of the Eclipse
Tuesday, July 24
8:14 A.M., Pacific Standard Time
San Francisco, California
On the morning of the eclipse, Doreen McCloud hurried from Starbucks with the Chronicle tucked under her arm. She had a ten o’clock meeting across town and less than an hour to ride the train to her offices near the Embarcadero. Clutching her mocha and shivering at the morning chill, she strode briskly toward the underground station at Market and Castro.
Glancing toward the sky, she frowned. The night’s blanket of fog had yet to burn off, and the sun was only a pale glow through the mists. The eclipse was due to occur just after the four o’clock hour today—the first solar eclipse of the new millennium. It would be a shame if the fog marred the sight. She knew from the inundation in the media that the entire city was poised to celebrate the event. San Francisco could not pass up such an auspicious occasion without the usual fanfare.
Doreen shook her head at all the nonsense. With San Francisco’s damned eternal fog, why did a few extra moments of gloom warrant such fervency? The event was not even a total eclipse.
Sighing, she pushed aside these stray thoughts as she snugged her scarf tighter about her neck. She had more important concerns. If she could land the Delta Bank account, her track to partnership in the firm was assured. She allowed this thought to buoy her across Market Street toward the BART station.
She reached the station just as the next train approached. Fumbling her transit card through the reader, she hurried down the steps to the platform and waited for the train to come to a stop. Content she would make her meeting in plenty of time, she raised the cup of mocha to her mouth.
A yank on her elbow pulled the cup from her lips. Hot mocha splashed in a chocolate arc as the cup flew from her hands. Gasping, she swung around and faced her attacker.
An elderly woman, dressed in mismatched rags and a tattered blanket, stared up at Doreen with eyes that looked somewhere other than here. Doreen had a flashback to her mother in bed: the reek of urine and medicines, slacken features, and those same empty eyes. Alzheimer’s.
She stepped back, reflexively guarding her handbag under an arm. But the old woman, clearly homeless, seemed no immediate threat. Doreen expected the usual inquiry about spare change.
Instead, the woman continued to stare at her with those empty eyes.
Doreen took another step away; a twinge of sorrow pierced through her anger and fear. The eyes of the other commuters slowly turned away. It was the way of the city. Don’t look too closely. She tried to follow suit but could not. Maybe it was the flash upon her own long-buried mother or some twinge of sympathy, but either way, she found herself speaking. “Can I help you?”
The old woman shifted. Doreen spotted a half-starved terrier pup hidden among the drape of rags about her ankles. It stuck close to its master. Doreen could count every rib on the thin creature.
The homeless woman noticed Doreen’s gaze. “Brownie knows,” she said hoarsely, her voice graveled by age and the streets. “He knows, all right.”
Doreen nodded as if this made sense. It was best not to provoke the mentally ill. She had learned that with her mother. “I’m sure he does.”
“He tells me things, you know.”
Doreen nodded again, suddenly feeling foolish. The train doors opened with a whoosh behind her. If she didn’t want to miss the train, she’d best hurry.
She began to turn away when a withered arm shot out from under the tattered blanket; bony fingers clutched her wrist. Instinctively, Doreen yanked her arm away. But to her surprise, the old woman hung on.
With a shuffle of rags, the woman moved closer. “Brownie’s a good dog.” The harsh voice was thick with spittle. “He knows. He’s a good dog.”
Doreen broke the woman’s grip. “I…I must be going.”
The woman did not resist. Her arm vanished under her blanket’s folds.
Doreen backed her way into the open door of the train, her eyes still on the old woman. Left alone, the woman seemed to recede into her rags and tormented dreams. Doreen found the pup’s eyes staring back at her. As the train doors closed, Doreen heard the homeless woman muttering, “Brownie. He knows. He knows we’re all goin’to die today.”
1:55 P.M., PST (11:55 A.M. Local Time)
Aleutian Islands, Alaska
On the morning of the eclipse, Jimmy Pomautuk worked his way up the icy slope with practiced care. His dog Nanook trotted a few paces up the trail. The large malamute knew the trail well, but, always the loyal companion, he still kept wary watch for his master.
Trudging after the old dog, Jimmy led a trio of English tourists—two men and a woman—toward the summit of Glacial Point atop Fox Island. The view from there was spectacular. His Inuit forefathers had come to this same spot to worship the great Orca, building wooden totems and casting worship stones off the cliffs into the sea. His great-grandfather had been the first to take him as a boy to this sacred spot. That had been almost thirty years ago.
