In the Wild Light. Jeff Zentner. 2021. [August] 432 pages. [Source: Library]
First sentence: The human eye can discern more shades of green than of any
other color. My friend Delaney told me that. She said it’s an
adaptation from when ancient humans lived in forests. Our eyes evolved
that way as a survival mechanism to spot predators hiding in the
vegetation. There are as many tinges of understanding as there are hues of green in a forest. Some things are easy to understand. There’s a natural logic, a clear cause and effect. Like how an engine works.
Premise/plot: Cash Pruitt is offered a once in a lifetime opportunity: a scholarship to an elite boarding school where his best, best friend, Delaney Doyle, is attending. But it will mean leaving everything--and everyone--he loves behind for a few years. It will mean moving from Tennessee to Connecticut. Just at a time when he wants to be with his Papaw the most. But...ONCE in a lifetime. And everyone is telling him that he'd be a complete fool to pass this up...
In the Wild Light is a coming of age novel that chronicle's Cash's (first) year away at school. It is a GROWING time but also a grieving time.
My thoughts: The characters are oh-so-human. It is an emotional roller coaster of a book. It's tough in some places because the emotions are so genuinely raw. I dare anyone--who's lost a grandparent--to not *feel* that chapter. Not that every page of this one is about punching you in the heart. The strength of this one is in the writing--the narrative--and the characters. BOTH are so well done.
She’s tried to explain how her mind functions, without
success. How do you tell someone what salt tastes like? Sometimes you
just know the things you know. It’s not her fault we don’t get it.
People still treat her like she’s to blame.
aren’t okay with not understanding everything. But I’m not afraid of a
world filled with mystery. It’s why I can be best friends with Delaney
A ray catches a
crack in the windshield and illuminates it, a tiny comet. I’ve always
loved when the light finds the broken spots in the world and makes them
“I got an offer to go to a boarding school up north.”
My heart plummets. With all the press she’s been getting, I knew this day would come.
swallow, then nod for her to continue. “Oh wow.” The unease in my voice
is obvious to my own ears even as the words leave my lips.
“Middleford Academy. In New Canaan, Connecticut.”
“Sounds fancy.” My head swims.
one of the top five prep schools in America. This lady from Alabama
named Adriana Vu, who made hundreds of millions in biotech, went to
Middleford. She donated a shitload of money to the school to fund this
amazing lab and STEM program. She contacted me and said she’d talked to
Middleford and she’d pay for me to go there.”
since I first became aware that the world contains mysteries and
incomprehensible wonders, I’ve tried to live as a witness to them. As we
came to know each other, I began to see something in Delaney that I’d
never seen in another person. I can’t name that thing. Maybe it has no
name, the way fire has no shape. It was something ferocious and
consuming, like fire.
And I wanted to be close to it, the way people want to stand near a fire.
my Tess at? No Longmire tonight?” Tess is short for Tesla, which is
what he started calling Delaney after she told him that Nikola Tesla was
her favorite scientist. Before that, he called her Einstein.
“Tending her half brothers.”
“Y’all are like to have ruint my Saturday night.
Life has given me little reason to feel large, but I see no need to make myself feel smaller.
all around us. We live our whole lives in its shadow. It’ll do what it
will. So we need to do what we will while we can.”
With that, our conversation dwindles.
rock and feel on my face the caress of the cool evening air, scented by
the damp green of broken vines and cut grass. Beside me, Mamaw and
Papaw hold hands but don’t speak.
Above us is an
immaculate chaos of white stars and drifting moonlit-silver clouds. I
remember how I would sit under the sanctuary of the night sky, into the
late hours, waiting for my mama to get home. Or to escape her dopesick
moaning and thrashing. Or to avoid the red-rimmed, whiskey-fogged glare
of a new boyfriend. Or because I needed to feel like there was something
beautiful in this world that could never be taken from me.
Papaw coughs and coughs. Eventually, he collects himself.
listen to his shallow, uneven respiration. Ask me to number the breaths
I wish for you. One more. Ask me a thousand times. The answer will
always be one more
thought the predawn tranquility would help me find some peace. But the
quiet is just another clamor in my head, calling me in every direction I
can’t choose between.
This must be what it’s like to die. You look around you and see how much of what you love you leave behind.
Delaney nestles herself into my side and asks me, “If you could know everyone who’s ever loved you, would you want to know?”
think about my answer for a few moments. Would I? Would it be better to
know that someone you never thought loved you did love you? Or would it
be worse to know that someone you always thought loved you didn’t?
not a question you can answer, like so many she poses, and I go to tell
her so. By the time I do, though, she’s sound asleep—soon twitching and
jerking as her slumber deepens. Careful not to rouse her, I pull a
hoodie out of my backpack and drape it over her. I sit with my ghostly
reflection in the finger-smudged window for company, as the new and
sprawling American countryside blurs past us in the darkness.
try to put new students with other new students.” Yolanda scans a
paper. “So…Cash. You’ll be rooming with Patrick McGrath III—he goes by
Tripp. He’s from Phoenix, Arizona. His father was actually just elected
to the US House of Representatives.”
