Losing, Lost, Finding, Found
Kerry Beth Neville
The compass originates in China during the Han Dynasty (2nd c BC-1st c AD), and was called a “south-governor,” used not for navigation but fortune telling. How have the stars aligned for me? In his 1088 AD “Dream Pool Essays,” Chinese polymath Shen Kuo is the first to describe a magnetic needle compass: the needle’s tip rubbed with lodestone and then suspended from a single strand of silk. How to find my true North? Houdini had his famous needle trick: with a sleight of tongue, he swallowed one hundred needles and twenty yards of thread. Many years ago, when I was deep in bipolar depression’s well and in the psych ward, I met a woman who swallowed needles for real, and batteries and razors, chewing herself up from the inside out.
The 8-wind rose compass, used by the ancient Greeks, is based on directional winds, a logical solution for sailors navigating the fickle Aegean. Odysseus recounts Aeolus’s blustery winds which blow them “weeping out to sea away from their native land,” and wonders if he should “fling [himself] from the ship and perish in the sea, or endure in silence and still remain among the living.” When my own sails frayed and mast split in two? I was set adrift, lost at sea, parched and famished but unable to drink saltwater and unwilling to suck hardtack. By the eighth century, Bedouins were using astrolabes, instruments that fixed the stars according to twenty-eight lunar mansions in the zodiac belt, a celestial grid: Ursa Major, the great bear, points to Polaris, the North Star which leads to Mecca. Bedouins still navigate by the stars, by Al-Asad, the Arabic Lion, which extends over one-quarter of the sky, and Cassiopeia who stands beside a camel, crisscrossing 84,000 square miles of desert within one degree of accuracy.
Migrating animals—salmon, leatherback turtles, Monarch butterflies–contain lodestone and magnetite particles, magnoreceptors, in their very cells. Fruit flies have cryptochromes, proteins exposed to blue light that metamorphosize into electrons and spin with magnetic fields. Birds navigate by magnet and constellation, relying on the stars and the tilt and rotation of the night sky. Feathered body as compass: heart’s needle and wings drawn inexorably and always in the right direction.
One evening last summer, I was standing in the middle of the sidewalk in lower Manhattan, staring at my phone while Siri plotted my route to The Bowery Hotel.
“Look up!” A man’s voice, NYC aggressive in my ear.
What I wanted to say was “Fuck off” but ignored him instead: Siri ordered me to turn left at Washington Square.
“Look up!” he said again, so I did. He was pointing to a fast-moving cloud, a white ribbon, threading between skyscrapers and stars, like a galaxy knitting itself together. Our shoulders almost touched, an odd intimacy with a sidewalk stranger, but I felt that this cloud’s coordinate was a temporary injunction: Here. Now. Stay.
“I know,” he said. “Talking to you out of the blue. You think I’m crazy. But everybody in this city looks down at their phones. Nobody looks out into the world anymore. Certainly not together.”
Hunger stopped us in our tracks. Hunger for connection, for simultaneous, on-time arrival, so that we were not just strangers passing each other in the night. Virginia Woolf writes, in The Waves, “There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, ‘Consume me’.”
I have wandered off my intended course: the linear route plotted on my yellow legal pad requires that I look down to follow the set coordinates.
“Siri,” I say. “I’m lost. How do I get home?”
“Head south onto SQ2 to latitudes +50° and -90°.”
On my phone screen, no direct highway only a celestial map, the constellation Pyxis Nautica (Latin: mariner’s compass), stars bound by imagination in the southern sky.
