Four Incidents in the Night – Michigan Quarterly Review
An image of a train station in the dark.

Four Incidents in the Night


I’ve been invited to lead a creative nonfiction workshop. The fee is generous, so I accept. It will take place at Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky, roughly two hours away from my home. Perhaps because it’s twilight, I’m confused by the facility: a stone mountain rising from the river with small apartments wedged into the rock. A path winds upwards and soon I reach the apartment where I’ll be staying. The place is a strange mixture of New York and Kentucky. On the sidewalks are food carts and little shops like the ones in the East Village. 

My host shows me to my room and then leads me to a much larger venue with a blackboard, table, and metal folding chairs. I’ve brought a stack of red folders with me, some for the students where they’ll find writing prompts. The rest are mine—identical red folders and a cheat sheet for my lecture later. So, I must be sure the two sets are not entangled, or the students will be suspicious and doubt my intelligence. These days, it’s considered OK for students to leave the room if they are bored. They are a slovenly sort, and rather irritating. After we all introduce ourselves, they go off and write on their own, sitting in trees, smoking on the front steps, or sprawled on the classroom floor. I head to my apartment and practice my speech a second time. 

When we reconvene each writer shares what she or he has written. One man is a Dylan imposter, who considers Ginsberg a genius. Naturally, his essay is not an essay, nor creative nonfiction. No, it’s a weak, curtailed version of “America.” He doesn’t get a great reaction from me or the other students. Offended and swearing, he storms out of the room. After that, an elderly man shares his “graphic essay,” the words of which run down the page, pausing after each word, making the essay virtually undecipherable. He calls it “a haiku.” 

At the very end of the session a woman reads an over-the-top narrative of her sex life, which makes us all squirm. Somewhere in the middle of her account, the coffee pot explodes and the host hurries to clean it all up. But in her hurry, she unplugs the overhead lights. We are in the dark. Every other source of light is extinguished, though we run around the room pulling lamp chains and clicking switches. Someone lights a candle. But a gust of wind wipes it out.

Why is it so dark, I ask. How can we continue our session? While all of this is happening, the folders get mixed up. And to my horror, my much-needed payment (a thousand-dollar bill, one fifty, and the rest mostly singles) has hit the floor and spread across the room. Even in the dark, the students notice my panic, and slide closer, hoping to catch at least a few dollars. If it’s a game, it’s certainly not one I enjoy. 

Decisively, though her voice retains its sweetness, my host orders a stop to the chaos. She has become the good witch! She finds her way through the dark and whispers in my ears: Relax, my darling, you are sleeping and all you must do is open your eyes, open your eyes, open your eyes… 


I’ve been demoted to an internship at the prestigious publishing house, for what reason I do not know, exactly, something to do with my lack of articulation. At least it’s a job. I’m handed a stack of marketing sheets and envelopes that seal on two sides, one with a lick, the other with a strip of adhesive. But even folding the papers turns out to be tricky (triangle, three-fold, half over half), and my boss says I’m making a mess of things. She barks: Just let me do it! She’s already hired a replacement, so I’ll have to accept a fifty percent cut in my salary as a “going away present.” Where will I go now? Starbucks, where everyone else is a quarter my age and sufficiently trained? Will I continue down the ladder, chasing after shopping carts in the Kroger parking lot? Will I lose the ability to even finish a sentence? 

Oddly enough, the demotion turns out to be a gift, for suddenly I’m surrounded by a rapturous vision, accompanied by music pouring from the sky. Can it be? Mozart’s “Benedictus” from his Requiem. I know this piece intimately, and have often sung along with my recorded version. And though I’m an alto, swiftly my voice box relaxes and I’m able to reach a high soprano. I spread my arms like Maria in the Swiss Alps and our tight little office expands into a sprawling mansion, furnished by 17th century items: an inlaid desk, a body-length mirror table, intricately upholstered chairs, and many luxurious rooms. Above all, the coup de grace, a terrace nearly a hundred feet wide, with ceramic flower pots on each post. Beyond that, a gracious, bright green lawn, with fountain-spouting nymphs. An ideal place for a wedding ceremony. And suddenly I remember––I was married here in a rose garden to the man who has lived with me for nearly forty-two years.

And now, the guests come together. From the edges of the lawn a much younger Daniel, who will oversee the festivities, whispers in my ear he’d like to have sex, perhaps after the ceremony? His brother Peter, who once lay naked in his empty bathtub, lifts from his coffin, reeking of alcohol. Georgia, their mother, is present, who climbed to the roof to enjoy just ten minutes of sun with its healing vitamin D. One by one, all four of my sisters arrive. And thank God, they have given up their resentments, for the moment. 

Alas, my mother has been dead for two decades, and won’t be arriving. She rose to an afterlife she truly believed in. My father is now nothing; having disparaged even the thought of an afterlife. I do not have a memorial on my desk for him. I do have a photo on my dresser of my mother as a young woman standing on a pier, her hair whipped by a California breeze. And tucked in the corner of the frame is a tiny painting of the Madonna. Though she was called Peg, she was really Mary, our Madonna. 