My newly full stomach roils. Hope you’re a good guy, Tripp. Sounds like you’re a rich and powerful one.
for you, Delaney.” Yolanda leafs through her papers. “Here we go.
Viviani Xavier. I think I’m saying that right? The X is a sh sound. She
comes to us from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.”
“You better brush up on your Spanish,” I tell Delaney.
“They speak Portuguese in Brazil,” Delaney says. “It’s the language most spoken in South America.”
“Viviani speaks excellent English,” Yolanda says. “You’ll have no trouble communicating.”
think of poetry lovers as people who love beautiful things.” He stops
to catch his breath. “You love the beauty in this world. Ain’t a reason I
can think of you don’t belong in a poetry class.
thought about how funny it would be if when you got to heaven, God
could give you a printout with all of your life’s vital statistics. How
much hair you produced. How many colds you defeated. How many times you
skinned your knees. How many nightmares you endured. How many pancakes
Every brave thing you did.
Every heartbreak you overcame.
Everyone you mourned.
Everyone you ever loved.
Everyone who ever loved you.
I left, Papaw told me that if I’m ever hanging out with a group, I
should be the one to suggest getting ice cream, because it’ll always be a
good time and it’ll be my doing. So before it’s time to leave, I do
exactly that, and he’s right.
we don’t choose our dreams; they choose us. So instead I dream of doors
sealed by death and wake up sweating in the mute darkness, my roommate
sleeping in blissful oblivion a few feet away and a world apart.
is a tether. Sometimes you get some slack in the line and you can play
it out for a while. You forget and think you’re free. But you’ll always
get to the end and realize it’s still there, binding you, reminding you
of itself, reminding you that you belong to each other.
Poetry is one of the highest artistic achievements of humankind.
told you that there are many things that poetry won’t do. But there are
many things poetry will do. Poetry makes arguments. It presents cases
for better ways of living and seeing the world and those around us. It
heals wounds. It opens our eyes to wonder and ugliness and beauty and
brutality. Poetry can be the one light that lasts the night. The warmth
that survives the winter. The harvest that survives the long drought.
The love that survives death. The things poetry can do are far more
important than the things it can’t.”
often won’t freely give you moments of joy. Sometimes you have to
wrench them away and cup them in your hands, to protect them from the
wind and rain. Art is a pair of cupped hands. Poetry is a pair of cupped
Poets use language in ways I’ve never considered, to describe things I thought defied description.
Adkins picked poets who write about the world. About rivers and
fireflies and formations of geese and deer and rain and wind. Things I
By the time I’m done reading at least one
poem out of each book (usually more), I’m experiencing a deep calm, like
I feel after being on a river, under the sun, in the wind, feeling the
spray off my paddle. For those brief moments strolling through the
forest of words, everything had disappeared. Papaw wasn’t dying while I
was far from him at a place where I didn’t belong, always on the
precipice of disappointing him. I had stolen moments of joy from a
hungry world that devours them and protected them for a while in cupped
I sit with the feeling for as long as I can before it fades and loses definition, like a cloud formation.
Then I remember the second part of my assignment. To write a poem. This part makes me more apprehensive.
Vi gets to the end of her twig.
“You deserve to do what you love in life.” I pick up another twig and hand it to her.
gives me a melancholy smile and accepts my offering. “I love my
parents, but I think they don’t always know who I am very well.”
“There anything I can do?”
snaps off a piece of the twig, reaches over, and gently sets it upright
in my hair. “Let me grow apple trees on your head so every time we hang
out I can have free apples.”
My entire body
hums at her closeness and touch. The crackle I felt last night at the
game is still present. I sit stone-still. “Anything you want.” I’ve
never meant something more.
you don’t even realize you are ravenous until you start eating. Dr.
Adkins’s story has identified that feeling I get when I read and write
poetry: satiety. I didn’t know to call it a hunger until now. I think
about my mama. Maybe the Oxys and fentanyl were her attempted cure for a
nagging craving she was never able to identify. All she knew was what
killed it for a while.
While we talk, the room
fills even more with the sumptuous smell of cooking. Alex’s kimchi fried
rice adds to the aromatic symphony. We hear Desiree and Alex laughing
and talking cheerily in the kitchen. Periodically, one will say
something like Nice touch! or Never thought to do that!
