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River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 8.2 (2007) 102-112

Distances of the Afternoon
Donald Morrill

A pencil moves across a page, the line trailing from it perhaps a horizon, though it's too early to tell. Monteverde, Costa Rica, surrounds the line and me, who happens to be holding the pencil while somehow also being held by it. In our current age of statistical enthusiasms, you'll find it asserted that the average pencil contains a line thirty-five miles long, or of about 45,000 scrawled words. But it's also too early to tell how average this pencil might be—or so I hope. I'd purchased it at the village co-op, with a small box of even cheaper colored ones—student pencils—and I brim with the elation of a rank beginner.

You see before you a man intent on traversing some ambiguous distance. He's drawing and trying to draw—trying, that is, to pull the silhouette of that seemingly exotic tree on the hill toward the line about to trail from the pencil while also springing from some source within him. He thought he was sojourning with his wife for a few weeks in a cabin at the end of a dirt road, before moving on without a plan. But another journey has come of this stillness.

* * *

(Monteverde: January 16, 2003) Apparently, the traveler goes in order to arrive at this hillside café, to sit beside its broad windows overlooking banana palms and tall stalks tipped by failed yellow blossoms and green slopes skimmed by blue swifts that circle back once and then vanish. The traveler goes in order to arrive at this sill speckled with spent gnats and a nearly defeated dragonfly, its head flush against the puzzling pane, all the world before it unattainable. Oh, yes, the traveler sees the woman (a student, perhaps Italian) seated over an iced drink, measuring some question about him as she shares the straw with her boyfriend. But the traveler turns toward the hornet pawing at the glass that will not budge. He turns toward this graveyard of sunny wood, this varnished [End Page 102] plane of last existence, two inches wide. Who's not beside it? Who's not beside ourselves?

* * *

The black matter out of which the drawn line is made—a line that has also looped into these words with a somnolent yet touching desperation—derives ultimately from the stars, and it surely came early into the hands of humankind. This particular variety, graphite, found its way from the soils of sixteenth-century England into the first manufactured pencils. Prior to that mechanical refinement, it had been used by the locals of Cumbria to mark sheep.

We must imagine, however, the many other, much earlier markings not inked or etched on stone: religious figures, for instance, sketched on papyri subsequently devoured by worms, or mythical monsters assigned to fragile protopaper, or crucial landmarks and military strategy memorialized in the dust at the feet of, say, Sargon the Great. Drawing, it is rightly said, is of a primal order, an elemental impulse. Yet most of it has disappeared and, despite the development of more durable media in the last several hundred years, most of it still disappears. Perhaps that prodigality is a measure of its essential status. Think of childhood's rush of pictures assigned, daydreamed, secreted . . . or "adult" doodles of every variety, maps of hills and hearts, directions . . . or even the contrails of airliners (as at least one commentator has asserted). A single line confers a power on blankness while also making a claim against it. A word written or printed does the same. And these investitures are, in general, fleeting, loosed mostly on oblivion, despite the hope, embodied by the eraser, for second chances at spawning an immemorial sign.

Not so incidentally the first rubber eraser was invented in 1770 and attached to a pencil in 1858. Before that—as though the practice were a vestige of some ancient rite or an unaccountable allusion...


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pp. 102-112
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