stone, but you can’t stop.
What if the diesel exhaust strikes you as a sort of perfume? What if you love it as much as the smell of oranges and cloves in a kitchen where a woman is opening the oven as you and your friend pass through? The woman sings to herself in a language you don’t know.
When night falls, you don’t have to watch where you are going. You can throw your head back and marvel at the stars as you walk. You say to yourself, I should have done this more often.
You walk into a country where the light is slanted and soft. Brown leaves dance on the ground as raindrops fall on them. The northern lights blaze in the sky. You have come so far north that it is always night. You walk on water, feeling the pulse of waves beneath your feet. You walk on bare stones, on ice glowing blue in the starlight. There are others now ahead of you, around you, drawn from other longitudes.
You are one point of many in a converging circle.
At the pole your friend stops. You walk into your friend. You and your friend are one and know and remember together the small, vast things that were your lives. You and the stranger to your left and the stranger to your right are one, without the barrier of language between you. Like beads of rain on a windowpane, you merge. You have always been one, not just with each other, but with the stones and the breeze and the ice and the blazing stars. Whatever happens next, you think — you all think — is all right.
Bruce Holland Rogers