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Dusk brought a silvery gray to the tundra, giving it a gothic, photographic tension. Beads of snow whipped about like frustrated locusts in their cropless wasteland where miles of snow sloped up to a wide hill that stretched beyond the horizon. Somewhere between the swarming flakes and the stars above hung some faint white noise. Beneath the shrieking wind rang this unresolved note that pulled taut the boundaries of snowy land and starry sky. It was suspended on the massive hill and in the ears of the two travelers progressing up its slope. If Zach thought he heard it for the briefest second, it slipped back behind the gray wind. After an hour of hiking, he stopped listening for it. He looked down at the snow and thought of ash.
He’d been following Berkeley’s short figure for two and a half hours, trying the entire time to listen to him talk. He only caught a few phrases, though, carried back on the howling wind.
“Yessir, wouldn’t trade this job for any in the world…”
…got you pegged as the type who’ll really appreciate this, not one of them city types…
…really ain’t nothing like it in the world.”
Zach’s steps took on a liveliness at this latest phrase. This was what he was hoping for: the “ain’t nothing like it” factor of amazement. Thought he felt the locket tucked into the front of his coat, he also felt an optimism begin to flood his body. Walking through this field of snow – or was it ash? – Zach felt what he hadn’t felt for months: hope.
Now, though the icy winds seemed to chip away at the edges of his heart, Zach felt a warmth at his core that compounded with each step he took up the hill. As he and Berkeley, who was still chattering away, neared the top of the hill, his optimism was complemented by a physical light emanating from beyond the snowy crest, a light that washed the gray from the snow.
“This is it,” Berkeley’s voice broke through as bright light flushed him and Zach.
What Berkeley saw was a fluorescent rainbow painted across the sky. Vibrant reds, deep purples, mellow blues, and yellows as bright as dandelions clashed, blended, and bled across the dark sky of northern dusk. The waves of color undulated slowly like an artistic interpretation of a sine curve, effortlessly ebbing and flowing above the illuminated tundra. Though Berkeley must have seen this natural phenomenon, the aurora borealis, at least twenty times, it still took his breath away as he gaped from atop the hill.
Zach, however, saw none of this. He’d taken the locket out from the front of his coat and had looked first, briefly, at the aurora, then down at Helen’s picture in the open locket, then back at the aurora. Sighing, he knew that the sky and its brilliant lights held nothing for him. Feeling the glow on his face, he thought only of Helen’s divine radiance in her times of happiness, a radiance which had warmed his heart in his most grim hours. Gazing upon the changing, innumerable waves that the aurora made, Zach saw only the many beautiful curves of Helen’s dynamic body: that slight outward swell of her stomach, that gentle sway of her hips as she sauntered, that soft spot where her neck cupped beneath her ear. She filled corners of his mind that no light, regardless of how phenomenal, could reach.
“Let’s just go,” Zach sighed to a shocked Berkeley.
On the plane to Paris, wrapped entirely in his thoughts, Zach still held that his logic was sound and would save him. The aurora had been nothing to him, it was true: nothing next to Helen. But, clenching his fist, Zach resolved to find pure beauty to exceed even his wondrous Helen’s.
Did he truly acknowledge any of the woman, French women, the most characteristically sensual women in all of Europe, as they walked past? Did he ever once extend himself toward one of these; give them the slightest human reaction beyond an indifferent glance or nod; try in the least to build new bridges across the stale gap in his heart? Did he even glance at the high, detailed walls or any of the thousands of renowned paintings and sculptures that ornamented them? Alas, Zach walked those vast, intricate halls with unwavering, solitary purpose.
Zach knew exactly what he was looking for as he entered the most crowded, frenzied room of the grandiose building. His eyes trained immediately on the soft features of the woman in the painting at the dead center of the room. Though she was surrounded by frantic tourists waving arms and cameras, Mona Lisa’s face was distinct. Zach felt the hopes he had been building in his head dislodge, tumble through his heart and stomach, and crash violently to the ground. What was wrong with him? Of course he knew why he couldn’t see those delicately crafted, rolling hills behind Mona, those darkly beckoning locks on her perfect head, or that mysterious, famous, beautiful smile. Unconsciously, Zach reached into his shirt pocket. His hand held the locket up to his face and he gazed once again into Helen’s bright eyes. Those eyes, the hues of golden hazel clashing with the deep black of infinity, held more for him than any painted colors ever could. True, Mona’s smile was mysterious, almost furtive. But Helen’s smile filled him with such rich adoration, apprehension, glee, anguish, comfort, fear, and wonder, all weighing upon each other so heavily that he felt he would be crushed; for the first time since his quest’s start, Zach began to doubt whether anything on earth could ever, ever compare with the ineffable beauty of his Helen.
