Featured in Colorado Review
Hour ThirteenFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Fall 2013
I had this thought upon learning that my fifth-grade math teacher was applying to be the first teacher in space: The space shuttle will explode.
I didn’t know what to do with this thought because it was so confident and so future tense and so informative. But was it really information? I was an imaginative girl and what the adults would say I already knew. Every time my family flew, I quelled a cousin demon: The plane will crash. Foolish, anxious me, never in a plane crash. So I dismissed the worry and by January 28, 1986, had even forgotten it until my reading teacher was called to the office just past noon.
When she returned, the news whispered in my thoughts before she spoke explosion and my premonition met its event in a tiny collision, like a half-drawn circle finished fast by an unseen hand. Yet I felt complete too—I had been right—and in this excitement I had to remind myself into sadness and concern.
Our class was to gather in front of the library’s television, which sat high on a cart that students were not allowed to push because in some other school a little girl had yanked a cart and the tv had tipped like a monolith and crushed her head, a freak accident that no one saw coming.
So we stood in front of that TV with its many warning signs and watched the countdown against the blue sky, and the roar of propulsion and ingenuity and America and science, then the soft puffs of annihilation blooming in a doodle. It was the first time I stood with a group and watched a disaster on TV. I slipped to the back and scuffed my shoes on the gray carpet.
I didn’t want to keep watching.
I didn’t want to tell anyone anything.
From “Precognition of Disaster,” a 1970 article published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research:
Two central premonitions bureaus have been set up in London and New York. These bureaus receive reports of ostensible precognition sent in by percipients before the related events have happened. It may be possible to use the premonitions like a distant early warning system, alerting persons or communities threatened with some disaster.
One morning in the month of the twenty-five-year mark of the Challenger explosion, a neighbor told me she’d thought about a body in the river and then there was a body in the river and wasn’t that the damndest thing.
We had crossed paths while walking our dogs along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At first we had the usual chat: I had been out of town for the holidays, happy to get back to my own bed last night; she and her sister had visited lovely neighborhood parties. The river was almost thawed and weren’t the shattered ice floes marvelous against the cold, abandoned islands? Our dogs played big like gladiators.
She then shared her extraordinary secret: A few days after Christmas, she had been out with the dog, as usual, but she had a random thought about a body. Then she believed she saw an arm about fifty feet offshore, saluting from the ice.
Three times to look, then four, from different angles. But it was just a branch and a trick of light, she was sure. Not an arm.
She continued: The next day someone else spotted the body for real—fully clothed, angled as if standing but not standing. EMTs pulled off the flannel and jeans and boots, awaited the coroner, the police. A cursory examination (right there on the sidewalk where we all walk our dogs) showed no trauma.
When she finished her story, her dog trotted to the slushy water and she frantically called him back, saying that the river was no good today, as if it were tainted. The premonition must have haunted her, although she didn’t say as much, not calling it an outright premonition (instead repeating how she’d had a feeling), but I could hear it in the way she called her dog back, and I could see it in the way she watched the river with an eye wide to second guesses no good now. In her pauses I heard my fifth-grade self, unable to give words to all the frustrating realities of a premonition. It arrives before you know what to do, and then it never leaves, like a ghost of a truth of a delusion, a sixth sense in a world of fives.
Some people tried to track premonitions, like the folks behind the old premonitions bureaus of the 1970s, now replaced by the website of the American Society of Psychical Research (when last I checked, they were still accepting September 11 premonitions with proof you’d had them before the attack). These repositories seem a folly, a clearinghouse for national anxiety; on other report-your-premonition sites there are inordinate posts about earthquakes. Everyone there is a poor man’s Nostradamus.
Some people corral them for Hollywood because people who have premonitions make for good movies, such as Phillip K. Dick’s precocious “precogs” tracking future crimes in The Minority Report. Precog Agatha, suspended in water, is wired to the other precogs, but she is sending out the premonitions that differ from the majority precogs. She knows she is misunderstood. And right. She earns our sympathy.
