How slowly our journey begins! Traversing the lush green landscape by inches. Weeks are required to cover mere miles: each blade of grass, each sticky moist bud, blossom, tendril, exposed root clear and distinct. You learn not to suck them in your mouth though your instinct is to do so. You smell them, you touch them with wondering fingers. So dense is the snarled foliage overhead you rarely see the sun and have no word for this fierce pale glow but you feel its humid heat that seems not only to descend upon you but to rise up out of the rich dark fecund earth. Soft as flesh.
The earth is flesh. And these fleshy-pulpy fruits, so delicious. High overhead, almost invisible in the foliage, are curious flying shapes—birds? squirrels? monkeys?—creatures for which you have (yet) no names. Their cries penetrate the silence, filling you with astonishment. All things fill you with astonishment. Even those brightly black hard-shelled beetles with glittering eyes crawling over your outstretched fingers.
And everything pulsing with a low murmurous thrum. The grainy marrow of your bones vibrates with that thrum.
By degrees the swampy soil subsides, a firmer soil rises. You won’t have noticed, the ascent is so gradual. And the drier land. Into which your feet don’t sink. What relief you feel, now that maddening slowness is behind you! Here, in the sun-splotched plain, passage is much easier. And objects are clearly defined. Six-foot grasses undulating in the wind, isolated stands of stark white birches, outcroppings of pale striated rock. What a healthy windswept terrain, where miles can be covered within mere hours, hundreds of miles within days, thousands of miles within weeks. There are serrated mountains to the horizon, etched with a galaxy of faces, and not a face replicated. The sky is a vivid burning blue in which the sun dominates like an eye opening wider, and wider, and wider. For now—you begin to see. You see the contours of the earth, the sweep of the constellations. A powerful tide draws you forward. You will not be the first to mistake it for a personal destiny.
Now spiky trees with leaves that glare like metal move swiftly by. The air is so brightly brittle it crackles with electricity. The colors of the salt flats are sere, autumnal. As your speed increases you begin to recall the earliest stage of the journey when you did not understand that it was a journey. Not even that you were—like others of us– following a plotted course. How happy you were, in that innocence!—though even as you are remembering it, you are forgetting it. The journey is itself an invention of the present time. With nostalgia you recall a past time that does not exist for, at the time you inhabited it, you had no consciousness of it. That which is not-known does not exist.
Now traveling at hundreds of miles an hour, you are impatient to travel yet faster. You are obsessed with the horizon beyond which a mysterious and unimaginable landscape beckons.
In this high plateau tilting toward—what? The sea? Unless it is an immense crater, thousands of miles in diameter? At the speed at which you move it is virtually impossible to discern the shapes of objects. They have become nameless, indefinable, a continuous stream. And the sun flying overhead, and the moon. Horizon to horizon. You are intoxicated with speed, your lungs expanding in joy. You wonder whether, passing as you are, swift and fleeting as a shadow on the barren earth, you are, in any true sense of the word, here at all.
It is a vast city through which you move, suddenly—tall buildings whose topmost floors are shrouded in the mist of low-lying clouds—immense bridges spanning invisible bays—a glittering of lights below, above—on every side—as you rush into these lights, and through these lights, like electricity coursing through your veins. Faster and faster the paved terrain passes beneath you—you ascend one of the rising bridges, and descend—so quickly, the water below is but a blur—if there is beauty here, you cannot see it—to see requires slowness, like thinking—remembering– and now you cannot recall your origins in that lush mindless landscape—you have not the patience for such an act of recollection–you feel a terrible, an insatiable hunger to overcome the present moment, for you feel—(you seem to know)—(you are certain)—that there are other travelers like yourself—rivals, competitors—you have never glimpsed (our) faces and don’t know (our) names but you know that you must overcome them—you must overcome the present moment–break the frail remaining ties of memory–leap into the future. It is only this frail corroding memory that links you with previous stages of your journey and memory has begun to bleach out, like bones, in the dry-desert blank of city pavement stretching for endless miles. You come to see that memory too is an invention of your brain. The very past is an invention. And as you approach the speed of light plunging into the new millennia, you realize that the very millennia is an invention—a shadow.
Only now do you become aware of a curiosity of the earth below—both soil and pavement: what had appeared, at slower speeds, to be dense, textured, durable is in fact thin as a playing card! Granite outcroppings beneath your feet, melancholy eroded mountains, skyscrapers stretching to the horizon like stalactites in which no one dwells—sliding panels set carelessly in place and beginning, like cheap stage scenery, to warp and buckle, curl at the edges. And the sun so immense it contains the entire sky, and the moon swallowed up in it. Unless it is the sky that contains the sun and the moon and all the planets, indistinguishable as grains of sand.
The journey, only just begun, is suddenly ending—it has ended.
Rolled up swiftly and efficiently behind you even as you sped through it, like a carpet, or a gigantic sheet of paper.
Joyce Carol Oates published her first book in 1963 and has since published over fifty novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Her novel Them (1969) won the National Book Award, and her novels Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), and Blonde (2000) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.