Pages from the past fold over and over till certain elements nestle inside the present. My children’s arguments come back to me. B: You play stinky songs. L: Yeah, well you look like diarrhea. And, as they were playing in the garden, I heard this: B: Where is God? L: In your heart, or at least part of him. B: What part of him? His head? His finger? His foot? As Emerson generously wrote, “Your goodness must have some edge to it—else it is none.” 

Now, my eldest orders groceries for me. She has a two-year-old girl of her own, who casts a beautiful, sky-blue light all through our house, which itself has many windows. I am retired from my job as an intern, from my job raising children, from my job as the founder of an independent publishing house. Most likely I will die before I can retire from my job as a wife. 

I exercise for an hour every morning. Knees up, leg left, leg right, left arm up, right arm up, flat on my back, knees to my chest etc. I wear arch supports, pressure socks, Velcro wrapped around my ankles in high-top sneakers. All the accouterments of aging. For, you see, my body is signaling vociferously, with frozen fingers and overstretched tendons. It is time. 

One morning, on my usual walk around the cricket field, I catch sight of a suspension bridge over the trees, shining bright white like an enormous, heavenly autoharp. The Scottish have a beautiful word, Glisk, which means to shine faintly, or a glimpse, a brief or incomplete view. That pretty much describes me. I may never happen again. 


I dreamed I was in the country and happened upon a run-down farmhouse. The couple had a disabled baby who slept in a manger in the barn, just like Jesus. I saw his mother struggling to care for the child, running back and forth between her house and the barn with bottles and blankets. And when she was exhausted her husband took over, but he didn’t have the skills and wasn’t kind. 

I offered to change the baby’s diaper whenever she needed help. This proved to be harder than I expected, as the child was heavy (almost thirty pounds) and squirmy. It was like wrestling a huge fish from the ocean. A diet of whole-milk oatmeal was part of the problem. No vegetables or fruits. The diapers were loose cloth and required many washings. The older children were enlisted to fold them, every week, stacking them into a four-foot tower of diapers right next to the manger. Those large, old-fashioned pink safety pins were all that held the mess together. 

I managed to tidy the child up, but once I accidentally left a pen inside the diaper and—much worse—it was one of my expensive fountain pens with a very sharp tip. On the way home, I remembered with a start, and ran hurriedly back to the barn to unpin the diaper. To my horror, it had punctured the baby’s fat thigh, though strangely he didn’t cry. Were his pain receptors damaged as well? Was this some blessing of his disability? I hoped so. To be sure, I lifted the child and with the tip of a diaper pin, I quickly pierced his other leg. He didn’t utter a peep. I tucked the pen back into my purse and carefully returned the baby to his manger. Don’t tell anyone, please. 


We puzzlers arrived in an industrial area where we were soon guided into a large airplane hangar. Inside were at least forty long tables, chairs neatly tucked in. People of all ethnicities were already present, wearing bright clothing from their various home countries. There were lederhosen, saris, paisley covered tee shirts, kaftans, and all varieties of shoes and hats. In my oversized tent dress, I fit right in with the others. Many were already hunched over, engrossed in complicated jigsaw puzzles as if in a club or competition. I sat down and began to assemble one on the theme of quilts, each one a tiny puzzle. We all wondered who would be judging us and what prizes would be awarded. Cash, or medals? Clearly, we were there for a special purpose. Were we the chosen ones? Were we all Jewish? 

At the head of the hall stood a mahogany lectern, and behind it a woman dressed in a black robe. One of the puzzlers raised his hand: Your honor, I was just wondering. What qualified us for this honor? The judge responded, “Your clothing made it clear you were designated a special group that long ago should have been extinguished. You were hiding, or didn’t receive the message, or otherwise were overlooked.” 

But there’s good news, extermination is in vogue! Thanks to post heart-attack patient reports, we have strong evidence of the afterlife. Over five percent of the population have “died” of cardiac arrest and, after being revived, they described great peace, sudden relief from pain, a tunnel of light in the darkness. Their bodies rose above the table, and various “beings” gathered around them, some of them relatives and friends. Many who underwent these NDEs changed their lives for the good and carried on. And these reports were remarkably similar—across cultures and countries. 

So, that said, we’ve decided to help send you on. The judge blew a whistle, signaling the end of the competition. At the same time, a ceiling-high door slid open, and thin contrails of smoke slithered through the hangar. Or was it ash, blown in by wind? There was the sensation of elasticity, our surroundings never solid for more than five minutes. Deep conversations trailed off. Puzzle bits were scattered everywhere, even those with lock-in features. Before long, we were asked to strip down to our underwear and, though we were surprised, everyone complied. Overalls were issued and pulled on. We were politely asked to line-up in a queue. 

Behind the hangar were twelve cone-shaped furnaces, firewood burning. This was not the reward we expected, and it wasn’t clear if the judge was lying or telling the truth. But we were believers, and the promise of a better life after death, a life without troubles, was irresistible. So, we marched enthusiastically into the cones, singing.

Sarah Gorham is the author of the essay collections Study in PerfectAlpine Apprentice, the forthcoming Funeral Playlist (2024) from Etruscan Press, and four collections of poetry. Her honors include fellowships from the NEA, and three state arts councils. She is the retired founder and editor-in-chief at Sarabande Books. 

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