Some people abide by premonitions; women call them intuition. My friend swears her grandmother will call her the moment something major has gone wrong. An honest premonitory warning is exciting and urgent and trustworthy.
Even so, people dismiss premonitions.
And other people study them for a pattern.
In 1997, a man named James Spottiswoode speculated that anomalous cognitions—the fancy term for unexplained perceptions—were more likely to occur at certain times. He and his assistants reviewed over two thousand trials from more than fifty extrasensory studies. They noted the times of successful anomalous cognitions, then converted them to local sidereal time, or star time. Sidereal is Latin for “relating to the stars,” and it gives us the word consider, which once meant “to contemplate the stars.” The two words sit inside each other on the bench of sider, and I settled onto that bench to find out what else Spottiswoode could pull from the river.
Spottiswoode found that premonitions and their kin spiked around the thirteenth hour of sidereal time. He concluded that “what seems to be occurring is that as the anomalous cognition improves near 13 h, the signal comes up out of the noise and the correlation strengthens.”
The signal comes up out of the noise. A fascinating phrase, which, when I read it, made me think, Yes, that’s my Challenger premonition. Likely what my neighbor had felt too, moments before she was compelled to look across the river at the branch that would be an arm. Had these things happened at hour thirteen?
I found myself thinking again about how Challenger had been headed for the stars with a civilian astronaut who had her own stardom. Everything circled to the sidereal.
The earth needs 24 hours for a full rotation with respect to the sun, but it needs only 23 hours and 56 minutes to rotate with respect to the other stars. For every 365 sunrises, our marble of a planet rolls through the constellations 366 times. You could say that sidereal time jumps us four minutes into the future.
Another way to think of it: I’m standing in a field at midnight when I notice a bright star over a pine. It’s a sublime star, perfect for profound essays, so I’ll look at it many nights in a row. The next night, if I want to see the star over the pine, I will need to look up at 11:56 p.m. After a week, 11:32 becomes my star-and-pine rendezvous time. A few months out, I won’t see that star over the pine because it will hang in daylight.
All of this means that the thirteenth hour of sidereal time shifts. The Local Apparent Sidereal Time Clock on the Internet tracks it. The clock is for star watchers, not premonition trackers. Still, I looked at it and considered plotting out the thirteenth hour for the next year of my life, then trying to be acutely aware of my thoughts for that hour.
What if I wrote down what I was thinking? Would I get one premonition proven true? If only the premonitions bureaus from the 1970s were still around—they’d probably have an entire system set up by now. I hadn’t had a noteworthy premonition since the Challenger, and I was envious of my neighbor’s premonition of the body in the river. Was I not paying attention?
Spottiswoode’s trend spotting of the thirteenth hour got the interest of Fernando Alvarez, a bird behaviorist at the Doñana Biological Station in southern Spain. Alvarez had published research about alarm behavior in the Bengalese finch. He had proposed that the finches would exhibit a set pattern of head cocking and tail twitching and pausing when they saw a predator. To test this theory, he showed the birds a cobra on a video screen and documented what they did with their heads and tails. Sure enough, when the video cobra slithered across the screen, the finches exhibited a pattern, a language, of five head twitches and tilts, and then stillness. Were they not in glass observation boxes, basic survival behavior would have them fly at the first safe moment.
Then, perhaps, he read Spottiswoode’s article. He might have asked himself something like, “At the thirteenth hour of sidereal time, will the finches show this alarm behavior moments before seeing a predator?” He set up a premonition study with twenty-five female zebra finches. Instead of showing a cobra on tv, he had the little ladies listen to a recording of a gunshot. He found what Spottiswoode found: come hour thirteen, the zebra finches would act as if they had heard a gunshot before they heard the gunshot. And he could prove this because he already knew how the birds would signal their awareness of danger, with the five-point twitch and tilt.
