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Darkening


by Jan Turk Petrie

The sky is darkening – not in the usual way but with unnatural speed; it brings with it a silence that is disquieting. Ominous.
Gulls that had been reeling and squawking off the cliffs have mysteriously disappeared from the sky. Only moments ago, the soaring song of rising larks had accompanied them to the top of the headland; now they are mute; the birds have all gone to ground.
Other people – perhaps twenty, maybe as many as twenty-five – have been drawn to this same commanding spot as if by portent or a shared instinct carried in some ancient particle of DNA. Perhaps it’s down to race memory, past generations who once gathered in this same place to bear witness.
On the way up, she’d caught snatches of excited conversation – a carnival spirit; now there is only whispering.
It is almost upon them. A collective hush descends on the small crowd as if by divine command; faces turn upwards to wait for the spectacle that is about to take place. To her left, the silvery streak on the surface of the sea dims and then finally goes out. Where there had been summer warmth the air is chilly; the fine hairs on her arms stand up in response.
‘This is it,’ Kyle says. Reluctantly, she sits down next to him. The dry grass feels rough against her bare legs. She can smell the sheep poo that’s been baked by the sun that is about to all but disappear behind the moon.
From his rucksack Kyle pulls out his binoculars and the piece of white card he’d saved from the recycling. He’d already explained to her how this would work, how you only needed to point one of the lenses at the eclipse and an image would be
projected straight through the eyepieces onto the cardboard. The other lens is capped off – it isn’t allowed to watch.
In the morning news there had been a sneering feature on the myths that had grown up as a way of explaining such events. A Norse tale blamed wolves for eating the sun. In ancient China it was dragons. Native Americans believed a bear had taken a bite out of it. The ancient Greeks took it more seriously; to them a solar eclipse was a sign the gods were angry; it foretold coming disasters and destruction.
Kyle is staring at the image on the cardboard. Seen his way, the coming eclipse resembles a diagram in a textbook. She notices the small red stain in one corner from their takeaway pizza. He’s set the whole thing up in between them so they can watch together.
In her head she tells him, you might as well be watching it on television. She’s tempted to say it out loud but that would only spoil the moment for him. ‘‘Remember, don’t look at it directly.’ This was ostensibly meant for her but he’d raised his voice so that it would carry to any foolish person around them who might be about to do so. ‘Just one look and you could go blind,’ he adds for good measure.
The darkness intensifies; it’s now impossible to make out the contours of the land or the line where it meets the sky. The colours of the day have all but drained away; the world has entered The Twilight Zone.
Some people are staring skywards, sporting glasses that look far too cheap to ward off the destructive powers of two heavenly bodies set on what, from this angle, appears to be a certain collision.
‘I think we’re approaching maximum,’ Kyle tells her. His sharp elbow digs into her ribs to make his point. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘or you’ll miss it.’
To please him, she glances down at the facsimile he’s created, the scaled down version of this momentous event he appears to be content with. His way is not hers – never was.
Drawn back to the heavens but not quite trusting herself, she shuts her eyes and lets the moment take her.
By the gradual lightening of the shades of red inside her closed lids, she knows the peak has passed. How strange this slow process of coming back to herself – to the promise of warmth on her skin. She opens her eyes, to watch the old world being reborn. Monochrome is being overlaid with colour. The strange spell broken, birds wake and remember their songs. A distant lamb cries out for its mother.
Kyle caps the other lens of the binoculars, folds the blank card roughly in two and stuffs both in his rucksack. Standing up, he says, ‘We should head off before the crush.’
She wants to linger, to lie back and find shapes in clouds; to follow the progress of the boat that’s just a speck on the horizon as it moves across the newly sparkling sea.
Instead, she brushes the grass from her legs and follows him down the steep hill heading for the point where the narrow path will split in different directions.

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