Two weeks ago I flew from Sydney to Madrid and spent a total of 32 hours in transit. It was sticky and sluggish; time didn’t play by the rules. It warped. It got sucked into the propellers and caught in the wings of the Airbus 8380 as it cut through the skies at nine hundred kilometres an hour. Spat out in a million pieces and rearranged in my woozy body.
The day before my flight, I found myself in a bookstore, my eyes grazing over all the colourful covers and bold titles, looking for something special to take with me. I knew I would need company. I saw the cover of Anthony Doerr’s novel ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, read an extract from the middle, and didn’t hesitate to run to the check-out counter. I’m so glad I decided to treat myself that day. What if I had never found this book?
The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with colour and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
24 February 1821. This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a young English poet who on his Death bed, in the bitterness of his Heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb Stone:
Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water.
In September 2016 I was fortunate to spend a few days in The Eternal City. I was staying in a hotel built over the Capuchin Crypt, next to the church of Santa Maria. The crypt is a brutal, creepy reminder of the brevity of our lives; I felt as if the vacant eye sockets of the skulls were watching me. What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be. Sometimes words aren’t enough – Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre seems like an appropriate way to describe the experience.
22.04.2015 Junin de Los Andes, Argentina
The icy breath of the mountain bit my fingers and my nose as the dark clouds gathered around the peak. My trusty hiking boots – they had been my mother’s before me – were as old as I was and they treaded over the black volcanic grit with ease. I walked through a tunnel of wispy trees that had moss hanging off the branches like the beard of a weathered man. Through the arc of foliage I could make out the expanses of black rock bared by the wind nearer the summit, until they were covered by the clouds. It had been ten years since I had been there, and it would be a long time before I would be able to return; I implored to the Pillan, under my breath, for the wind to change and uncover the mountain.
As I walked, I remembered when one of the park rangers had told me about the sacrifice that had put the volcano Lanín to sleep. Every mountain has a Pillan, a guardian spirit, who lives at the summit. One day, the youths of the cacique tribe of Huanquimil were hunting near the northern part of the volcano. They caught a deer drinking from a stream and slit its throat, his warm blood flowing over the rocks. In the instant that blade had touched the creature, the ground shook violently and the sound of drums came from beneath their feet. A pillar of smoke, like a black fungus, grew from the top of the volcano until the sun was covered by ashes. The youths ran to the moss-bearded shaman, who scolded them for their foolishness and said the only way to calm the wrath of the Pillan was to sacrifice the youngest daughter of the cacique, beautiful Huifún, in the crater. Qechuan, the youth who loved Huifún, promised to stay by her side and travelled with her to the crater, where he pressed his lips to hers in a final act of love. A thunderous shadow, blacker than the ashes and with eyes of fire, rose from the crater and released a deathly call; the giant condor tore Huifún from Qechuan with his mighty talons. He flew to the centre of the fuming crater and released the girl into the fire. Qechuan kneeled, distraught, at the edge of the crater, and snow began to fall lightly upon his trembling shoulders. From that day, every hundred years, the Pillan of Volcan Lanín sent his Condor to make a sacrifice, tearing someone who was loved away from the Earth.