Were these subtle movements proving the grandest theory? Alvarez stopped short of proclaiming proof, suggesting the need to rule out geomagnetic fluctuations and calling for more studies to be done on critters with “different nervous system complexity.” Could simple worms have premonitions of earthquakes? What about dogs sensing when their owners were almost home? And in what ways were the animals simply receiving subtle information (but not premonitory information) and reacting in ways favorable to survival? All due caution, all good suggestions.
A drug addict who specialized in news of the Antichrist once had a premonition about me.
My boyfriend, Paul, and I were on a road trip from our apartments in Idaho to the redwoods in Northern California. We’d just graduated with MFA degrees in creative writing, but three years of hard work, low pay as teaching assistants, and many nights at bars had taken their toll. It was 2004 and we had been living apart for the first time in eight years.
As we’d signed off on our theses and graduation paperwork, we’d also signed a lease. With the move-back-in-together date one month out, we hoped the road trip would be a catalyst. We could barely apologize for a semester gone wrong. We certainly had no premonitions about how to proceed.
One afternoon we stopped at the Redwood Harbor Guest Ranch, a campground near Crescent City, California. We eyed the campsites that were far away from everything and noted that the whole place was almost empty except for a few campers and two chestnut mares and a steely brown gelding in a pair of corrals. I thought I would like it and would pet the horses in moonlight. We paid for a spot in a meadow full of short, purple iris and gazillions of pink and white wildflowers, tiny as broken shells. I could hear a peacock and the ocean.
The nearest camper had his military tent staked downfield from us. We were just starting our campfire when he paid a visit, introduced himself as Pete, and said that anything less than a bonfire was pitiful. He told us that he had a house but “the situation fell through” and he was going to be camping here indefinitely with his eleven-year-old son, who, like him, had Tourette’s syndrome. Pete said his camping situation was giving him time to think, to clear his mind, to enjoy what he loved. He added that he loved Natural Ice and crank. He was tall and lean and had one black eye.
He offered Paul a beer, but not any meth, and announced that he was going to get very drunk. He glanced at me and said to Paul, “She your wife?”
Had I hackles, they would have stiffened. Paul seemed to choose his words carefully in explaining that I was his girlfriend.
Pete returned to his tent. As we made dinner, I dictated a dissertation-worthy textual analysis of Pete’s decision to talk about me as if I weren’t there and as if I were property. I had nothing but a bad feeling about him.
The day that I learned about the drowned man in Harrisburg, the feeling I couldn’t shake was anger. Why couldn’t any one of us have had a sense that a man, still alive, was in trouble at the river? What good is a premonition about a dead body? Why not a premonition of an accident, a tumble, or, better yet, the location of his splash into ice and currents? Why couldn’t the zebra finch part of our brains be more reliable?
I read the news articles and online comments and learned that the emts recognized the victim. They knew his name, his age, his long and typical history of alcoholism, seizures, heart problems. They knew he had no family.
I’ll call him Eddie. He roomed with friends, one of whom insisted Eddie was afraid of water and would not have gone near the river. Eddie lived off and on at a mission for the homeless, where someone had taken his photo. This photo ran in the newspaper and on their website, prompting a Good Samaritan to write in the comments section that she had seen Eddie at McDonald’s and that he had been disoriented. He said he couldn’t see well, didn’t know where he was, and needed help getting to a friend’s home. She claimed Eddie had been pulling his little grocery cart (with one loaf of bread and one can of vegetables).
The woman wrote that she had helped Eddie home. She considered sharing her phone number in case he got disoriented again. She had a feeling he would need it. Maybe she even looked across the street to the river, white with thin ice, and maybe she imagined him stumbling in, cart and all, bread floating, can sinking. Her online comment was barely legible and rife with regret—how she wished she’d given him her number! She lashed the hospitals and homeless shelters for their failures. “The city of Harrisburg,” she wrote, “is a cold dangerous hole . . .”
