Finally, she rose by her tall orchestral harp. Freshmen rustled like aspen in the pews.
In the rushing tedium of Stanford’s Western Culture requirement, this had been a special day: we were off to Memorial Church to hear a harpist and singer perform someone’s idea of ancient Greek music, somber and eerie. Shafts of sunlight fell through clerestory windows from the hot afternoon. It was October, the month when all freshmen are immortal.
But now she was done. The freshmen’s rustle rose slowly to become dull applause. She stood. Her hawklike face assembled a reaperish smile.
Applause died back to rustle. Up popped the professor, beaming. Any questions?
Dust turned in the shafts of sun.
OK, then! We exhaled, clapped again, rose, turned to go, and froze.
The church was giggling.
But I project. It was I who heard the giggle, I who froze. Others felt other things, reacted otherwise. The prof looked startled, shouting with the sound off. The hawk woman plunged into a crouch. A matronly colleague walked sternly up the aisle, feet firm on the roiling floor, off to give the captain a piece of her mind.
Mouths were open, but all I heard was the giggle.
Later, I’d piece it together. Stanford is made of sandstone – a substance that somehow coheres into bricks but is still, to the touch and eye, unmistakably sand. This lightest of stones, what would it sound like if it rattled? If ten thousand bricks rattled together? Of course, it would be pure soprano, a tinkle, a giggle. It would sound like a heavenly event, not an earthly one. Only sensible people would run from a building at such a sound. No wonder I was the only one left, rapt, listening.
Then the bright popping sounds began. I looked: things were falling through clouds of dust. How did I finally arrive at “earthquake?” The sight of things falling? Specks of fast sand peppering my skin? A wooziness that might have been caused by the floor moving, six long feet below my floating brain?
Then I had the word — earthquake — and time came unstuck. Stand in a doorway! OK, there’s a 30-foot-high transept arch over there, so at once there I am, back to one wall, watching the great stones of the arch line-dancing above me. What’s that clatter? It’s those mosaics from the dome, now zillions of falling daggers slicing through the pews. Bright light! A dark stained-glass window has shattered, dropping a new sunshaft through the dust. The sudden bolt of light sweeps past me to anoint the topmost corner of the harp. I gaze dumbly at the harp on its swath of red carpet, now glowing like an apparition through the rain of dust and tile.
I do not think: “Cecil B. DeMille,” “fall of Rome,” “Ten Commandments,” or “cliché.” It seems I would rather die in dumbness than in irony.
For a glimpse of the Buddhist idea of enlightenment, consider the sudden cessation of sound: the barking dogs, screaming baby, partying neighbors who lull you to sleep and then wake you by falling silent. Surprise without noise: that, if you could stay there, is what enlightenment would feel like.
Perhaps death feels that way too. And indeed, in that moment, a door appeared in the clouds of dust, and (still not thinking ironically) I stepped through, out. No, not heaven, not bardo. The Quad.
Blasting heat. The prof and the matron were pallid, staring. Freshman women embraced and wept, but the young men giggled and tittered, immortally. The whiz-kid from Kansas walked up to me:
“That –” He puffed his chest out, constructed a snicker. “That was just a little one, right?”
“No, Bill, that was a big one. And for the rest of your life, there’ll be sandstone in your bones. Giggling.”
Written by Jarrett Walker of Creature of the Shade.