In Central Jersey, just outside Trenton, sits Grounds for Sculpture, a world-renowned 42-acre sculpture park. Among other pieces, three-dimensional replicas of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces populate the grounds. Local artist Seward Johnson transformed Renoirs, Monets, Caillebottes, and Manets into life-sized sculptures; visitors can walk among the figures, stand under their umbrellas in a Paris rain, clink glasses with them at a boat party. I arrived at this magical place in the fall, close to sunset. Through a narrow passage, I entered Johnson’s tableau of Henri Rousseau’s The Dream. Enclosed by a dense thicket of bamboo, the scene simulates twilight slumber. On a small couch lounges a pink-skinned nude surrounded by two lions, an orange snake, blooming jungle flowers, ferns, an elephant in silhouette, a citrus tree, tropical birds, and a small night-black native holding a horn to his mouth.
Only the thinnest strands of evening light penetrated the bamboo cover, barely illuminating The Dream. Visitors stepped onto a small platform to insert themselves into the dreamscape—a good photo op if not for the prohibitive lowlight. I could not resist entering the scene, slipping in beside the slight native man and just above the supine woman with her broad, perky breasts and long, streaming hair. Seeing her up close, I noticed her serenity, her half-smile—no tense lines, no tight muscles, at peace in her dark dream and round body. The Grounds for Sculpture’s description says the woman is “apparently oblivious to the danger posed by the wild creatures in her midst.” Surrounded by shadowy creatures, obscured by the jungle’s dense nightfall, languidly, she reclines: naked, open, restful. She appears unafraid; she seeks no escape from this dark kingdom, finding herself irrepressibly there. Perhaps she is less oblivious than brave, less clueless than wildly composed in the face of danger.
I exited the scene, but she stays with me. I long to lie in threats and deflect their power. I am practicing repose, putting on a half-smile, and relaxing into falling light.
At 1:00 a.m., we heard a faint tapping at our door. We were sound asleep after a long day on a hot bus, winding the streets of metropolitan Cairo, slowly passing through the Suez checkpoint, bribing our way through military outposts in the Sinai Peninsula, and finally settling in at St. Catherine’s monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai. The knocking persisted, grew louder.
“Matt, is that the guide?” my husband Ryan asked.
“It’s too early,” Matt groused. He rolled out of bed, cracked the door, muttered some Arabic, closed the door.
“He wants to leave now,” Matt announced.
Yousef, our teenage Bedouin guide, had come to fetch us much earlier than we had planned. He said it would be better if we did not wait until later. He did not say why taking off at such an ungodly hour was preferable. It just was, and it seemed wise for us to trust him. We quickly arose and began our nighttime ascent of the mountain—in the pitch black, in the cold, with only the slobbery snorts and shit-smell of camels and the dim light of Yousef’s iPod keeping us on the narrow path. Yousef glided effortlessly in sandals upon the rocky earth. He made long strides and he was very thin. I had no trouble imagining him walking on water; he was already so light and fluid. Each member of our party—Ryan and I, and our friends Matt and Hana—had at least a decade (maybe two) on Yousef but had not yet shed the image of ourselves as still possessing our teenage bodies. Muffling our heavy breathing and ignoring the sweat that turned to icy scales on our foreheads and chins, we made no complaint as we trailed Yousef’s faint light and passed other pilgrims (many on camelback) as if they were standing still. The next day, we met a young American tourist, who said that it had taken him a full three hours to scale the mountain. Yousef had us to the top in half that time.
The last leg of the journey involved following tiny lights, held by old Bedouin men, who crouched near the ground, illumining steep, narrow stone steps—courtesy or perhaps emergency lighting for those whom had made it this far. Yousef pointed to the rocky, vertical path, “go here,” then he and his light disappeared. His vanishing, which he executed so nonchalantly, unsettled me; when one travels an alien path, the absence of a guide can feel like an eternity. Once we had made it to the top—at this point, there was no masking our heavy breathing—Yousef reappeared, looked at us with what I read as judgment: what took you so long?, and led us to a small stone wall at the edge of the mountain. He motioned for us to sit right along the ledge, and disappeared again. A small group of Bedouins camped nearby, but otherwise we were alone on the ledge. We shivered, huddled together for warmth, and waited in darkness. I had never felt so awake.
Soon we understood why Yousef knocked at our door at 1:00 a.m. and why he had fast-tracked us up the mountain. As dawn approached, other pilgrims began arriving in droves; our once-private enclave by the stone wall soon became crowded. It was clear we had some of the best seats on the mountain—no one in front of us, nothing between us and the horizon. I was irritated by the late-coming German tourists who pressed in behind me. I turned my head back toward them to scowl: that was the last trifling moment I remember.
I turned back to the wilderness. The hour had come. A banquet of arid pleasures spread out before us: desert mountains and desert valleys and the sky’s refractive arc. A swelling luminosity touched thick darkness, unveiling the barren grandeur of peaks and plains. Ridges converted from dark slate to deep indigo to creamy crimson; the lowlands followed in kind. Night and day held each other, a slow embrace of blues and golds: hues of grace—gilded light finding home, complement, and balance in cerulean darkness. The two met in the thinnest of margins, at the slivered brink of bald horizon. Honored equals paying homage to their common source, each passed through the other—awakening me from a dream of separateness. In a twinkling of an eye, the binding of light and dark in universal substance released me from estrangement from the earth, from myself—held me in a beauty and truth that won’t go into words. And just as quickly as it came, it was gone—the union hidden again, light in clear ascendency. Dark and light, out of their fusion, delivered the other back to distinction: a circadian movement so endogenous to the earth’s body, so mystifying to my own. “We need to return to being two,” writes poet Mahmoud Darwish, “so we can go on embracing each other.”
We soon stopped shuddering and shed our jackets as the sun overtook the mountaintop. Now the risen sun shone brighter than I had ever seen at six in the morning, as bright as any noonday sun. I squinted as I made my way down to the valley—now able to see the narrow mountain passes, the hairpin twists and turns, from which the dark night had mercifully shielded me. For a few privileged moments, atop Sinai, I stood in that place between night and the edge of light—endured a peace approaching perfect, desiring neither defeat for the dark nor triumph for the light. The moment of contact was enough. The two becoming one, then parting again, only to prepare for another reunion.