Pete reappeared out of the dark of the campground after dinner, Natural Ices in hand. He sat down and just started talking to Paul like a midnight caller on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast am. His first point of order was that there was going to be a terrorist attack on Memorial Day weekend, a few days away. Pete was making his son read Nostradamus in preparation for the calamity. On an important side note, the second Antichrist had been born in 1967. The third Antichrist had been born too, here in America, to help the second Antichrist with what was guaranteed to go down over the holiday. Pete seemed most excited by the idea that no one knew the identities of these Antichrists, but they were people just like us, except they had ties to Osama Bin Laden.
Then Pete went on about his problems with women, all the ones who had left him and done him wrong—the ones who had stolen his money or drugs, the ones who had lied to him, the ones who had cheated, the ones who just didn’t care, and a specific one who wanted his house but wasn’t going to get it. Paul commiserated politely. Even I thought about offering Pete a shot of whiskey from my flask. Why not give a little relief to a guy down on his luck, afraid of the future? Weren’t we all?
But then Pete crushed his beer can and tossed it in our fire, something I never did. Why would you mar the aboriginal orange of embers with aluminum and blue logos? Why wouldn’t you recycle? Why be rude and lazy at someone else’s campfire?
I was about to say something when Pete stopped talking, froze, looked at me, turned to Paul, and said, “She’s going to decide to leave you one day, and when she does, she will have already left you months before she walks out the door.”
I scowled in fury at his beer can in the flames. I closed my flask and quickly slipped away to the far side of the car, putting away the food and plates and feeling grumpy about our mess—greasy chip bags, dirty clothes, scratched cds out of their cracked cases, paperbacks curling in the heat and humidity, empty water bottles crammed everywhere.
I wanted Pete to go away. I’d never been talked about as if I weren’t there and as if I were plotting a brutal breakup. Nine years of college had given me every tool to tell this guy ten thousand different ways why everything he thought and did was wrong and offensive. But I had no words, or maybe no courage to say them. I hated myself for not standing up to him. And I hated his premonition the same way I hated things that scared me.
I stayed out of sight until Pete retired. Paul said he had a headache from the cheap beer and was going to bed. I put more sticks on the campfire and sat for a long time in the sling of a camp chair, watching the night sky, remembering that I had planned to pet the horses but was now disinclined in the Pete-fringed night.
It would be years before I read about sidereal time, about stars and their four-minute gain, but that night I noticed just how quickly a full moon arcs across the sky. Take your eye off it for a minute and when you look back it has already left you, tucked behind a tall pine or midnight cloud, then plunging to the horizon like the rising sun is a bully.
The coroner ruled that Eddie had likely had a seizure, which had occurred in the most unfortunate of places, right at the edge of the riverbank where there is a steep slope and no sidewalk, and at the most unfortunate time, when no one was driving by. A phone number in his pocket would have done him no good.
The coroner guessed his body had been in the water for two days.
In 2007 Spottiswoode and a colleague decided to examine a larger sample of extrasensory perception experiments, but this time with a nuanced range of statistical analysis tools: the Lomb-Scargle method, the Monte Carlo experiments, the Nyquist frequency, and Rayleigh fading. The methods sounded like alien weaponry from low-budget movies, and I could barely understand the math.
They found no correlation between premonitions and the thirteenth hour of sidereal time. Nothing.
I frowned and reread.
Instead of magic at the thirteenth hour, they posited more reasonable correlations: psychological states, phases of the moon, different patterns of thinking. And they acknowledged the working-world conundrum, ignored in the first article: most of the studies were conducted between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and the thirteenth hour of sidereal time falls outside those hours for a good part of the year, so any review would be limited in scope. And they noticed that there “seems to be a fall-off in performance from late May to early July.” That’s summer break and vacation for many researchers, or depending where you are on the globe, maybe those are the months when the thirteenth hour tracks the tiny morning minutes, and you are asleep, maybe dreaming in premonitions, but by the time you are awake and showered and pouring coffee, that dream and its signal are gone.
