Thursday, May 22, 2008


I wrote this some twenty years ago. Put it away, saw it a few times, thought it was lost. But I found a folder the other day, with it, and a few others. Paper folder -- this was before there were such things as computers.

It is almost entirely unaltered. I’ve dropped a few words, only. If I were to do it now, I’d tone down the opening a bit. It sets a mood, but in those days what I wrote was still too much about the words. Still and all, it does the job I wanted done, this piece.



Light rises over the horizon like floodwaters, spills across the sullen land -- a blood stain from the mountain top, pooling in the valleys. Above the valleys, above the mountains, embedded in the vault of heaven, fire streams across the sky. Is it a day, then? So soon passed? And night springs like dark salamanders slavering up from the muck. Shadow insinuates itself -- long, flat, firm as a slab of marble. So the night -- and day, and night, and so. Shadows recoil, regroup, retreat, advance. Sun and moon fly by like a bullet past an ear. Even the stars shift, dance like fireflies.

Creation weighs too heavily for awareness. It is a crush of impressions, a circus of motion performing a sad spectacle -- ritual and dance: ring within ring, spiral, gyre -- black, white, gray, earth tones and shades of meaning; growth and decline; light and shadow. Every act becomes a fossil, wearisome stone, while every actor remains as self-contained as an ancient Egyptian.

If we should look across this panoply for a detail, we see only dark, and the day, and the night. If time should slow, unmercifully granting an unwise wish, it is not chance that dictates what we see: not chance, but certainty.


He is young, a young lad, his face touched with pleasant down -- gold in the noon sun. Innocence. He stands outside a walled garden, an orchard, leans against the wall beneath a tree’s shade. He intends to climb the wall -- that, we can see. Pushing its bleached-bone face with a bare foot, his left, he holds a tree’s limb with his right hand, catches his weight and lifts, grabs the top of the wall; it is tall -- too tall to be a symbol.

Is it the fruit he is after, or the feather of a bird? -- perhaps a glimpse of a silken-haired beauty, combing golden hair by a still fountain? If it were known why he climbs the wall, we could better gauge his innocence. But we do not know -- it is outside these few moments in which we see him.

He pulls himself up, muscles fluid like water in a fountain, and puts a foot, then another, on the wall’s high lip. He stands, then sways, his foot, his left, catches on some unseen imperfection, irregularity, and he plunges back, arms outstretched, image of a precipitate crucifixion. Even in his fall the confidence of his youth is seen. He thinks himself immortal -- pain is what one feels in the sole of a left foot. But the crux of a tree’s limb awaits, wedges his neck, snaps short his life. He dangles, body suspended like an empty sack.

His judgment was still too raw, unripe; not enough hills had been scaled, not enough forest streams leapt. This series of, shall we say, mishaps, contained one too many, and he hangs now like one condemned, almost cradled, not swaddled, not rocking but swaying, like a piece of rope. Over the hours, his shadow climbs the wall.

Behind the wall, an orchard.


And another, this one in bed, also to die, but not alone. We cannot discern faces, but imminent death makes faces redundant. It does not matter. The slack form is surrounded by friends, family, perhaps servants, perhaps not -- it is a detail that does not matter.

The room hovers between twilight and night, vague as the angles and curves of some grim eroded labyrinth submerging beneath detritus and clay, decay of fading glory. Is it a clock that taps like patient fingers? -- or the swaying of a stethoscope, totem of its age? In these last moments, one cannot find the interest to observe. Is it tapestry, or just shadow, that drapes the walls? We have the impression, in the dolorous atmosphere, of wealth. It does not matter.

The figure lies beneath the bed’s thick cover -- is it down? -- and it is obvious the scythe’s blade is poised. But the obvious, and the subtle, pass each other like unrecognized sisters in these rooms of mundane speculation, rooms saturated by conversation starred by wit and studded with cliché, where ideas have been juggled and forgotten, left to hang, proving the trick to be illusion. The figure lies, shrouded by the web of a half-century’s conversation; now we hear a groan -- or is it a moan? (It is felt the distinction is important, but one cannot say. A sound, then, constricted … ah, a groan, then.)

And as a last movement, defiance or despair, the figure rolls, and curls, leaving the impression of turning to the wall. Save there is no wall, only shadow.



He is a man, there is no doubt of it. His uniform proves it. A man of some rank, in a place where both, manhood and rank, are most valued. The battlefield is littered like a forest floor, with bodies. Is it autumn? He is no fool, to think himself more a man because he stands, alive, above the fallen. His manhood has more truth than that.