Present tense. This journey forward always happening and about to be. Possibility. Derivative: Power. Possibility is an exponential power: Is-and-Will-Be-Power-10. The past? Has happened. A cadaver on the metal table, and in writing of it, I perform an autopsy at clinical distance with scalpel, scissors, rib cutter, bone saw, and skull chisel at hand. See: Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). A dramatic mise-en-scène: the corpse of Aris Kindt, convicted of armed robbery and hung for his crimes, is under dissection; seven members of the Surgeon’s Guild gather around his pallid, purple gray cadaver; and Dr. Tulp has clamped back the flesh of the forearm, exposing muscles and tendons. Only one public autopsy each year, conducted in the winter because the body’s stench would have been unbearable at any other time. See: pork chops sealed in Tupperware for thirty-six hours (what forensic labs deem closest to the stink of human decomposition). See cardiac autopsy, procedure: Dr. Tulp transects the superior venacava with the scalpel, then inferior venacava, and voila! my heart is in his hand. Anorexia shrinks the heart muscle and consequently leads to bradycardia, arrhythmia, and death. Once upon a time, I kept fainting, my heart too weak from anorexia to pump blood around my body. Forty-eight hours on a monitor. The result? The cardiologist pointed to the wide, slow waves on the graph. “You need to eat,” he said. “Otherwise you die.”
In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje writes, “The heart is an organ of fire.” It’s true, isn’t it? The heart is not just there to help oxygenate and circulate the blood, but to quicken a thrilling rhythm, to throb in our ears, to push against our ribcages, burning us from inside with all that we feel and want. It reminds us that we are alive, yet, that we respire and are inspired, asking us to take necessary breath, to swallow language and love. See: Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome (primarily affecting women in mid-life who have suffered emotional trauma). The heart starved of nourishment and deprived of love will arrest.
Wanderlust: giving the soul wild range. In German, fernweh, or farsickness: feeling unsettled at home but grounded on the move as my edges expand. Permeable to the world in its strangeness and incompleteness. The compass needle spins as if I am on Mars: no true North, but dozens of magnetized fields that flummox orientation. For years, I followed my husband’s needle, one that pointed to his desires. He was my personal guide, translator, and raconteur. We traveled to Greece almost every summer, his ersatz true North (his origins were Wisconsin split-level suburbia); Romania on his Fulbright, living in Communist block housing; Italy without any itinerary except one dedicated to Tuscan wineries; and Jamaica, again and again, my husband nostalgic for his dissolute college years, cheap weed, and Rastafarian buddies who called him “Chris-Mon!.”
But then my compass became a whirly gig, its needle spinning between manic-depression’s poles. On our last trip to Greece? Every sheer cliff whispered jump, and after our meals at the taverna, I threw up, deliberately, behind the tamarisk tree like a sick dog. One night, after an argument, I ran to the beach and swam into the bay, into deep, deeper water, hoping exhaustion would drag me down. No reason to look at the stars. We retreated from our itinerary that coupled us, foundered, and then wrecked. Divorce freed me from my pinched, angry marriage, and not surprisingly, my compass needle stabilized.
One Sunday, I decided to go to church, my first service in years and an impulsive decision: provisional salvation from the annihilating dark. When the priest placed the host on my tongue, I promised a God I no longer believed in that I would not vomit His body, and which, in its dissolution, tasted, yes, of flour paste but also of improbable hope. Do this in memory of me. Do this in memory of the world, which by resurrection and transubstantiation, might once again taste salty and sweet, bitter and sour.
Now? As Mae West once said, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”
My first everywhere? Morocco. My booking agent tried to dissuade me. “It’s Ramadan. Moroccans fast from sunrise to sunset. It will be quiet, not so exciting. Maybe another, better time?”
Fasting from food but also drink, cigarettes, sex, fighting (unless self-defense), insults, curses, lies, and sin. Ramadan, from ramida, or ar-ramaḍ, meaning “scorching heat and dryness.” The body as desert and the heart fixed on the true oasis: Allah. I had fasted (v. tense, past perfect) for years, had perfected in the past the fast, though mine was spiritual bowdlerization, a self-consuming abnegation of hunger, desire, want and need not for Allah but for Azrael.
“Now is the only better time,” I said.
