Matt Niswonger

An Alaskan summer sunset is a blend of swirling colors that lasts for three hours, a testament to a shadows ability to bend light. I had always perceived a sunset as a threshold between two things, a moment signifying transition, but on Kodiak Island the sunsets feel more like a time of day, like morning and afternoon. The sunsets I was used to seeing were always “over there”, but here on a cliff overlooking Pasagshak Bay, we were completely enveloped. I sat with friends where we would occasionally pause from our evening picnic, glancing at the surrounding landscape.

Even though I had experienced similar views during my summer on the island, I still craved to be closer to the natural world around. As my friends were deep in their conversations, and the dogs attentively waited for scraps, I separated from the group, just for a moment, to get a better view of the shoreline and the boulders below us. I scrambled around a tree growing precariously at the edge of the cliff and grabbed a rock outcropping next the tree thinking I could use it as a pivot handle to access the view on the other side. Haphazardly I tested the rock, shaking it with my hands, and satisfied it was sturdy, hung my entire weight to swing across. The rock broke off in my hands and I started to drop to the rocky shore below, like one of the crumbled pieces of stone.

This Alaskan sunset had shifted my reality and the way I perceived time, but now I was being sent to an entirely timeless place. My mind still seemed to react at a normal rate, but everything in the physical world slowed. I now realized how I would die. Without the flashes of my family and friends, like I had heard about in movies and books, I gave into death.

I free fell, slightly sideways, for about thirty feet. My body was limp as I dropped until I came in contact with a section of cliff that was not completely sheer. Still sliding and falling, I fought to right myself on the side of the cliff, aiming my feet downward and digging my hands into the sharp, jagged shale as if it were sand. Grasping the rocky surface I sensed some hope. Survival pumped through me as I slowed myself down just enough to pick a line of travel down the cliff face. Having skidded down this section I now saw the edge of another drop-off. Any thought or memory could have entered my mind, but it was a peregrine I used to watch near my house in Santa Cruz. This falcon had mastered the wind and floated from limb to limb on a eucalyptus tree above the boardwalk. I had studied it and always wondered what it was teaching me. Now, at this critical juncture, it was the only thing in my mind. At the next edge I began to feel light and purposefully launched myself down the cliff, now out of contact with the side, embracing life. I felt like the falcon rather than the shale that fell with me.

Right before I hit the ground, my mind went blank. My body needed to override my brain, to take control of a situation my cerebral cortex couldn’t handle. When I became aware again I found myself standing in a ten-foot wide patch of pebble strewn sand within a field of large, sharp boulders. I examined my body, expecting to find broken bones, though not yet feeling the pain of the impact. My hands dripped with blood, clothes torn and body jarred, but I had no apparent major injuries.

I clambered across the boulders to the shore. The water was calm with tiny lapping waves, more like a mystic lake than a sea. Everything seemed incredibly clear, heightened by the contrasting light and glassy blue of the cold water. I looked up at the sky to thank a god I had not known for twenty years. I dipped my hands into the water giving my blood to the sea, to the natural world that had allowed me another chance at life. From every fingertip stretched streams of blood into the clear water. There was just the ache of the cold making its way into my body as the water cleansed my wounds. As I watched my blood mix with the sea, I finally recognized the continuum that exists between everything.

Damon Adlao