This is the fifth installment of a five-part series on the senses of dawn. Each piece (touch, sound, smell, taste, sight) was published at daybreak.
Original illustration by Jackson Joyce
My grandmother lived on a cliff on an island and the walls in her front room were the color of bone, the color of the soft underside of certain mushroom caps. They were stark and alive in an earthly way. Two windows faced east and the wide-planked floors were painted a salty blue. At sunrise, light slid over the ocean and into the room, then speared it with a burning rip of peach, the day entering full force. Another window to the right of the bed faced southeast toward town. The curtains were white, thin, and the wind moved all through the room.
The room was charged. The curtains were not erotic, though they drifted in the wind like nightgowns. The heavy bureaus were not erotic, and when the drawers were pulled open, always with effort, they smelled of mothballs and dusty linen. The walls were bone. The floors were blue. They were not erotic. Something moved through this room, wind or ghosts or both. The room was charged with a presence I’m not sure I’m meant to name nor could if I wanted to. I have known no room so intimately lit by dawn’s entry.
Dawn burned in, and one morning a lover in the bed said, “Look.” Neither of us was all the way awake. And we turned toward each other, this was when we were new, and we pressed against each other. Maybe it was the ghosts that whispered yes, yes, now, right now, while you’re fleshed and ready, while you still cast shadows, now, yes, an urging from another world, touched by dawn’s rose fingers. We heeded it. And we slept again and woke when the morning was real.
The house is gone. My grandmother, too. But there are moments, in between sleep and wake, when I am in this room, and I see the windows and those white curtains, the dark weight of the bureaus to the right, a closet space in the left corner of the room doored with an off-white piece of cloth. And then my eyes begin to adjust. The bureaus burn away like fog in sun. The windows seem to be pulled up and away, as though on strings, and my own wide desk comes into view. The closet retreats through the wall, and bookcases appear in its place. Two windows descend to my right, overlooking no ocean. The eyes adjust; the edges get revealed; the blur comes into focus.
The narrator in Proust’s Swann’s Way has a similar experience at the end of a sleepless night. In the dim, he “had reconstructed [the room] around me … and furnished it like an architect and a decorator … But scarcely had the daylight … traced on the darkness, as though in chalk, its first white, correcting ray” than the room he’s actually in, not the one conjured by memory, returns; the false room is “put to flight by the pale sign traced above the curtains by the raised finger of the dawn.” Dawn casts a “correcting ray.” It can be harsh. It can be disorienting. “Evening came and the hour of transition began to divest all things of their reality,” writes Wolfgang Hilbig in the grim and lyrical Old Rendering Plant. If evening strips reality away, dawn returns it.
The discomfort. The return to awareness. One reenters consciousness before the edges are firmed, and for a moment the impossible is true. But then that correcting ray: your mother is still dead, the relationship has ended, the mistake cannot be taken back, the diagnosis stands. Dawn raises it’s finger. Remember, it gestures. Light collects, the room takes shape, we’re pulled from darkness and landed in knowing.
But it’s not all bad. It’s not all like this. To witness color returning to the world, to witness the shift of blur to edge, to sit quietly during these seven minutes, or eleven, and observe the transformation—there is little as simply and deeply beautiful, as mysteriously moving. There’s no other way to say it. The sky is dark. It is night. Then, a graying, a glowing, a depthless softening. Then, the trees take on definition against the sky. Then, the sky is a state of pale. Then, there is white with gold and blue, blue like it’s gone through the wash ten thousand times. Then, color like the lace around the collar of a dress worn by the ghost of Emily Dickinson. Then, blue heron sky. Then, green exists. Then, wisps of lapping clouds. Then, there are no words for the color of the clouds. Then, the branches, the tall blades of grass. Then, form exists. Then, light. Then, real morning. Good morning. This state of trance reveals certain secrets of the world. To spend these minutes, eyes open, going from darkness into light, is extraordinary. Not only seeing the colors in the sky that have no names, but the accompanying sense: there is time for everything.
“I get up so early my mornings feel like yesterdays,” said the girl behind the counter at the coffee shop up the street. To start the day in darkness, to experience the dawn, is to know the both-and-neither. And later in the day, thinking back to those first dim moments of waking, it feels a little like remembering a dream, a half reality. Was that the same day as this? Was it yesterday? In the blur, it was both. “The first moments of sleep are an image of death,” writes Gérard de Nerval in Aurelia, “a hazy torpor grips our thoughts and it becomes impossible to for us to determine the exact instant when the I, under another form, continues the task of existence.” At dawn, our first moments of waking are an image of birth; a growing thrill grips our thoughts. The I, pulled from dreams, pulled from darkness, continues the task of existence. Here we are.
Philip Larkin in his poem “Aubade” writes:
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with
But at dawn, we have it all. Dawn reacquaints us with each sense, makes us count them on five rosy fingers. In that crest of daybreak, we move from darkness, chaos, timelessness, and space without boundaries, into light, edges, time, and language. For a few minutes, there’s a place between yesterday and tomorrow. To take it in, even just for a moment, is to experience a glimmer of immortality. There is time for everything. Dawn is the prophecy and the potential, the abyss and its opposite, the end and the beginning. Each day, it gives us the opportunity to touch both at once. We watch, in as close as we can get to silence, as the sky fills with sky.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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