Do this in memory of me and of blackberries and saffron and lamb and apricots and joy and risk. My ex-husband was an accomplished home cook–our refrigerator filled with various yeast starters for his bread, our yard centered around a piecemeal, wood-burning pizza oven, our table, every night, full of both elaborate dishes (fresh tagliatelle with Roquefort and walnuts, arugula, egg, and bacon pizza, Masaman curry with shrimp) and our sink and counters of pots and pans, so many, every night, left to me to clean. Our trade: he cooked and I cleaned, though not a fair trade since he loved cooking and I hated cleaning. Our marriage was in arrest, our hearts no longer beating in syncopation, but our children were young and I still held fast to ever after, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. The memory of how we once loved each other kept overriding how we no longer loved each other at all. How to solve this impossible equation when 1 + 1 no longer = 1. He solved for x by an affair. I solved for x by anorexia, passive suicide. ,
Do this in memory of risk, of the sharp metallic taste of adrenaline that floods the mouth, like iron, like blood. Not solving for x and its final summation after all, but for F. Newton’s Second Law of Motion: force equals mass times acceleration. I was a body with necessary weight accelerating back into the world. Morocco.
I share my first meal in Marrakech with Vaughan, a tall, elegant, white-haired Australian also lodging at my riad, Dar (house) Basyma (big smile), and also solo. We’d arrived at the airport at the same time, similarly rumpled and bleary, though from different points of origin: Pittsburgh and Sydney, divorce (mine) and death (his wife). And, similarly: grief’s metamorphosis via passport and backpack.
He tells me this on the drive from the airport into the Marrakech’s medina, capital of the Almohads (1147-1269), and called “the red city,” with ramparts built of beaten clay. Robert Cunninghame-Graham, a Scottish adventurer, chronicles his 1897 Moroccan journey in Mogreb-el-Acksa, and says of Marrakech, “Nothing enters into your soul as does this heap of ruins, this sand heap desert town metropolis of the fantastic world which stretches from its walls across the mountains through the oases of the Sahara.” Fantastic, yes. Sand heap, no. Moktar, our driver and host, points to camels lazing on the median and the eleventh century Koutoubia Mosque with its limestone minaret, but also to the Four Seasons Resort, the air-conditioned mall, and Starbucks. Traffic inches forward–battered cars, horse carriages, produce carts, and hijab-clad women on mopeds. Vaughan and I fade in and out of conversation. Jetlag delirium: he is already in tomorrow, while I am stuck in yesterday.
Vaughan, suddenly awake to an idea, twists around in his seat, his smile loose and easy. “Shall we be company for dinner?” he asks.
Neither of us is here for the Grande Tour checklist, the cheap geegaws, or soulless Marrakech Marriott buffet, and we are keen to leave our sadness on the tarmac. Not just a trip nor travel, not just plotted distance, scope, and time, but internal transformation by external wandering. Fernweh. The poet Cesare Pavese writes, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers…You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” Also, my blustering-rising-from-the-ashes-like-the-Phoenix shtick that I’d been lobbing back at family and friends who questioned travelling to gasp! Muslim Morocco gasp! alone!? More like Icarus with his waxy wings. Solitude, without the comforts of my dog, HoneyBea, my true familiar who shadows me from table to toilet to bed, is intimidating, as is wandering the medina’s maze in the dark—I am, after all, a woman alone.
That evening, Moktar drops us at the entrance to the medina’s plaza, Jemaa El Fna, “assembly of the dead,” aptly named: public executions in the eleventh century and a terrorist bombing in the twenty-first. Horses, hitched to green caliches, wait in a long, sleepy row; tassels dangle over their foreheads and eyes, perhaps practical trimmings meant to discourage flies. The carriage drivers smoke in clusters under palm trees. The plaza is jammed: tourists and locals, snake charmers and henna artists, tooth pullers and medicine men.
First: fresh squeezed orange juice, four dirhams a glass, or one dollar. I drain its beneficent sunshine in one greedy swallow.
