It’s easy to lose track of time in an attic. None of the things stored in all of the attics I’ve known are needed for daily life and only a few of them, like Christmas decorations, will ever get used. What makes the things stored in attics worth keeping are memories. During summer family vacations in Massachusetts, I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ attic. Behind a door in one of the upstairs bedrooms was a steep flight of stairs, painted white, that led to what was to me, as a young boy, a cavernous room. It stretched the full length of the house and had a vaulted ceiling, intricate with rafters and collar ties. The stillness of the space and the angled shaft of sunlight from a narrow sash window setting the dusty air aglow made the attic seem like a cathedral. What I remember most about the things stored there was my grandfather’s Army uniform, especially the stiff leather puttees, molded to fit the shape of his calves. It was one of the first things in my life that gave me a sense of history and the value of things that came well before my time.
The attic in my house is not nearly as grand, just a low wedge of space tucked under the roof on the north side of the house. While it is lined with kraft-paper-backed insulation, it is just as much a repository of memorabilia. Many of the cardboard boxes there are filled with photographs—prints from my teens and twenties, and slides for the years since then. There are so many albums, trays, and sleeves full of slides that I keep a light box on the floor, butted against a windowless end wall.
A few days ago, I stooped through the chest-high attic door to find something, I don’t now remember what, and sat down next to the light box. It comes on when I flip the switch for the attic lights, and the clutter of slides on the table gleamed with patches of color, like a crude stained-glass window. I was drawn to a group of warm pale-blue rectangles, slides I had taken during a 2002 kayaking trip to Palau in the Western Pacific.
I set a loupe over one, and as I leaned close and peered in, the tropical island waters and a palm-fringed beach enveloped me, as if I had fallen, like Alice, through a looking glass. I went from slide to slide, then pulled a box of slide sleeves, looking through the hundreds of images I had taken during five days of kayaking there with my friend John. Each look at Palau’s luminous sky and water lifted the weight of this oppressive winter.
Despite its location in the tropics, Palau had its own season of darkness in the fall of 1944. The Japanese held the archipelago and had fortified the islands with artillery and extensive networks of caves. Despite the stronghold’s dubious strategic value in the Pacific Theater, the American Armed Forces launched an attack on the morning of September 15, 1944, the first wave of what became known as the Battle of Peleliu, after the island at the south end of the archipelago. It was supposed to be a quick fight, but it went on for 73 days and cost thousands of lives. The assault was codenamed, prophetically perhaps, Operation Stalemate.
John and I didn’t reach Peleliu, where the worst of the fighting took place, but there were traces of the battle scattered among the islands to the north.
During the battle, bombing, flamethrowers, and firefights stripped Peleliu bare of its forests, but Peleliu is now as it had been before the war as are all of Palau’s roughly 340 islands. In the half century that had passed by the time John and I visited, the artifacts of war—steel and concrete—had yielded to time and decay and were already being overrun by trees and brush, seaweed and coral. The islands were exceedingly beautiful and peaceful. In the middle of the Rock Islands, John and I landed on Eil Malk Island and hiked a winding trail through dark woods to Jellyfish Lake. Sea water circulates through the island’s porous limestone to refresh the lake and yet the bedrock has isolated the lake from the Pacific Ocean for 12,000 years. The species of jellyfish that now inhabit the lake, having no need to defend themselves, evolved to abandon stinging tentacles. John and I swam underwater surrounded by them, being careful not to disrupt them. The brush of their delicate watery bodies was so soft and smooth as to be almost undetectable.
There was so much to see in Palau from our kayaks, during walks in the woods, and while swimming. The days passed by much too quickly and to sleep seemed like a missed opportunity. I spent a few hours one night walking an exposed reef by moonlight.
The slides in my attic, aside from briefly transporting me to a different, exceptionally pleasant time and place in my own life, brought some comfort in a winter whose long shadows have been further darkened by a pandemic and political strife. A broader view of history, offered by the woods and waters of Palau, holds a promise that, in time, enemies can become allies and battlefields paradise.