Words make me feel strong. They make me feel powerful and alive.
They make me feel like I can open doors.
only heartbreak were truly what it claims to be, it might not be so
bad. But here’s the thing—your heart never gets broken quite enough to
stop wanting who broke it.
he recovers, he says, “Tell you what, Mickey Mouse. You find that right
someone, and ever’ minute you spend with them is like a Hawaiian
vacation. She’s out there. You’ll figure it out.”
He’s never been to Hawaii.
It feels like he’s bequeathing me an inheritance of the only wealth he possesses—his memories, his quiet joys.
Dignity dies as the body does.
pulls off his oxygen mask, and it makes a rushing sound, like the
advance of wind before a storm. “Tell you a story,” Papaw says in his
pale whisper, barely audible above the noise of his mask, as he visibly
summons himself from the gloaming. “You was just born. Your mama’s
trailer weren’t fit for a baby, so we brought you both home from the
hospital. Your mama slept in her old room. Your room.” He pauses to
muster his strength and continues. “Your mamaw was wore out too. It was
springtime, so I took you out on the porch and sat, just you and me, in
the rocker. Had you wrapped up so tight you weren’t but a head poking
out of a blanket.” He stops and gathers himself. “Watched you feel the
breeze on your face for the first time. Watched you open your little
gray eyes and squint out at the trees swaying in the wind. And I says to
you, ‘That wind you feel on your face is called wind. Them trees you
see are called trees.’ Holiest thing I ever witnessed—you feeling the
wind for the first time. Seeing a tree for the first time. Speaking
their names to you. Saw the face of God in you that day. Ever’ time you
tell a story, it becomes a little more ordinary. So I swore I’d only
tell this one the once.” He pauses once more, and with what remains of
himself, says, “There was a last time I held you in my arms, and I
didn’t even know it.”
He finishes, spent by this effort. He murmurs something else, but I can’t make it out. Something Mickey Mouse.
I wriggle closer to him and pull his arm over me. Let this be the last time you hold me in your arms.
I slip his oxygen mask back on him. He drifts off, and I hold his hand until it goes limp and heavy.
“I love you. I’ll always love you,” I whisper again and again to his unconscious ear, hoping he absorbs it somehow.
Hoping he takes it with him to whatever unmapped land he’s journeying to.
Hoping he returns.
If only once more.
I cried until I was empty—not of feeling but of tears.
I wish our love was enough to keep whole the people we love.
Some people can lift your heart up to the light, reading the truth of you written on it.
I was afraid that being a man meant waging war on what’s beautiful.
I wanted to love the world without taking anything from it.
knew all this. This is what you remember of the people you love when
they’re gone—the ways they knew you that no one else did—even you. In
that way, their passing is a death of a piece of yourself.
I don’t know how I’ll do this. I barely managed when I was only cracked. Now I’m broken wide open.
ordinarily encourage sharing of rooms, to teach students compromise and
conflict resolution and to forge lifelong friendships. But you have
certainly earned the right to a solo room.”
That sounds pretty great. “What’s the other option?”
of your fellow students, who currently resides in a single room, has
come forward and asked to be placed as your roommate if you so choose. I
believe you know him. Alex Pak. An exceptional young man, from what I
An ecstatic bloom spreads through me. “Yeah, I know Alex. He is pretty exceptional. Let’s go with that.”
tell you the truest thing I know: You are not a creature of grief. You
are not a congregation of wounds. You are not the sum of your losses.
Your skin is not your scars. Your life is yours, and it can be new and
wondrous. Remember that.”
“Goodbye for now, Cash.”
“Goodbye for now, Dr. Adkins.”
“My friends call me Bree.”
She looks at me.
said something at Thanksgiving I keep thinking about: that you didn’t
inherit your mamaw’s gift for healing. But you did,” I say.
I remember first seeing her across the room at that Narateen meeting. Now we’re gazing at the lights of New York City together.
I wonder where I’d be at this moment, the smaller life I would have led if we’d never spoken.
can feel when your mind’s building a palace for a memory. A place it
lives, glowing and dancing in marble halls. A place you can visit when
you need to feel less of the world’s gravity.
I feel my mind building such a palace for Delaney and me.
I imagine the two of us at an all-night diner, drawing faces on
pancakes with ketchup, drunk on each other, and laughing like nothing
beautiful ever dies.
I’ll always love her.
Every wound, every hurt that brought us together—I regret none of it.
once thought of memory as a tether. I still do, in a way. But now I
also see memory as the roots from which you grow toward the sun.
The dreams of closed doors still come, but less now.
I sit with my notebook and pen in the wild light of the day’s end.
In the place where I learned the names of trees and wind, I write.
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