Now the spot was listed on countless tour maps, and the Zodiac boats from the various cruise lines offloaded their human cargo onto the docks of the picturesque village of Port Royson.
In addition to the quaint port, the other prime attraction to the island was the cliffs of Glacial Point. On a clear day like today, the entire Aleutian chain of islands could be seen spreading in an infinite arc. It was a sight considered priceless to his ancestors, but to the modern world it was forty dollars a head off-season, sixty dollars during the warmer months.
“How much bloody further is this place?” a voice behind him said. “I’m freezing my arse off here.”
Jimmy turned. He had warned the trio that the temperature would grow colder as they neared the summit. The group was outfitted in matching Eddie Bauer coats, gloves, and boots. Not a stitch of their expensive outwear showed any use. A price tag still dangled from the back of the woman’s parka.
Pointing an arm toward where his dog had just vanished, Jimmy nodded. “It’s just over the next rise. Five minutes. There’s a warming shack there.”
The complainer checked his watch and grunted.
Jimmy rolled his eyes and continued his march up the hill. If it weren’t for the tip as their guide, he’d be tempted to heave the whole lot of them over the cliffs. A sacrifice to the ocean gods of his ancestors. But instead, like always, he just trudged onward, reaching the summit at last.
Behind him he heard gasps from the trio. The view had that effect on most people. Jimmy turned to give them his usual speech about the significance of this site, but he found his companions’ attention was not on the spectacular views, but on their hurried attempts to wrap every square inch of exposed flesh from the mild winds.
“It’s so cold,” the second man said. “I hope my camera lens doesn’t shatter. I’d hate to have trekked all the way up to this cursed place and have nothing to show for it.”
Jimmy’s fingers clenched into a fist. He forced his tone to an even level. “The warming shack is nestled among that group of black pines. Why don’t you all go on in? We’ve got a bit of a wait before the eclipse.”
“Thank God,” the woman said. She leaned into the man who had first complained. “Let’s hurry, Reggie.”
Now it was Jimmy’s turn to follow. The English trio raced toward the scraggled copse of pines protected in a hollow. As he marched, Nanook joined him, nosing his hand for a scratch behind the ear.
“Good boy, Nanook,” he mumbled. Ahead, Jimmy’s gaze caught on the trail of smoke in the blue sky. At least his son had completed his chores and set the coals this morning before leaving for the mainland, off to celebrate the coming eclipse with friends.
For the oddest moment, a melancholy wave washed over Jimmy at the thought of his only son. He couldn’t identify why this sudden mood overwhelmed him. He shook his head. This place had that effect on him. There always seemed a presence here. Maybe the gods of my forefathers, he thought, only half jokingly.
Jimmy continued his way toward the warmth of the shack, suddenly wanting to escape the cold as much as the tourists had. His eyes followed the smoke trail up to the sun near the eastern horizon. An eclipse. What his ancestors described as a whale eating the sun. It was due to occur in the next few hours.
At his side, Nanook suddenly growled, a deep-throated rumble. Jimmy glanced to his dog. The malamute stared out toward the south. Frowning, he followed the line of his dog’s gaze.
The cliffs were empty, except for the wooden totem. It was a mock-up for the tourists, tooled by machines somewhere in Indonesia and shipped here. Not even the wood was native to these parts.
Nanook continued his deep-chested growl.
Jimmy did not know what had spooked his dog. “Quiet, boy.”
Always obedient, Nanook settled onto his haunches, but he still trembled.
Squinting, Jimmy stared out at the empty sea. As he stood, an old prayer came to his lips, taught to him by his grandfather. He was surprised he even remembered the words, and could not voice why he felt the need to speak them now. In Alaska, to survive, one learned to respect nature and one’s own instincts—and Jimmy trusted his own now.
It was as if his grandfather stood at his shoulder, two generations watching the sea. His grandfather had a phrase for moments like now. “The wind smells of storms.”
4:05 P.M. PST (10:05 A.M. Local Time)
Hagatna, Territory of Guam
On the morning of the eclipse, Jeffrey Hessmire cursed his bad luck as he hurried through the corridors of the governor’s mansion. The first session of the summit had broken for an early brunch. The dignitaries from the United States and the People’s Republic of China would not reconvene until after the scheduled viewing of the eclipse.
During the break, Jeffrey, as the junior aide, had been assigned to type and photocopy the Secretary of State’s notes from the morning’s session, then distribute them among the American delegation. So while the other aides enjoyed the pre-eclipse buffet in the garden atrium and networked with the members of the presidential senior staff, he would be playing stenographer.