Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer which for many people means long warm days and outdoor gatherings and activities.
It also means added risks that come with summer weather especially amplified by the vagaries of climate change. Katrin Arefy’s essay from NDQ 88.1/2, “The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise,” makes painfully vivid the impact of our changing climate on our lives. It is my pleasure to share it here. For more from this issue, go here.
As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small press, subscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.
The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise
It had been like looking at God, that watching the sky in awe and fear, with hope and a sense of loss. The astonishment, the wonder, the entering into another realm of unknown and, at the same time, the picturesque dark, dirty orange of the sky, and finally, the balmy air kissing the skin on my arms. It had been like a painful punishment that you know you are receiving because someone cares about you. Like a wakeup call. Like God telling you that was the last straw. And like anything about God, it was magnificent; it was grandeur.
I watched the fiery sky as though watching a strange indication of hope that said the sun was somewhere above the smoke and the clouds. The sky looked as if it were five in the morning, but the clock showed half past eight. The redwood trees outside my windows looked like big black shadows. Through their leaves and branches, I could see the hot orange sky. I opened the door to the balcony; the air was delicious, a little humid with no trace of smoke. “The wildfire is not near me,” I thought. “So I am safe, no need to run.”
I could feel the blanket of smoke up higher in the sky that made the weather feel a little more damp, a little more quiet. And I began to ease into the feeling that I was safe. It had been that kind of life recently, one life-threatening event after another. We had been sheltering at home for months to stay away from the deadly virus. We had been watching the death toll rise. We had been in a state of numbness and horror. We had been praying for our elderly to survive the pandemic, warily, as our prayers didn’t always come true. We had been wondering, fuming, hoping, waiting for better days, screaming our pains silently in our throats. Trying to learn something from the pain. Learning to find happiness in what was left, in sunbathing your toes by the window and appreciating that you still have your toes and that you still have the sun out your window. Learning to be happy survivors because life is precious. Learning to bow down, bend, surrender. Learning to let go of familiar life and embrace the unknown. Learning to hold one another without touching each other. Holding from afar, virtually. Virtual is something that is so nearly true it is almost true. Learning to live in the space of almost true with a truth that keeps changing. It is one thing to know that you don’t know the future, and it is another thing to experience that not knowing, day in, day out.
When the wildfires began, it was as if God was looking to see what else you had, what else could God take away from you, and you watched that punishment in awe. Feeling guilty, feeling like a victim, feeling confused. Holding on to the confusion as you hold the prayer book in your hands, every morning, every night, eager to understand, to read God’s mind. There is so much love in that anger, in that confusion, in that moment of speaking to Someone every day, even when that Someone seems to be punishing you and never returning your calls.
And then watching as our shelters were being shattered one after another by the wildfire. Living in an alert state of mind, holding on to every moment for dear life.
It began with dry lightning one night, about two weeks before the sun left us. The lightning sounded as if God were angry. It sounded as if either we had done something terribly wrong, or God was about to do something terribly wrong. The lightning was like an enlightening. It was out of place, happened in the wrong time, like a dragon or the devil himself feeding the dry land. The lightning came as if a demon were throwing seeds of fire to the open mouths of baby demons on earth. It was like a sacrifice ceremony, the trees were the offering, along with the people, and their homes. It was the earth’s offering to the sky and the heavens.
I stared at the dark orange sky and inhaled the clement air that had an unfamiliar smell, similar to the smell of redwood trees. Was it the reminiscence of the smoke mixed with the moisture in the air? I don’t know, but the smell was soothing, like death after a long, agonizing battle for life.
I let my skin breathe in the peculiar air. I inhaled the air into my lungs, noting, once again, that I was alive. The chill reminded me of when the total eclipse happened a few years ago. But the eclipse was anticipated. I drove eight hours to see the phenomenon. All hotel rooms and campgrounds were booked. Many people were coming to see the show. We camped in the middle of a farm the night before the eclipse. In the morning I situated myself on wet grass farther away from the crowd. I gazed at the cows, rolling hills, and the blue sky. I stared at the sky as the sun shrank, changed shape, as its warmth was gradually taken away from the earth, and as the sun turned into a ring of fire. The magical moment lasted about three seconds, or that is how short it seemed to me. Then the sun started to change shape again, and soon the magic was gone. It was like waking up from a strange dream that you didn’t want to wake up from. It was like touching an unreal world for only three seconds and longing for it all day long.
After the eclipse, everywhere in town was crowded. Strangers would talk fervently to each other about that ring of fire they saw in the middle of a dark sky. That was their attempt to keep the taste of it under their tongues after the marvel was gone.
I think I was screaming when it happened, when the sky turned dark, the stars appeared, and the sun became hollow. I can’t remember, but that would have been the right thing to do, to scream.
Waking up to a dark orange sky, I could feel a silent screaming happening inside and outside my body. I could only listen. I saw a car driving under my window with its lights on, as if on a foggy day. It was eleven in the morning by then. I watched the car as if watching a movie. I knew I would never forget that scene. It could have been a scene in an Eastern European movie—the boy drives home to find the dirty dishes from last week’s lunch still on the kitchen table, and the mother not there.
That scene, the car driving up the hill with its lights on, also lasted about three seconds, and it was no less memorable than the total eclipse.
I have heard people say they were grateful for the sun in the sky, but that is more like saying, “Imagine if the sun would disappear one day.” Imagining is not believing.
The day the sun didn’t rise, I watched the bodies of the redwood trees through my windows all day as they gradually turned from pitch black to dark orange to dirty peach to warm gray and then slipped back into the blackness of night. And the sun never showed up. Like a lover that suddenly abandoned you, leaving you in disbelief, a lover who you would only appreciate after he was gone, and you would feel his presence even after he was gone.
I needed some kind of ceremony. A funeral of some sort. I needed to stand outside and soak in that magical day. Death of the sun was like a reminder of my own mortality. It made me want life, want more life. I stood under the absence of the sun, taking in what was not there and letting that void fill me up.
September 10, 2020
Katrin Arefy is an essayist and playwright whose essays appeared in numerous literary magazines. Her plays were premiered in New York City, and performed in California. Her play The Elbisnopsers reached the semifinalist round at Ivoryton Playhouse’s inaugural Women Playwright’s Initiative, and was selected at Iranian Drama Festival in Heidelberg.