When I was reading this article I noticed that Spottiswoode’s credentials included Nielsen Entertainment, home of the famous Nielsen ratings that make or break television shows. He’s their chief statistician, the man who crunches the tally of how many people are watching a sitcom rerun at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. Network executives wait on his analysis of the numbers. They turn the pages of his reports like tarot cards, like he’s a network Nostradamus.
That Spottiswoode was a statistician employed by the entertainment industry made me slide his articles to the corner of my desk, where I glanced at them slinky-eyed and doubted his credibility.
An 1862 magazine elegantly titled The Ladies’ Repository: A Monthly Periodical, Devoted to Literature, Art, and Religion has an article, “Presentiments,” by Luella Clark, who wrote almost entirely in questions such as “What mean these strange foreshadowings, these premonitions of pain or of peace?” Through a nineteenth-century bouquet of lavender language she encourages women to trust their instincts, especially when it comes to friendship. At the end, she reminds us of the story of the bewildered pilgrim setting out into the desert with a “white-winged herald” that flew ahead and then came back to warn him of danger and lead him to safe areas of rest. Clark says that our souls are now the white-winged herald, “faithfully guiding into safest and serenest pathways.” Trust your gut, she says to her female readers. Trust that dove that is your intuition. It’s slipped the danger of gunshots and snakes, and it’s coming back in the thirteenth hour to tell you something.
Our final morning at the Redwood Harbor campground, the trip broke down. Tiny, black spiders with egg sacks skittered into our tent and we had to shake everything out, but first we fought about who left the tent open in the first place, a situation that had gone unnoticed while we were burning breakfast—cornmeal griddle cakes stuck to the pan in a scorched mess, inedible. And it had rained. Would it be wiser to spread the wet tent across the back seat or lay it across our bags in the trunk? We were split on the answer. Grumpy and hungry, I was suddenly infuriated by dirty clothes strewn across the back seat, all of which would have to be tidied up if we wanted to dry the tent there. But Paul didn’t want to pack up his dirty clothes, and more importantly, he pointed out, he did not want to be told to put away his dirty clothes. I told him he was being illogical, and he told me I was being a control freak, that my stuff was all over too (which it was), and why was it so important to have everything squared away, anyway? We glared at each other. A week in a tent and car after a semester in separate apartments—we’d forgotten how to share space. We’d forgotten the day-to-day irritations of another person. We’d even forgotten how to cooperate. Blame rolled in with the downpour.
We ended up cleaning nothing and just stuffing the wet tent into the car—I don’t remember if it went in the trunk or the backseat—and I drove us straight back to Idaho, what seemed like twelve hours of storms on narrow roads. About an hour in, I made up my mind—I plotted—not to say a word for the entire ride back, to leave Paul alone in the passenger seat. And it took Paul a little while to figure this out.
Seven years later, Paul and I were cooking dinner and I asked what he remembered about Redwood Harbor.
Without even a momentary pause over the avocado he was chopping, Paul said, “Pete said you will decide to leave me one day, and when you do, you will have already left me months before you walk out the door.”
Almost verbatim. I dropped a handful of tomatoes over the avocado, guacamole in the works. I composed and deleted responses as I rummaged in the fridge for the cilantro.
I went with this: “But Pete wasn’t right. I didn’t leave you.”
Paul squeezed a lime over the bowl. “Pete wasn’t entirely wrong, either.”
I once read a critique of Native American prophecy by Marvin Lunenfeld, who observed Sioux elders in the early 1970s and noted that they still told the premonition of White Long-Legs arriving to fracture their culture. Lunenfeld concluded that reminding the younger generation of the premonition, even though it had long since come to pass, had “the power to reach into the deepest level of the psyche and there to touch even the stranger far removed from Amerindian traditions.”
