Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Sheltering Sky by Peter Bowles

In a little more than a month, I'll be in Morocco. Then, who knows where? When I travel, I like to learn as much as I can about where I'm going, before I go. I read guide books. U.S. State Department reports. And I read novels set in the locale. The Sheltering Sky was a novel Sue suggested. I suggested Morning in Antibes to her.

Here is the passage from which the novel takes its title. Port and Kit, two travelers loose on the face of the earth, have ridden bicycles out into the Sahara. Kit cheated on Port the night before, having made love to Tunner on a train. It clearly shows a traveler's fear of belonging, fear of dying, of living for the moment, of looking for companionship, knowing they'll never fit in. The Arab rooted to a rock in prayer is an especially nice touch.

She pinched his arm. "Look there!" she whispered. Only a few paces from them, atop a rock, sitting so still that they had not noticed him, was a venerable Arab, his legs tucked under him, his eyes shut. At first it seemed as though he might be asleep, in spite of his erect posture, since he made no sign of being conscious of their presence. But then they saw his lips moving ever so little, and they knew he was praying.

"Do you think we should watch like this?" she said, her voice hushed.

"It's all right. We'll just sit here quietly." He put his head in her lap and lay looking up at the clear sky. Over and over, very lightly, she stroked his hair. The wind from the regions below gathered force. Slowly the sky lost its intensity of light. She glanced up at the Arab; he had not moved. Suddenly she wanted to go back, but she sat perfectly still for a while looking tenderly down at the inert head beneath her hand.

"You know," said Port, and his voice sounded unreal, as voices are likely to do after a long pause in an utterly silent spot, "the sky here's very strange. I often have the sensation when I look at it that it's a solid thing up there, protecting us from what's behind."

Kit shuddered slightly as she said: "From what's behind?"


"But what is behind?" Her voice was very small.

"Nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night."

"Please don't talk about it now." There was agony in her entreaty. "Everything you say frightens me, up here. It's getting dark, and the wind is blowing, and I can't stand it."

He sat up, put his arms about her neck, kissed her, drew back and looked at her, kissed her again, drew back again, and so on, several times. There were tears on her cheeks. She smiled forlornly as he rubbed them away with his forefingers.

"You know what?" he said with great earnestness. "I think we're both afraid of the same thing. And for the same reason. We've never managed, either one of us, to get all the way into life. We're hanging on to the outside for all we're worth, convinced we're going to fall off at the next bump. Isn't that true?"

She shut her eyes for a moment. His lips on her cheek had awakened the sense of guilt, and it swept over her now in a great wave that made her dizzy and ill. She had spent her siesta trying to wipe her conscious clean of the things that had happened the night before, but now she was clearly aware that she had not been able to do it, and that she never would be able to do it. She put her hand to her forehead, holding it there. At length she said: "But if we're not in, then we are more likely to--fall off."

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