The Touch of Dawn


Senses of Dawn

This is the first installment of a five-part series on the senses of dawn. Each piece (touch, sound, smell, taste, sight) will run at daybreak (EST) this week. 

Original illustration by Jackson Joyce.

What first? The touch.

Dawn arrives not rosy-breathed, not rosy-voiced. She arrives with rosy fingers. She arrives in touch. Homer told us so, over and over, as new days took shape during Odysseus’s long, wandering journey home. Here are light’s first moments as described in Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey:

“When early Dawn shown forth with rosy fingers”

“Soon Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses”

“When rose-fingered Dawn came bright and early”

“Early the Dawn appeared, pink fingers blooming”

“When newborn Dawn appeared with hands of flowers”

“Then Dawn was born again; her fingers bloomed”

Dawn is born again, just as we are. We emerge from the warm womb of sleep and it registers first in the body. Soften your eyes and feel it. Dawn runs her fingers along the softness of your flank, over your shoulder, in the hollow behind your knee. She touches your clavicle and your neck. Fingertips petal-soft. She brushes your breast, the inside of your thigh, moves up your spine and against your scalp, your jaw, your brow. Awareness accumulates. You feel, These are the boundaries of my body. Here’s where I start and the pillow stops. This is the blanket, this is my skin. This is the mattress, this is my chest. All that touches me isn’t me. I am separate again. 

Is it like being born? To emerge into sense each morning, to be expelled once again from the dimensionless dark? Who knows. We’ll never remember. In The Metamorphoses, Ovid writes about our mother’s womb being “our first house.” We’re pulled from those narrow walls by fingers pinked with blood. Is sleep perhaps our second house? Each day, again, rosy fingers pull us from it. Dawn, with her caress, her petaled tug, delivers us. Dawn is a midwife, dawn is a gynecologist, reaching up into the mother that is darkness and pulling us out. It’s cold out here, and quiet, and getting brighter. Each morning, the thrill: here I am! And the despair: I am separate.

The experience can be more pronounced when there’s another body in the bed with you. Does this arm around my waist belong to me? Where do I stop and you begin? How erotic it all is, how soft and charged, how intimate. Dawn’s fingers are rosy, flushed, and sensate. What’s you? What’s bed? What’s me? We feel our way into it at dawn. We come to know.

So Melville’s Ishmael came to know. He woke at dawn with Queequeg’s tattooed arm around him. “I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me.” Not by sight or sound or smell, but by touch. He says next: “My sensations were strange.” You’ve got it, Ishmael. Dawn’s a strange time of day. And we should establish here: dawn is short. There is night. There is morning. And for seven minutes, eleven, fourteen at the longest, there is an in-between. It is magic and it does not last long. It’s shorter, of course, than night. Shorter, of course, than morning or afternoon. Shorter, even, than dusk, which spreads itself out and lingers. Dawn is easy to miss.

Gaston Bachelard writes of the intimacy of our first homes: “… the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.” To know the dawn is to know a fleeting experience of that intimacy, what it is to be enwombed, held, and simultaneously to experience the loss of it. Dawn, in other words, is called the break of day. A crack, a severing, one part detaching from another.

The aubade, in poetry, devotes itself to this moment. The form celebrates or mourns the dawn. Often it’s a lover’s lament at the parting. One has to leave the bed to avoid getting caught, to prevent light from revealing the secret, illicit embrace. Here you are in my bed, but it is not the bed that you belong to. Here you are in me, I in you. It’s the oldest story. We cannot let it come to light.

But there’s another secret when dawn touches us, not just for lovers but for all of us. That secret? The only one who will hold us forever is death. Each rosy finger beckons us one day closer. In Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” up at four in the “soundless dark,” he feels “what’s really always there:/Unresting death” and “the total emptiness for ever.”

No good news comes from a call at four-thirty in the morning. This is not a time for amiable catch ups, for just checking in. It’s a time that delivers news of catastrophe or breakdown, hospital or death or “I know what you have done.” Such a call came in not long ago, not to me but to the one I was with. A predawn conversation ushered the collapse of a world. In response, because back-to-bed was not an option, we walked to the edge of the nearby river and stood there on a dock. The sun had not come up. The texture of the world was gray, soft with a cashmere density, and damp on the skin. I stood behind this person whose world had changed, arms around them, and felt it in the stomach first. A shifting, a tensing, and a release, a rolling like an uneven earth, like something was being held and let go at once. A fast swell of the lungs, ribs against my forearms, almost a gasp. The body shook. It was not a time for words. There would be time for that, when the morning became real. Now, a holding, a delivering into this new day, into this new world, and not entirely alone. The sun moved on the horizon, the breath slowed, the body stilled, and the embrace ended. Day breaks. Something gets broken. Two became one and are now two again, divided by the dawn. Pulled apart by hands of flowers. They sound gentle, but they are not gentle at all.

Dawn is the damp slow pulling out. Dew the drip on the tip of a blade of grass. It is not a time for words. That small morning by the river lip, there was only the press of body against body. Something separated and born, and a chill in the damp gray hush.


Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.