She had been his wife for but a week. On their wedding night they had lain together in their bed, exhausted from the day’s ceremonies. He had held her, feeling the rhythm of her heartbeat against his chest and breathing in her rich hair, her lovely aroma. In the pale blue moonlight that had draped over her, she had seemed like a sacred shrine, and he a priest. He had felt that he could but pray at her altar and dream of being worthy of her immaculate wonder, newly married though they were. Wasn’t she just a woman after all? A woman who had given herself, in body and devotion, solely to him? But though he had held her dearly, he had felt undeserving of such divinity. Then she had said it, in the hushed whisper reserved only for lovers:
“Zach… I need you.”
The funeral was held two weeks later. The drunk driver had lost ten years. Zach had lost a lifetime.
Now, staring at the earthy rift before him, he found it hard to rediscover hope. The Grand Canyon. But its crags were marshmallows compared to the jagged edges of his heart that Helen used to melt and soften. Its many layers of brown and red could hardly match the myriad layers of time, energy, and love he’d devoted to her. Its vast expanse was nothing next to the void in his life where Helen used to thrive, a chasm that had been dragged and deepened through the months of harsh loneliness. Mechanically, Zach brought the locket forth from his shirt pocket. Yes, death was grander than any canyon. Looking into his wife’s smile then back at the rocky canyon, shuddering, he felt nothing but despair.
Zach knew it: this was his last chance. The finality of it resonated in his bones and tugged at his eye sockets. He was wearing the same coat he’d worn at the aurora, keeping the same locket close to his mangled heart. He remembered the article: Climber to Take Expedition to Andes to View Eclipse. He remembered calling the man, asking if there was room for one more, pleading with him. The gruff voice had replied, “as long as you’re fit enough.” The training hike had been easy. Dominating the foreground of his mind and pushing all other thought to the side, though, were Helen and the weight in his stomach that told him his quest was near its end.
Zach climbed the butte heedlessly, easily keeping up with the rest of the expedition, trying to ignore the heavy, bitter feeling that embraced him. The snow here lay static on the rock, and for miles to Zach’s left and right the rugged Andes stretched. A great shadow was progressing slowly across the range, dousing some peaks in blackness while others remained snowy and bright. Climbing, Zach kept his focus on the edge of the butte’s flat top, the penultimate crest of the great wave up which he swam. Wrapped in sinking determination, he soon found himself hoisting his body up the edge of the butte with the rest of the expedition. The shadow stretched itself toward them threateningly. The eclipse was fast approaching.
“Now remember, do not look directly at the edge of the eclipse. It’s extremely dangerous for your eyesight, and permanent blindness is a very real possibility. Keep in mind that we still have to hike back down.” The expedition leader’s grave warning hardly reached Zach, though. He felt as though that part of him that reveled in bliss and happy thoughts had deserted him already to be with his beloved Helen. He felt incomplete.
The expedition was silent now. Zach’s face turned cold as the shadow engulfed him, the entire butte, and all he could see of the Andes. The moon now completely blocked the sun; the entire range plunged into darkness; the eclipse was in full swing. Zach’s hand went automatically to his chest, gripping the cold locket. He looked briefly at Helen’s picture, capturing her rapturous face as best as his desperate eyes could. He gazed now to the sky.
He didn’t know what he had expected, but this was not it. The eclipse struck him in a way that was almost physical. The pale ring around the utter black of the moon that he had never before seen. It seemed placid in its circular perfection that touched Zach in a way that he’d only ever experienced with Helen. What was it about the eclipse that seemed, though Zach did not understand why, relatable?
Then, the light. At first a shining glimmer at the very edge of the moon, then a brilliant, dazzling crescent. Zach was in awe. There was a part of this light that reminded him of Helen’s divine smile and another part that caused something altogether new and transcendent in Zach. Captured and enthralled by this phenomenon, he felt like a new man. No longer was he trapped in his depression; no longer was he the dark, mourning moon. He was the sun. All his feelings of loneliness and helplessness were banished by this sliver of light bursting from the eclipse. He felt washed, clean. For the first time since his beloved Helen’s death, he felt alive.
Helen. He had to look back at her picture one last time. He had to see anew that which he knew would no longer tear at his heart, that which he had overcome. But when he looked to her picture, alas, he didn’t see it. Looking frantically around for anything, he saw nothing. Staring again at the sky, he could not see the eclipse. At this, he wept, baptized in anguish, molten tears melting the snow at his feet. Where once there had been light, hope, now his world was entombed in darkness. Screaming to pierce the heavens, Zach fell onto his knees and into oblivion.