My husband and I have just separated. I visit the modern art wing alone and pause in a room to watch a film of William Lamson wheeling an enormous mirrored magnifying glass into a desert valley to harness the sun’s heat and burn an arc across the ground. Lamson slowly scars the imperfect, cracked earth with a glittering black line edged with sulfuric orange. I care acutely about nothing and everything all at once. While “A Line Describing the Sun” runs in the gallery, each breath I take is a performance and I can pretend I am part of something larger than my own drama.
But I aim irrational, punitive anger towards Lamson’s wife for not keeping her husband under better control as he performs his task of focused excess, wearing a straw hat and eyewear to protect himself from the damage he inflicts. Did she know what he was up to over the course of this day? I had not known what my husband was up to over the course of days, months, years. The guilt and shame sear me, anger is now my destroyer.
Clouds move across the sun and ruin Lamson’s effort. Dusk is a respite from pain in the film, but for me nighttime invites the worst of my crisis. I feel the mirror’s focused heat on my body. I hate men. I hate myself.
I watch it again—oh, the gorgeous, slippery flame is an unfurling loop, and I have nowhere to go.
I come in during the last two minutes of the film, where the wind thunders on the microphone and clouds cover the sun. Then, blackness, a clanging, and a return to the beginning.
The desert’s expanse is cracked but otherwise virginal, otherwise uninjured, until Lamson rolls his cart in and sets up a spot to begin the burn with his 600-degree point of light.
What is my story? Did my husband roll over me simply because I exist–was it even personal? Does the intersection of the roles of wife and mother inevitably invite this behavior? I am a fool. Lamson, a miniscule figure walking upon the massive earth mother, strolls with a sense of ownership and we all watch like, of course, this is the relationship as it has always been and will always be. In watching it unfold on screen we’re complicit just as I must be complicit in my own injuries.
Others briefly gather to watch flame spit forth from the wound, but they grow weary and wander away, like the people who knew and grew bored of the secrets of my marriage before I knew them myself.
The sun rises higher in the sky; the clouds burn off and the sizzle becomes constant, leaving a lustrous line. Black like tar, shiny like a crystal, a revealing excavation. I watch the wound create relationships of its own—its sulfuric odors attracting flies. Is the desert a victim?
People repeatedly tell me when others hurt us it’s a reflection of them, that it’s not my fault. Simultaneously I’m warned to not wallow, to instead take ownership of the injury, consider it a form of change and an opportunity for growth.
To whom do the wounds belong? To me or to my husband? To the desert or to Lamson? I must not worship pain, even when it’s excruciating, even when it forms its own energy. Some days I feel capable of throwing lightning like an ancient goddess.
The camera follows the glittering arc from above and it becomes a slithering snake; what a betrayal of privacy to see the wound from yet another angle. I turn away.
I’m divorced now and new men circle, wanting to claim me in various ways, wanting me to play various mother roles to desire. Ego gets me out of bed. I steal pleasure and believe I am not in need of rescue.
Lamson’s wound line fizzes iridescent, cycles from yellow to spring green. Outside the museum, tulips bloom.
Over the months my cliched idiocy abounds: Yoga and too much Rose, a trip to New York City to cry alone in a hotel room and visit friends from college, furious solo dance parties, taxing runs and weight loss. My sons accept the new reality, pack their backpacks for weekends with dad, refuse to talk about it now that their tears are long dried.
The mirror on Lamson’s cart reflects billowing clouds and blue–an open sky is required for the sun to create the spark that starts it all, and when the wind pushes clouds, there’s nothing left. Power requires certain conditions. Dust kicks up at the base of the mountains and man’s equipment fails him.
My husband could give no satisfactory answer when I asked how the wounding began; he couldn’t remember the moment it felt inevitable. He has no answer to, “why?”
Lamson’s flame begins.
I still ask: How dare he?
The line really bubbles now, insect wings folding and curling on the stone, sizzling butter in a pan. Lamson disappears behind this creation and becomes irrelevant.
On my way to the gallery, I watched bridesmaids gather in navy taffeta in the museum foyer. and wonder if the bride and groom will stand up to the work, if they understand it. Are they frightened enough? Before my wedding when I expressed jitters to a friend, she told me I was pretending I was better than marriage, that I would never find someone who would love me more. She didn’t say, Let the institution swallow you whole. I misunderstood something.
In my off-kilter madness, I imagine I’ve learned something in this mess, watching Lamson. I’ve been very busy filling myself with a brew of self-help bullshit and sleep-deprived induced epiphanies, confident it might protect me in the future.
I watch the film three times, arriving and leaving in the middle. I could walk out because I know how it ends.
I strut through the museum on community day with the mayhem of children performing gymnastics and pop up art craft stations. I am a goddess without cares, a woman finally lacking hate. For years I struggled with acrimony towards seemingly happy families tumbling in their messy joy; our story felt so heavy with failure. I feel transformed by pain and I am hopeful everyone navigates better than we did. Best wishes and all that, truly.
Today, the magnificence of light through the clouds in the last minutes of Lamson’s film is the glory of an old God. Mist clings to the bottom of the mountains in purple dusk on the second screen. Which of the two screens to watch? The audience must choose the past or future.
It begins again. The rattle of his cart and the wind against the microphone, sound requiring some kind of friction.
I have met someone who is helping me see there is no shame in how I tried to be selfless and good, and that finding my own desire is not selfish and bad. With time and the gift of this perspective Lamson’s lens now becomes a shifting kaleidoscope. Through it I am greater than the scorched earth and the protectress wind—I am the sun.
The importance of Lamson as the actor on the landscape, as the hero and the foil, recedes for me. The sky shifts into fuller color and I can ignore the scarring fizzle and pop and crack of light.
A great-smelling guy with glasses sits close to me on the black leather bench and turns to watch me write in the dark for several beats.
He asks me why Lamson does it.
I tell him I’ve sat through it so many times over many months and I’m still not sure. But I come up with something.
“He does it because he can.”
“Yes,” he mirrors, “Just because he can.”
Of course, I want to add, what runs beneath the whole project is that Lamson is of the cracked desert. He is of the organic matter of earth, the entity that brought him forth and nourishes him, and to which he will return upon death—and his wounding this desert desert, is a scarring of himself. He cannot escape the harm despite what compels him.
I ignored too much during the last ten years of my marriage, participated in constant wounding, took from it what I needed.
The sky deepens and the wind picks up. The ending comes again. We let it go.
On four occasions over the course of 18 months before, during, and after my divorce, I watched a 2010 split-screen “earthworks” film on a loop at the Indianapolis Newfield’s Museum of Art. In it, William Lamson scars an empty lakebed in the Mojave Desert for 13 minutes and 44 seconds with a homemade Fresnel lens. He conjures a sizzling 366- degree parabolic arc, until the earth stands up for herself and settles the situation with clouds and dusk. https://vimeo.com/21481196
Kate Gehan’s debut short story collection, The Girl and The Fox Pirate, was published by Mojave River Press in 2018. Her writing has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Moon City Review, McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, Split Lip Magazine, People Holding, Literary Mama, and Cheap Pop, among others. She is nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Find her work at kategehan.com.