last light

How the fall brings a familiar melancholy; not unpleasant. Not unwelcome.

The dwindling hours of summer – the last gathering in the backyard of friends around a canopied table. Last smoke rising from grill fire. Last barefoot run through damp grass. The children upend plastic cups full of water over their heads and shriek with delight.

Last delights of shapeless days.

How strange the summer was. How we stumbled through it. How I have been craving a return to the kind of order that fall brings, cocooned as we become. There are expectations, after all, that the summer be careless, carefree, and laughing – long afternoons bathed in salt water and golden light. What relief as fall rolls in. We anticipate fewer joys.

We spend the weekend nesting. I tend to the houseplants, fold the laundry. There is dusting, washing, scrubbing. All the windows are thrown open wide, but the air is still and heavy with threat of rain.

I sit with Rings of Saturn for the second time this year, wanting its particular brand of sadness. What peculiar pleasure it is to spend long hours immersed in such decline; in bearing witness to the ends of things.

In the evening, we drive down to an engagement party. The house of the betrothed sits at the edge of the Narragansett Bay and for the evening, the yard is tented and there is music. White mist hovers over the Bay. A few drops fall as the evening’s toasts are made, but no real rain. We spend some time chatting with a few people we have not seen in some time. We don’t stay late.

When we drive back, there is still some evening left so we stop. Over cheeses and sweets, we take stock of the summer, plan for the weeks and months ahead. When we return home, the house is quiet, as if a blanket has been draped over the whole of it. Dimly-lit and warm.

On his travels, Sebald’s narrator comes upon a bit of beach along the North Sea coast that is dotted with the makeshift tents of fishermen. The fishing to be had there is limited and our narrator opines that these men do not pitch their tents expecting any real catch; rather he says, “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”

I am reminded that I have walked such beaches before – in early morning mist, in the thinning light of late afternoon. How the cold spray of the sea invites contemplation. Melancholy, too.

I dream of water. Of the lake we visited this summer. The stillness of it, save for the undulating grasses that rose from its floor of silt and sand. One morning, early, we rowed out to a narrow winding inlet flanked by grasses and reeds and squat flowering shrubs. Baby turtles sunned themselves on lily pads and fallen branches. Some dove back to the dark water as we approached.

Sebald, along the shore, speaks of herrings. From his reading of a natural history of the North Sea, published in 1857, he recalls:

It is even said that vast shoals of herring were brought in towards the beaches by the wind and the tides and cast ashore, covering miles of the coast to a depth of two feet and more. The local people were able to salvage only a small portion of these herring harvests in baskets and crates; the remainder rotted within days, affording the terrible sight of Nature suffocating on its own surfeit.  

 He tells also of a peculiarity of the herring:

Once the life has fled the herring, its colors change. Its back turns blue, the cheeks and gills red, suffused with blood. An idiosyncrasy peculiar to the herring is that, when dead, it begins to glow: this property, which resembles phosphorescence and is yet altogether different, peaks a few days after death and then ebbs away as the fish decays.

How strange to think that it is in death that these creatures glow. He continues:

For a long time no one could account for this glowing of the lifeless herring, and indeed I believe that it still remains unexplained. Around 1870, when projects for the total illumination of our cities were everywhere afoot, two English scientists with the apt names of Herrington and Lightbown investigated the unusual phenomenon in the hope that the luminous substance exuded by dead herrings would lead to a formula for an organic source of light that had the capacity to regenerate itself.

They were unsuccessful.

But imagine the sight on the shore: These fish, unfathomable in number. First thrashing in the throes of death, then still.

Then days later, glowing.

These multitudes emitting this last and terrible light.