Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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annie dillard

Pilgrim
at
Tinker Creek

for Richard

It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in
measures being kindled and in measures going out.
—HERACLITUS

Contents
Epigraph
1
Heaven and Earth in Jest

iii
3

2
Seeing

16

3
Winter

37

4
The Fixed

55

5
Untying the Knot

73

6
The Present

78

7
Spring

105

8
Intricacy

124

9
Flood

149

10
Fecundity

161

11
Stalking

184

12
Nightwatch

209

13
The Horns of the Altar

225

14
Northing

247

15
The Waters of Separation

265

Afterword

278

More Years Afterward

283

About Annie Dillard

285

About the Author
Other Books By Annie Dillard
Cover
Copyright
About the Publisher

Pilgrim
at
Tinker Creek

1
Heaven and Earth in Jest

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.

It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never

4 / Annie Dillard

knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence…. “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

These are morning matters, pictures you dream as the final wave heaves you up on the sand to the bright light and drying air. You remember pressure, and a curved sleep you rested against, soft, like a scallop in its shell. But the air hardens your skin; you stand; you leave the lighted shore to explore some dim headland, and soon you’re lost in the leafy interior, intent, remembering nothing. I still think of that old tomcat, mornings, when I wake. Things are tamer now; I sleep with the window shut. The cat and our rites are gone and my life is changed, but the memory remains of something powerful playing over me. I wake expectant, hoping to see a new thing. If I’m lucky I might be jogged awake by a strange bird call. I dress in a hurry, imagining the yard flapping with auks, or flamingos. This morning it was a wood duck, down at the creek. It flew away.

I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and it keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about. The creeks—Tinker and Carvin’s—are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek / 5

that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection. The mountains—Tinker and Brushy, McAfee’s Knob and Dead Man—are a passive mystery,...
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