Next, a spice stall. Spices arranged in cones, like a teepee village— cayenne, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin, paprika, saffron—and in baskets–black peppercorn, star anise, sesame seeds, cardamom, and nutmeg. The proprietor scoops rosebuds in his hands and holds them out to us; Vaughan and I inhale: deep, slow, dreamy, and soft. Tea Rose, that dime store perfume of adolescence—crush, kiss, heartbreak.
I point to a basket of amber blocks. “Soap?”
“Perfume,” the man says. “Chanel. Alyasamin. Jasmine. Gift from Allah.” He rubs it against the back of my hand. One hundred dirhams. Ten dollars.
“Yes,” I say. While Vaughan ambles over to the fruit and nut stall, I lick the back of my hand—jasmine blooms in my mouth.
Apricots, figs, raisins, cashews, almonds, and dates. The proprietor hands each of us a large wrinkled Medjool date more giant cockroach than succulent fruit, but I eat it anyway. Squishy velvet. Medjools were once reserved for kings and sultans, not freebies for hoi polloi divorceés. Happy insurrection.
Finally, the barbecue stalls, ad hoc dining in a haze of smoke. Waiters wearing white pharmacist coats yell to us in French, then German, and finally English: “Too skinny! We make you fat! You must eat here at #43 otherwise I die of loneliness! #67 will take you to heaven!”
Vaughan and I sit on a rickety bench at # 31. Bare bulbs hang from electric cords that snake across the tarpaulin roof. On the menu: tagines, kebabs, snail soup, camel spleen, offal, and sheep’s head with teeth and eyes. The forks and knives are grimy and we agree to use the pita, batbout, instead.
After a few minutes of conversational niceties, Vaughan says, “Why are you here? Why now?”
The complete account would take hours, so I take the shortcut: “I’m bipolar. My marriage didn’t survive that or his affair. Instead of saving my tax refund for a rainy day emergency? I’m here with you.”
“Perhaps,” he says, “this is a lifesaving emergency. It’s terrible,” he says, and sips his mint tea before beginning again. “It’s terrible to watch someone you love suffer like you must have suffered. Of course, in sickness and health. Isn’t that what we promise? And such a promise doesn’t tolerate bloody cowards and wankers.”
Our tagines appear: carrots, potatoes, zucchini, lamb, couscous, cumin, clove, nutmeg, musky tent, scorched desert, scrabbly mountain. Hunger’s repatriation: desire and its satisfaction. But the tagine is beside the point because Vaughan is looking at me with kind and generous regard, the antithesis of my ex-husband’s contempt and almost impersonal disregard in the end days of marriage. But new friends can feel that same visceral chemical charge as new lovers. “We haven’t met by chance,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “Circumstance but not circumstantial. Yesterday? I didn’t know there was a you that would be necessary today.”
We clink glasses and drain our tea. The waiter refills them with a flourish, holding the kettle high and pouring a steady, careful stream.
“I’m sorry about your wife,” I say.
He shows me her picture on his phone: a short-haired, bespectacled woman surrounded by their grown children and grandchildren. “She didn’t want soppy,” he says, “so we wrote messages on her coffin with a Sharpie. Permanent ink. My son crawled underneath. You know what he wrote? ‘I’ve got your back, Mum.’ You get mammograms, right?”
“Promise me. Your kids need you and someday somebody else will, too. Not a cheating wanker but somebody with a heart equal to yours.”
A man in a brown djellaba pushes his cart to the edge of our table. Cookies. He has been circling the food stalls, and at every lap, badgering us. “You buy now?”
Two coconut cookies and two honey cookies for later–moonlight across the bed, paper bag stained through with grease, crumbs on the sheets, buttery fingers in my mouth. Now, though, I am full.
On our ninety-minute drive into the Atlas Mountains to the Ourika Valley, Moktar points to the highest peak in the distance, Jbel Toubkal.
“Over four thousand meters,” he says. “Most of the year covered in snow. You can ski.” He reaches under the seat and hands me a bottle of water. “For the climb.”