In any case, now, as we see him fall, we know it is merely his life that dies. A bullet has shattered his skull, and by some quirk his life lingers a moment. As he lies still, a wind stirs his clothing like the turning of gold-leaf pages. Chance has thrown his hand to his mouth (the image is of a little girl hiding her smile -- but no unfortunate similitude will diminish him). In the last hush of his breath, he feels his hand, or imagines it, wet. Is it raining?

Oh, to speak of his thirst.


It is dark -- too dark to see. Perhaps he is reconciled to it; we are not. But we hear him, like a heartbeat. He is inside, then; an interior. Large? An impression of space. Too large to be a home -- perhaps a grand house. No matter. He moves -- is it stealth? or courtesy? or habit? -- this is how one moves in the dark. The silence speaks of night. We had assumed as much -- the darkness told us.

He moves past a door -- he pauses, holds the knob. It is not his intention to enter, but the surprise of pain, again, clutches him, as he clutches the knob. Is it his heart? In the thorough blackness, suggestions of movement, as a heart in its darkness moves and is still; he is still now, in a heap, at the foot of the door, one arm, his left, wedged as if reaching to open the door. Perhaps the door is locked. Does he have a key? Or did he?

Is there a sound, of knocking?


Here, there are two, huddled like an accident near cold black ashes stippled mistily by snow. One has died already, its small body swaddled in a thin blanket, its hand white as a five-petalled flower. Held in gentle arms, the infant, new-born, has been taken by the cold that now takes the other: so young, she is, to be a mother, even of one so young.

Flakes of snow hesitate in the air, then stick, like slivers of iron to a lodestone, on her face. They do not melt. Her eyes are open, blue, and white -- the white blending into snow. Trails of ice lace her cheeks, downward like the calm lime strivings of stalactite descent, villi of the frozen voracious earth. She has had time to weep; her love remains, but subdued. Her tears remain, frozen. She is resigned to the child’s death -- it is eased by her own.

The hours have passed as ice. The days, the months -- they have been few. Now they are gathered and crushed into a ball, imperfectly, and dropped to be lost in the snowfall. Her head falls, her face rests by the child’s, and she is gone as well.

Is there another, who understands?


A man in bed, in fever perhaps: certainly fitful, rasping breath, dis-ease. Light peers through imperfect shutters -- no: frayed, dull curtains -- in any case, the light is flat, or flattened by dirt. In the window, on the sill, a wilted plant waits, dry. The man has forgotten, or been unable, to water it.

He is alone, perhaps in the country, more likely in a city, a garret perhaps -- no matter. He lies dying, and knows it. By his bed on a small table sits a clay pitcher, painted, for water. And a cup. He rolls, and pours water into the cup. The pitcher is empty now; the cup half-full. He is dying. Breathing hard, in clear distress, he sits up. He grasps the cup. He stands. He walks -- each slow step with its own flairing of nostrils -- to the window, and tips the water into the plant’s dry pot. It will live. He will die, soon -- perhaps now, where he stands, before the window.

Will this, his final act, throw open the gates of Paradise?


She sits. She breathes. She smiles now. Is it gentleness? Even we, so remote we barely exist, hope it is so. She is old, her face dry as an ancient lakebed, her skin laced like the cells of a hive. But she smiles as if her life had meaning, in this moment we know, by now, to be her last.

Is she alone? We have no way of knowing. She sits alone -- that, we can see. For whom, then, does she smile? Is it for us? How can she touch us, in our solitude?

She breathes again, and smiles. She sits, and does not breathe, and smiles. She is still. And smiles. Who is she, that even we should love her? Where has she gone, who left us, joyful?

Behind the wall, Paradise.


The moment trails the moment, tail in mouth, chronometrical caravan pacing out lives like sand through an hourglass. As the mystic must reduce reality to symbol, revealing his god in travesty, resigned to the lesser of evils: so do we -- open and close our eyes, mark off the days with a sliver of skin, watching, when we can, and never speaking the truth, only of the truth. Life is a moment of light, a bird through a banquet hall, a flash slashing a brief silhouette across the elephant-hide sky. In this Mayfly day we scratch out hieroglyphs on anthracite or alabaster, admire our craft and pass out of sight.

Men count the passing of generations, bleed and turn to dust. Trees, awaiting the circuit of the seasons, sprout or tower and burn to ash. Mountains dance tectonic rounds, crag or mound and churn to sand. It has the value of the pressing of skin. You and I touch, now: I do not feel it; you cannot tell me how it feels.

Oh, Paradise.


No comments: