A Quake Occurred
Detail from The Madonna of the Book, Sandro Botticelli, 1480
by Jessica Sequeira
I was watching television when a quake occurred. Tired out, I’d flipped on the arts & culture channel. A local dandy was wandering around France explaining the sights live. The town was lovely and medieval, with tucked-away plazas and a famous painter’s museum. What a pity that the planners of the show were unaware of an obscure Gallic holiday, such that everything was closed, even the kiosks with good cigarettes and variety packs of macarons, necessary palliatives pour la grande honte of organizational breakdown. ‘Ah darling viewers at home, take a seat beside me. At least the sea is bright and green!’ said the smiling host. When the shaking began, the sea remained still and unmoving, almost unreal, as I felt those trembling vibrations from a great depth. After falling asleep, I dreamed of a series of shifting plates at the bottom of the sea, extending into the distance, overlapping one another, infinite.
Nature has its own agenda, which has little to do with human affairs. We have always known this, but perhaps on occasion a literal reminder is needed to shake this into our heads. By now the year is gliding safely into port, against the dire predictions of the state astrologers, yet it is likely that we are due for some mighty event. According to journalists, this year we have experienced more quakes than ever before, registering higher on the Richter scale and lasting longer in duration. From first-hand experience, I reckon that they are right. At first the quakes were alarming, then everyone got used to them. At some point I began to keep a log, though of course it was only partial, a series of excerpts. The quake described in the previous paragraph is included; here is another.
During my visit to a library café, there was a quake. A little black dog hopped up on the platform and began to visit every table. The night before I’d been sitting on the grass below, just hanging out, and it amused me to think that my being of yesterday had transformed into a tiny curious dog today. The little thing was me! It was my soul! I’d been reading Novalis about the infinite connectedness of all things, and it clicked. The dog approached, lifted its leg and dirtied my shoe. This disconcerted me for a moment; yet even that little gift was connected. Even the disgusted faces of the other visitors formed part of the whole. When the earthquake began, it gobbled up the little dog entire, or at last it wasn’t there anymore when I looked up from my spilled espresso. Animals can be very sensitive to quakes.
This year I would go far as to say that a quake occurred has become my mantra, a statement of fact that in its simple neutrality has become a solace. The passivity of ‘occurred’ appeals to me, as a state of calm in contrast to the often unnecessary frenzy and debate in the world. It seems to suggest some future, a near one perhaps, in which we humans approach the condition of the quakes themselves, that is, a kind of vibration, a trembling, an event rather than an active argumentative voice. To Nature, the polemics of our time are what the rumblings of the earth are to us, that is, a different language incapable of being immediately understood. Nature was here long before us, and it is far more likely that the useless words of humanity will be absorbed into the joggling of the earth than the other way around; far more likely that a quake occurred will ultimately signify a rest in peace for people here.
The next quake found me drying my hair in the bathroom. You never really notice things with a Conair in hand, since the vibrations and noise absorb any minor tremblings, and the zen state of removing moisture and bringing frizz under control makes the minutes disappear. So I didn’t feel a thing. It’s really a shame, since while everyone talks ill of earthquakes and nobody wants them to happen, if the divine will does send one down south, you don’t want to miss it. I’m not talking about the big boys, the 7 or 8 or 9 on the Richter scale, massive shudderings that split cities, ravage homes, devastate lives. I’m talking about the little jitterings, the come-and-go quavers that rumble your apartment, then pop up on radio or television or as conversation topics. On the upside, an art restorer friend was happy since the wee quake had knocked a little old lady’s flower vase off her mantel, so that she had work for a day.
Sometimes when writing, I feel myself approaching a kind of detachment, which does not mean the same thing as coldness, but is rather a state of analysis that draws me away from life, saying ‘that’ instead of ‘this’, in order to see the whole better and appreciate its structure. If you move away, there are times that all at once you arrive on the other side, the inside of all things, the within of the earth, your veins and muscles trembling in a different way.
There was a quake as I was returning from the supermarket. Weighed down by bags, I was admiring the fresh black berries that had fallen from the trees and been smashed underfoot by passers-by, as well as the golden leaves that had drifted into cracks and the jacarandas and pink hyacinths and boughs with orange flowers whose name I always forget to search. The railings were drawing perfect curlicue shadows on the pavement, and the street lamps were topped by gorgeous ivory globes that drooped elegantly from their stems, like some quite modern flower. O, but all of my ice cream had melted! The carrots had turned into bright tongs that scorched my hands! The fruit juice was almost boiling! Well, I thought, at least those images of beauty had also been burned on my brain, in the same way that a photographic plate becomes more sensitive with prolonged heat. A good thing too, since when the earthquake began, it upset the image entirely.
In the mind there are overlapping tectonic plates, sheets of memories, slips of paper filled with scrawled half-legible passages, panels with emotional vistas that slide past one another, or collide with a slam, or else decide to play a cool for a while, just grumbling and crunching. Most times you don’t notice since it’s been happening all your life and you’re used to it, you don’t even perceive it, you require a real jolt. A life of perpetual minor quakes can feel just like standing in the middle of an empty field, absolutely still.
Another quake visited the city as I was completing a stroll, which took me around the zone under La Moneda government building where sometimes there are interesting events. In this case there was a fair, and as I went sampling all the wonderful free things, crackers and cheeses and olives and wines, I found a perfect rhubarb jam, sweet with a slight sting of sour. But I did not buy it. That was nearly the last booth and perhaps by then some sort of shame had started to set in as regards my brazen snacking; thus I hurried on. Feeling bad in turn about my rapid exit, at the next booth I purchased a seaweed pâté without trying it. Later I gave it to a visiting aunt. She loved it, though when she served it to me on hotel toast, I found it to be not just unpalatable but positively foul. In any case, the first tremors came as I was pocketing the pâté receipt.
The last books to be written will not be written in ink. The penultimate books will be in other ways standard, but possess a strange tone of scientific precision, the mind setting to work on itself to understand the universe. If this analogy is a false one, at least it is comforting, and if it is not comforting but rather claustrophobic, at least it is something to ponder while the earth quivers.
A quake hit during a literary event on a bar terrace, as the writers were waiting for their pitchers of beer. Somebody passed around an art book and I turned its pages, folded by hand into stars and claws and flowers. The sky was turning colors, from blue to deeper blue to yellow-blue to black. Everyone was still only just smiling, but I knew that soon they would be laughing with their whole beings, faces and bodies relaxing into a state of joy. I like those dusky moments when one thing is just about to become another, and the line between ordinary and extraordinary is very fine. I closed the art book and set it back on the table beside the napkin dispenser, to which it bore a singular resemblance, an amplification of that minimal beauty. During the quake the tables did bounce around a bit, but nothing could disturb the peace.
If you search for earthquakes online, the first results conjured are images of destroyed cities. Walls collapse into roofs that collapse into foundations. The extremes are publicized, not those temblors that barely touch the surface. Destruction is already mediatized. The earth itself, however, holds a secret mirror. To understand it, perhaps it is worth trying to understand the phenomena it produces using our own mirror.
The whole room trembled with a quake as I was drawing. Nothing could be more elemental than a Virgin and Child, one would think. But copying a version out of a museum pamphlet, the image seemed once again new. I have always believed that thinking does not happen until the step of writing, but it is also true that seeing does not happen until the step of drawing. Body parts become problems — how should a certain finger bend to appear natural, what is the correct proportion of elbow to knee, how should hair fall within a mantle? The face of Mary was pious, but the face of the child was sardonic — an adult already, a certain cynicism in its hooded eyes and petulant lip. Was this intentional? Should it be replicated? And how best to render the placement of shadows, the softness of fabric? The clothing did not appear celestial, but was rather the normal clothing of a Galilean woman of the period, a cloak with leather ties over a rose-colored shirt. I was about to finish when I noted the bare stomach of Christ. Should the baby have a belly button, or was it only Adam, the original man created by God and not woman, who lacked an umbilical cord? When the quake began, the Holy Mother’s slender hand appeared to caress the side of the child she was holding, as if to say, it’s alright my dear babe, it will always be alright, no matter what happens, no matter what Nature does, it will be alright since all right and righteousness will reign for all times, my sweet child, such that even if we are swallowed up by the earth, we will enter into history, and the angels of Nature will escort us to the heavens.