by Nancy Geyer
He must have looked like he was being stoned, the naked man who was himself made of stone. But by morning all was calm in the plaza in front of the Denver Art Museum. Tender green leaves, stripped during the night from the trees in a hailstorm (one leaf caught in the small of the man’s back) eased the sculpture’s severity and made the water a rejuvenating bath.
The first time I approached him, this face-down figure lying partially submerged in a shallow, sepulchral pool, I wondered: dead or alive? Alive, I concluded as I got closer, though I don’t quite know why. Maybe it’s the perfect alignment: one doesn’t drop dead this way. Nor is one normally laid face down in a tomb. Or maybe it’s a certain tension, the body seemingly alert to feeling or sensation. An alertness discernible even in stone.
I know from photographs—images so grim I can barely stand to look at them—that there isn’t always water in the pool. Maybe it’s left to rain to do the filling?
The storm had awakened me at 1:30 a.m. I walked across the guest room to the sliding glass doors, parted the drapes, and stepped back. Marble-sized hail pelted the glass before me and ricocheted among high stucco walls bordering a narrow, sunken patio. I stood there for a while, riveted by the hail’s kinetic energy, coming at me every which way at once. I also felt acutely alone. More than alone—sequestered. For my accommodations, situated between two storage rooms, were in the basement of a 13-story apartment tower for seniors, one of them Bill, the friend I’d come to Denver to see. I got no cell phone reception down there, no internet. Two thick floors made of reinforced concrete separated me from the nearest living being above.
A week later, back at home, I began my summer reading with Eva Saulitis’s essay collection Leaving Resurrection. In “Walking on Carlson Lake with Bill,” Saulitis, a marine biologist as well as a writer, is driving in interior Alaska with her own friend named Bill to another friend’s remote log cabin on a lake in the Mentasta Mountains. Loss hovers over the two travelers. They pass through Tok, where Bill’s teenage son had committed suicide years before, and which Bill had avoided for fifteen years, Saulitis knew, without him ever having told her so. Saulitis, too, is grappling with a suicide—that of a friend the previous year—as well as her troubled marriage and ongoing depression. The two say little about these things to each other. “We paddle into each other’s pain and back away again,” Saulitis writes. “Silence is a lake we float on, casting separate lines.”
On their first full day in the cabin, the outside thermometer reads minus fifteen (it’s March). Saulitis had planned to ski across the frozen lake but now “dreaded even the short walk to the tilted outhouse, with its plastic seat so cold I’d have to sit on my hands.” After breakfast she spends the rest of the morning writing in her room while looking at the lake through frosted window panes rattling in the wind. If she were brave, she’d be out there, she thinks to herself. Finally she throws down her pencil, layers on her warmest clothes, and pushes open the cabin’s ten-inch-thick front door:
Ahead of me, exposed ice reflected a dark, oily shine. I carefully slid my skis onto it … It was black with the hint of green, the color of air between trees in a spruce forest at dusk. Pinned like long sheets of just-developed photographs drying on a line, cracks hung below the surface. They formed a lattice, like spokes of glass wheels all interconnected. Someone might have explained their geometry as lines of fracture, stressed, and yet they were something other.
After unclipping her skis and sending them skidding away, Saulitis crawls around the ice on her hands and knees. In the shade, “the cracks looked like streamers of wet tissue paper or dried fish skin.” Mittens off, she presses her fingers against the rippled surface. Then she’s lying flat on her stomach, the ice “smooth and cold as a tooth against my face.”
Here, right here, the scene itself freezes—in my mind. And fused to it is the man made of stone, similarly prone. He too, I see now, is suspended between known and unknown worlds, ears in the one, eyes in the other, seeming to peer below the surface into an inverted universe. But such is the power of Saulitis’s descriptions of ice—the entire essay about ice—that I picture the man as being surrounded by ice. Weeks later, when I look at the photo I’d taken of him while in Denver, I will be surprised to find him in liquid water.
The moment unfreezes and Saulitis is on her feet again. Bill is on the ice too. Shuffling across the frozen lake, it was “as if we were riding above the architecture of our own lives.” They separate, and when they join up again she detects a “grave look on his face, almost concern, as though we’ve stumbled upon something dark and full of significance, like a corpse.” Near the essay’s end, Saulitis writes that whenever she and Bill look back on their stay at Carlson Lake, they talk about it “as if it were not a place, but something that happened”—a vague phrase put down on paper by someone normally so precise in her writing that we know we’re in territory that can’t be articulated.
On my trips to the Denver Art Museum over the years, I’ve never bothered to look for the plaque that accompanies the sculpture in the plaza, which would have told me the work’s title—Pilgrimage—and the name of the artist—Zhang Huan—as well as something of the performance the sculpture is based on. I sometimes prefer it this way, to immerse myself in art’s ineffable qualities (making this aspect of art impossible to write about). This work, especially, seems to have about it an aura of silence, as if one has come upon a body, or a person prostrate in prayer. It made me look not around for information but to something within myself, even as I couldn’t help wondering about the artist’s intentions. What I thought while standing there, I suppose, was that the work conveyed, generally-speaking, a state of being—our essential aloneness, perhaps, in death as well as in life, for the figure seems to evoke both states simultaneously.
Eventually I would learn that the sculpture, like the performance before it, can be interpreted within the context of immigration and the fear one feels in a strange city, much as the ice in Carlson Lake, itself sculpted, can be seen in terms of a troubled marriage and depression. And yet, to me, both have their greatest impact at a level that words, and story, can’t reach. I think about how Saulitis and Bill, neither of whom is taciturn by nature—Bill, an “old-timer,” especially loves telling stories—barely talk about what weighs on them most heavily. They respect each other’s interiority, within which is mystery—each a mystery to the other, but also, to some degree, to themselves. Each sees only what they alone can see in the lake, though they don’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate it. Bill says, merely: “This ice—it’s so strange.” Saulitis gives us a detailed description of the ice, down to its fractures, and then says it’s “something other.”
The figure of the man, too, looks down into an inner world, and will never turn around. When I returned to the museum two days after the hailstorm, the water surrounding him was clear, and you could see his splayed fingers pressed upon the pool’s stone floor. Too soon with the pool net, I thought, for despite the violent way they got there, the spring leaves had provided relief.
Now, six months later, the museum’s website says, simply, that the sculpture is “not currently on view.” How, then, to picture Pilgrimage given that its whereabouts are unknown? Under a shroud in a storage room in the museum’s basement? On loan to another museum, halfway around the globe? With water or without? If water, what has fallen or is reflected there? If water, and with a change in season, will it turn to ice?
Nancy Geyer’s writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, the Georgia Review, NER Digital, and the anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (W.W. Norton), among other places. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, the Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, and Iron Horse Literary Review’s Discovered Voices Award. She lives in Washington, DC.