A single engine plane lifts up from San Luis above the sun-blocked windsock and circles out to Es Castell. It laps the local air—a dozen or so wide slow loops, hanging on the undercarriage of cloud as we look up after its trailing contralto threading the evening air. Higher, a commercial jet’s red contrails scar the irradiant blue which brings to mind the skies of Esteban Murillo—the mystical glow around St. Francis floating in the kitchen of the angels—his unworldly subject which lifted him a level higher in the world to the lives of saints. Higher still, the invisible galaxies blaze blindly away, redshifted toward the empty space of space. . . . I’d come looking for a bit of all of the above.
Just off a 20-year shift, 6 institutions and more administrators than anyone should have to count, I finally had a sabbatical—some time to let the bureaucratic yammering, the have-tos and the hammering load dissolve into the sea as I sat on an anonymous shore and tried to recall what it was that used to compel and motivate me? A British friend of my wife’s offered her unused flat in Menorca for $300 a month over the winter, exactly what, on a bit less than half pay, we could afford.
When I first encountered the older group of men sitting on rows of benches in the middle of the village square, when they turned to look at me, I felt I was going to say, “Hi, I’m Chris, and I’m an academic.” I expected them to wave and chorus in unison, “Hi Chris,” used to foreigners like myself coming to relax and recover there on some version of a 12-step sand and sea program a good distance from most of the world. The island was surrounded by quiet blue space and there was nothing theoretical about all the light simmering among the roof tops and salt air.
A few cloud remnants scatter clock-wise above and the plane, like a rusty second hand, passes over the far humming line of buildings, the fused dark branches of the palms. I was happy to forget the names and addresses left on the dresser among wadded bills and change, even the scribbled directions to the old capital, Ciutadella, on the other side of the island. I was happy to forget a city so far back I could barely see the brown exhausted afternoon drift over the wide sidewalks and civic trees, someone in shirt sleeves and tie leaning from a window above the Rexall Drug, reading want ads for a city to the west. Yellow stoplight sagging on a wire at the corner of a five-floor walk up—there’s a full tank of gas in the Oldsmobile, and he goes. . . .
I walk out to the point, pockets empty except for a lucky piece from Canada saved at the cold end of my 45th year—a Loon, a half bright hard metal dollar intended to approximate gold left over from the job conference in Toronto. It’s as close to gold as it is to luck. All the same I walk along whistling tunes the air waves would have carried to an old radio on the dresser—“My Blue Heaven” or “I’ve Got the World On a String.” Late 40s blithe romance, 50s upbeat impossibility, a mix so I keep the ironies in play, so I recall my father in his brown slacks and tasseled suede shoes, in his Pontiac convertibles, so I remember not to expect anything, any rewards like a kid in Woolworth’s dime store, 1953.
All of this reminding me I’m nowhere close to young anymore and am wearing some other man’s coat, a once snazzy houndstooth tweed I picked up in the local charity shop in Mahon. It goes with jeans, and was only $4.00, which saves those wadded bills on the dresser for a menu del dia, one of the amazing three-course lunches—often paella or fresh merluza— which, for six bucks, keep body and soul together all day—so I’m lucky after all.
It can’t just be the sun I’ve come for, not like the Germans and Brits on holiday, not in winter, not all this way. Rather, the long-term effect is what I’m wondering about each time I lean out on my rusted balcony and pronounce the precepts of hope in two languages into the Tramontana wind blowing down from the north, wondering where it will ever get me? Not one inch closer to the clouds than rent money already has—not next to grace or insight nor reprieve from the self-important past.
Only the faint indication of a feeling sustains me despite the fierce wind railing against everything. And I can take that, the scouring of the backdrop here in the middle of the sea. Anywhere else, we’re ruining the sky like there’s no tomorrow—Los Angeles, the Amazon, the faces of men and beasts eaten away by the sour air in Athens, the arms of caryatids so frail they can’t hold their own hands up let along the porticos of cataleptic gods.
We’re at the mercy of the plants breathing out our air—stop that and no one questions the first invisible thing. The evidence all around us is that we’re not going into the sky, not going anywhere but back to the enduring dull compounds of dust. This pearl-rich winter sky might be something though, some sample of what fixes one life firmly within another? This sky over the Mediterranean blown clear, beeswax bright—coating my palms as I hold them up for the final gloss skimming the blue edge of the pines.
The famous wind prevails, laundry flails across the rooftops, arms and legs rippling on the air as waves whip up and overrun a white fishing skiff until it glimmers back its opaque shape from the glass-blue bottom of the cove. I wonder what has taken the past and added it to the dark without looking back to see if someone might be standing on a cliff or his balcony trying to strike a match, or turning on his lamp by the chair to read Lao-tzu or Charles Péguy’s riddles in support of God, or even pouring out a small glass of fino to measure out the bronze horizon line?
In the esplanada, in the streets, forty kids wait for sundown—two to a motorbike, smoking in groups on the street corners like a scene from the 50s. Like them, why should I care if the plane circles the small sky of San Luis like a lost planet? Only this: that it comes down with grace and with the dark so that they may go about unknown into the unknown, as we all once did, with the one blessing of the night. I am consoled so long as I hear that high murmur plying the apparent nothing above us, burning in the cold climate there that it climbs continually to know, suggesting something beyond the rocks and sea.
Near the window I slice lemon into a glass with ice and cover the luminous rind with an ounce or two of Cynar, dark as tree bark, that dense liquor distilled from the artichoke, a drink that holds the same burnt color as that relic of the saint’s tongue on a spike in the church. I think too of the thistle and its black seeds, the half-bitter essence igniting in me like a slow fuse. I think of the small plane easing down to land, the old engine shaped like a thistle flower, a crown of grease and oil sparking, keeping it burning, bright enough to fly.
And so while life turns out glorious in bits, impossible in stages, imponderable finally at a level above sorrow which we all want to know, we breathe and hope we are not deceived by the music of the trees, the reeds strung with mist, the unscripted stars we cannot escape. For one thing, the pointed hats, the wings and silver replications of the moon are all taken in at the end at the end of the Semana Santa parade. For another, that road along the sea where the procession and makeshift band turned back is the same one you set out on, thinking of the ten thousand things you desire out there among the lights.
Now, a full orchestral arrangement of clouds comes in, indicating perhaps a city of white aspirations above all the visible poverty of the grass and unpaved lanes. And here, by the shore, the sea churns away and articulates a silence never found when gone into the wilderness or onto the high roofs at dawn. I look west into the white fire of the sky, and a small plane disappears, a pinpoint in the sun.
Christopher Buckley is the author of three books of nonfiction; recent essays in PLUME, Catamaran, I-70 Review, Ravens Perch, Talking River Review & Sangam Literary Magazine. He has recently edited: NAMING THE LOST: THE FRESNO POETS—Interviews & Essays, Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2021.