No trek to the summit, not in my slippery Chucks, but a two hour climb to the waterfalls with a Berber guide who will meet me at Setti Fatima, the base village. We pass luxury apartment complexes with water fountains and security guards; gleaming white kasbahs in the middle of bare fields, palm fronds umbrellaed over their rampart walls; and monolithic rows of half-built cinder block apartments beside fields full of plastic grocery bags. It’s hot in the SUV since Moktar keeps the windows down; I lick dust from my lips and unscrew the water bottle but then tighten it–disrespectful when Moktar can’t take a sip until sunset. No matter: as we climb into the mountains, the temperature drops from an arid 112 degrees to a cool 90 and I hang my head out the window tasting the pine, cedar, and olive trees that fringe the road. Eventually, the asphalt turns sandy.
Setti Fatima is a picnic idyll worthy of indolent, vagabonding Romantics, of Coleridge and his opiate packed hamper (a gypsying jaunt that ends with him naked, foaming at the mouth, on his Kubla Khan vision quest). At the side of the road, men sit on crates beside baskets of cherries, oranges, and avocados. At restaurants, plush couches and tables teeter on top of rocky platforms over the river, and plastic chairs and tables are anchored in the water for barefoot dining. Setti Fatima, Arabic for Lady Fatima. Moktar tells me the tale: one thousand years ago, Fatima came from Egypt to Morocco; one day, while searching the valley for water, she poked a stick into the ground and in miraculous divination, Ourika’s seven waterfalls gushed from the earth. “Fertility,” Moktar says. “We pray to her when we have problems in marriage or with having babies.”
“Mine would be a prayer of thanks,” I say. “A bad marriage happily ended ever after.”
Moktar laughs. “Mine, too, so we must both give thanks.”
Ayyur, my mountain guide, doesn’t speak English or French, but I understand his hands as he hops across a rickety bridge, slats missing, and ropes frayed: follow, slow, stop. He is short, lean, and makes easy work of the climb up the goat path even in flip flops. We first wind past groves of olive and cherry trees, and then are on slippery shale. Sheer cascades and narrow gorges on both sides. I hug the rockwall at a difficult pass, and Ayyur takes my backpack, smiles, and grabs hold of my shirt sleeve, pinching fabric at my elbow to help me along. No hands: he is a man and I am a woman. Hot work and I’m sweaty, and then, ahead under a grove of trees, as if Lady Fatima herself had donned muck boots and a shovel and piped an artesian aquifer, bottles of Coca Cola, Sprite, orange soda, and water stacked in a ziggurat under a piped waterfall.
Oh, Blessed Fatima. Should I? Ayyur must abstain but I am a heathen and, when the going gets hot, I am without shame. I buy a bottle of Coke, and while Ayyur chats with the proprietor stretched out in a lounge chair on the edge of the cliff, as if sunbathing is an extreme sport, I drain it in one breathless cold, syrupy swig. My tongue is furry with sugar. A sparrow, fellow heathen, alights on an orange soda and dips its beak in the water.
Ayyur beckons and we tramp higher into the red mountains. Clumps of spiky yellow flowers– sharp edged stars—and prickly juniper bushes edge the path. Not long before my heels blister and ankles are polka dotted with blood. I squat beside a large brown lizard that holds still, throat pulsing, before skittering into the scrub. And then, suddenly, through an unexpected stand of cedar and olive trees—their pungent smell so intense it is as if I can taste photosynthesis on my tongue–I hear the rush and crash of water. The Falls. Several men, Moroccans, are waist deep in the water, dunking under and popping up like mallards trawling a lake. They regard me with bland curiosity: I am with Ayyur and without a husband. Their shoes, cell phones, and what look like rolled up yoga mats are in a pile. I scootch to the edge, take off my shoes, and inch my feet into the water which burns cold, then splash my face and neck. High above in the blue sky, vultures swoop and circle, hungry for dead rabbits, dead weasels, dead porcupines, dead people. I pluck a hard, green olive from a low-hanging branch, and pop it in my mouth despite knowing it will taste terrible, and it does: bitter and astringent, needing brine’s miracle.