Maybe, when we remember premonitions, it’s our modern-day myth telling. Maybe that’s what was going on over the guacamole and what is going on as I write this essay. As strangers far removed from ourselves, we need storytellers—even ones like Pete—to remind us who we are. I could let his premonition live so long it becomes prophecy.
Or I could remember that he was a misogynist crank addict, a stupid drunk, the poster boy for cautionary tales: This is your brain on Natural Ice and Nostradamus.
Lunenfeld also observed that one characteristic of Native American premonitions is that nothing can be done about them. No Sioux told the story of White Long-Legs and then added, “Hey, here’s what we can do to stop the loss of our culture.” The premonitions are fated, or as Lunenfeld puts it in the most depressing way possible, premonitions are the fifth horse of the apocalypse. He calls that mustang fatalism.
Mustangus fatalis, in my made-up Latin, the genus of the corralled horses at Redwood Harbor, the ones I never went to pet.
I’m not ready to think of premonitions as fatalistic, even though there was nothing I could do about the Challenger explosion, or Eddie drowning, or Pete tossing cans and predictions at me. A former professor suggested I reread the romantic poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake—traffickers in foreshadowing, foreboding, premonitions, and preludes. Instead, I stumbled across a fantastic young Kentucky poet, Davis McCombs, who concluded his poem “Premonitions” with
it was a matter of vigilance to watch
the sunlight splattering the road
and find a fate of car wrecks, or to discover
in the rub and link of a sycamore’s limbs
an inkling, unacknowledged, of her with him.
I hear the interior monologue of a man who is trying to watch—I’d thought it was a matter of vigilance—for the next bad thing in his life, but something has made him realize that even if you are vigilant, you can’t always stop the fate of car wrecks. The speaker sees in the oddly human tree branches the inkling of her with him, but then the poem ends. The narrator never confronts her, never says, “I was walking under the sycamores and had a feeling you were cheating on me. Are you?”
I pause, probably tilting my head to the right the way I do when I’m suddenly considering something.
It’s the line about the sycamores.
There are so many sycamores where I walk along the river—they sink their thirsty taproots to a constant, reliable source. And their limbs do have a pale, fleshy tone, smooth when the mottled bark breaks away on the higher branches. I remembered a Girl Scout hike, a leader telling us that Native Americans called sycamores ghost trees because of the white bark under the tan.
I am sure then that my neighbor must have seen a sycamore branch, the perfect mistake for a dead man’s arm. And somehow that sycamore branch becomes the family tree for premonitions: The Native Americans saw premonitions as hints about the unavoidable future. The 1970s premonition bureaus saw them as warning signs to be harvested and harnessed. Spottiswoode and friends took it further, putting premonitions on the time clock, literally graphing the hour of most productivity, like an aberration of Taylorism in the factory of foretelling. And Pete, well, he’d found his fate in car wrecks of one kind or another. To have rational explanations is thrilling and a relief.
But explanation is something I’ve never been able to attach to my long-ago Challenger premonition.
I do find commiseration in Davis’s poem. The poem drops off after the sycamore line because there’s nothing the speaker can do, there’s nothing else to say. It’s as if he too were in the fifth-grade classroom with me, back when we thought everything was a simple matter of vigilance and we were first figuring out what it meant to be powerless.
I notice that the poem stops at half a page, a signal clear and then a signal gone, left blank and bright, as when the sunlight hides the stars. The thirteenth hour is there, and in it floats a future, waiting to be written about.
But when I imagine now what it might be like to have a premonition, or to tell someone, or to write about it, I conjure only that vestigial fifth-grade self withdrawn at the back of the group and thinking, I don’t want to tell anyone anything.
Jen Hirt’s memoir, Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees, won the Drake University Emerging Writer Award. She has received a Pushcart Prize and a notable essay mention in Best American Essays. Recent work has appeared in Confrontation and Triquarterly. She is an assistant professor at Penn State Harrisburg.