A cellphone alarm sounds–discordant synthetic siren.
What need for time and agenda here? But the men make splashy haste out of the water and unfurl the mats in a uniform line across the embankment, then kneel, hands at knees and foreheads to the ground. Ayyur kneels too, matless. Prayer not yoga, though this, too, is a salutation to earth’s light. One of the men, an old man with a shock of white hair and beard, wipes his hands on his wet shirt, and then begins to sing. The adhan. This call to prayer sounds nothing like the grating voice amplified by the loudspeaker at the Koutoubia Mosque. This man, here, is a divine muezzin, with a clear, melodic voice that fills the air as if the Angel Gabriel himself chants from atop a cedar minaret– Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. God is greatest. Every tree and bird and rock and flower and man and woman and molecule of water called into being. I am no doctrinal believer, but a holy force moves through me. Goosebumps. Tingly euphoria. My throat is tight with tears and I swallow hard. This, I think, this.
After the long winding climb back down, slipslidey in places, skinned knees, Moktar is waiting with a bag of cherries.
“Please,” he says. “Eat.”
Do this in memory of cherries once verboten under anorexia’s reign.
The cherries stain my fingers and lips. How could I have ever forgotten that the world tastes like this? Sweet sharp blood that keeps me alive, that keeps my heart beating inside this body and off the autopsy table? I spit the pits out the window as we drive back to Marrakech. Perhaps a haphazard orchard in my wake?
“Let’s listen to American,” Moktar says. I plug my iPod into his radio and we careen down the mountain listening to Jeff Buckley sing “Hallelujah,” his voice rising one octave to the next,
“Ah,” Moktar says, “Hallelujah. Allahu akbar. This is a beautiful word.”
I tell Moktar that when Buckley was only thirty-one, he was swept away by the Mississippi River and drowned.
“Again,” he says, and turns the volume all the way up.
This bittersweet hymn to loss and love all at once empties me out and fills me up: “There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.”
In the fourth century BC, Aristotle posits that taste is carried from the tongue via the blood to the heart, the seat of the soul. Then science with its microscopes and engyscopes dispenses with such soul food and taste is understood as so many chemical and electrical reactions transmitted to the brain through membranes and receptor cells. Our tongues are carpeted in tens of thousands of taste cells, in clusters of one hundred taste buds, and housed in groups of five within two hundred and fifty papillae. We have even invented electronic tongues, outsourcing our sensual labors to minimize flavor risk and maximize flavor homogeneity. It’s why we wax rhapsodic over wishful in memory of mes: do you remember vine-ripened tomatoes and apples picked from the tree and sweet corn from the farm stand and your grandfather’s fried flounder caught that morning in the Peconic Bay, how he taught you to dredge the fillets in egg, flour and breadcrumbs, how the fish turned crispy in the cast iron pan, how it was transformed with a squirt of lemon?
Two centuries after Aristotle, M.F.K. Fisher recognizes what we have lost in the sureties of science and offers a course correction: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.”
All one. I am lying on my back on the riad’s roof, watching the sun burn down and lights flicker on across the roof top terraces, and waiting for the moon to rise and for the chatter and clatter in the street below as families break the day’s fast. Iftar, breakfast. In my hand, the last of five, perfect, tawny, rosy cheeked apricots that I’d bought from the fruit cart outside the medina’s gates. For the poet Diane Ackerman, apricots are “somewhere between a peach and a prayer.”
This is the prayer that breaks fast:
Allahumma inni laka sumtu wa bika aamantu wa alayka tawakkaltu wa ala rizq-ika-aftartu.
O Allah! I fasted for You and I believe in You and I put my trust in You and I break my fast with Your sustenance.
My teeth split the fuzzy skin and the fruit’s flesh slides easily from the stone and I know with certainty that I am lost.
Kerry Beth Neville is a Nonfiction Editor for Panorama.
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