He held it tight in his pinchers, crawling homeward across sand, dragging the end along behind. He was making quite slow time, so I asked what he intended to do with his new treasure. He said he meant to decorate his shell nest with it and some half-rotted sea grape leaves.
Sea grape leaves are large and beautiful enough (when not half-rotted) to be written upon and mailed as postcards. He was very excited when I told him this and mentioned he’d always wanted to learn how to write, for while many hermits are avid readers, there aren’t many decent writers in existence.
I offered to teach him to write.
He gave me the pen. It felt oily and salty, much as one would expect. I took out a small sheet of paper and wrote HELLO. He asked me to write something else because hermits hardly ever use greetings, if indeed they ever arrive.
I wrote HERMIT CRAB. But he said that was too complex, to pick something simple to start.
I wrote SEA. He liked that.
I handed back the pen, which he gently took so as to not pinch my fingers, and I held down the slip of paper so he could easily see and it wouldn’t breeze away. He didn’t hold the pen properly upright. Again, he dragged it along behind. But that worked perfectly. He could walk the letters through in sand, tracing words among leaf debris.
He was moving slowly again, shuffle-scuttling the swoop of the S. It was a very large S. In fact, here at the first side curve it looked as if he may run out of room and walk into this sea grape tree… He disappeared with the pen among the lowest branches, a large swoop left in sand behind him.
I’d forgotten that hermits think goodbyes are hard to say, so they often leave, no goodbye. I smiled, unoffended. He had written his first word in a way.
It was unusually done, but there in sand on the beach before me was a large C.
From J Christian: Rachel Johns is a highly gifted Marine Biologist, Team Leader, and Diver for the Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida. Dry Tortugas National Park is at the southernmost point of Florida’s Coral Reef, which is North America’s only barrier reef. Rachel, along with her Team, work every day to preserve this natural treasure for its natural beauty, inhabitants, tourists, and all those that appreciate Nature’s great creations.
If you like, you can visit the website for the Park here:
I woke up with someone clapping their hands in my face. It was Mr. Dante. We were still on the Steamboat, slowly chugging its way down – ferrying the dead.
I sighed and got up and we wandered the decks, Dante talking and talking away, I listening, passing through the crowds of ghosts gambling at the slots where nothing there was to win.
The Steamer stopped for us.
I was let out and Mr. Dante led me through a blank shore, a wide hill, and a great forest to a castle glowing like a candle on a hill upon the night. We reached its gate.
Mr. Dante knock knocked.
– Who’s there? A voice asked from within.
– Dante who?
– Dante Alighieri!
No response. No opening.
Frustrated, Mr. Dante again knock knocked.
– Who’s there?? A voice asked from within.
– Dante who?
– Dante Alighieri sir and I demand you open this door!
– That’s not the password! Said the voice.
-What password!? Demanded Mr. Dante.
No response. Mr. Dante sat down to think, but no password could he retrieve to his head, so much he tried. After a minute, having an idea, I ‘knock knocked’.
– Who’s there?
– Beelzebub who?
– You’ll ‘Beelz-be’ opening the door, bub!
The gate opened.
– That nonsense worked? Asked Mr. Dante
– Yes of course…
– How did you know?
– I recognized the voice…
Diogenes was there on the other side. That clever crazy cook. Half-naked he lay in his barrel by the gate. He smiled as I went over to him.
– What are you in for, Diogenes?
– You yourself might know. Said he. You guessed Ali Baba’s grinning gate, and the name of this nameless thing now named. Said he, tapping his head.
– Surely a man of vision would be in heaven? Asked I.
– Not when I’d mind to man the grinning gate. Said he, laughing.
– Let us move on. Said Mr. Dante angrily. This man is not so wise as he’d pretend to be. I know of a man farther ahead who can more delight the mind than tickle the liver.
– I did no such tickling Mr. Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri! Shouted Diogenes laughing. Here, bring this ‘man’ to the man you pine to see. Said he, handing me, of all things, a plucked and shivering chicken, which I put under my hoody.
We moved up through the ward of the castle and into the keep. There was a fine and shady garden in its midst. Where men and women were arranged about, lounging on the green, with faces somber and voices quiet – sad and longing in soft cold light.
I could hardly believe my eyes for there was Cicero and Aurelius, Hippolyta and Theseus, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Hypatia. Grand men and women of philosophy all. They were all of them centered around the one in their center – he who composed on his papyrus what he’d have them all speak – actors for his dialogs, talkers to his tendentious Vision.
– You know this one in the center? Asked Mr. Dante.
– Yes. Said I, approaching, listening.
– Now you must say this better. Said Plato, grabbing poor Epicurus by his toga, and shaking him. You must say, ‘Does Love desire that of which it is the love, or not?’ And then we all must raise our hands, as though holding goblets of fine wine, and tilt it back unto our heads, as though in drinking this question, there flowed, into our heating brains, my implication’s simmer, and then you, Aristotle, you must nod like a cork on sea…
He stopped, for he had seen us watching him.
– All honor be to the pre-eminent Poet; his shade returns again, that was departed… Said he, sarcastically, raising his hands in welcome to Mr. Dante.
Who walked forward to him and introduced me, and told him of my quest. After saying hello, I showed him the plucked chicken, saying Diogenes had asked me to give this to him.
On seeing this, Plato’s whole face turned purple in rage; he flapped his arms like that chicken and shouted at me, demanding I leave, saying he did not want to see me here again, that this was a place for noble philosophers and not comics, and that I was unworthy of philosophy and his plays, and that I should go to Hell.
– Well as I said that’s indeed where I’m going. Said I wryly, turning away and moving off, Mr. Dante, very embarrassed, following me through.
I did not know why he had such an intense and unmannerly reaction to the chicken, the featherless bipedal ‘man’. But I suspect some prank of Diogenes had returned unto Plato and taken all the wind out his curtains. I thought then that it might be rather dull to spend eternity with him. And I thought that his Muse of Memory did not like to remember Diogenes.
– You’ll be stuck here forever! Shouted Plato.
– I’ll be moving forward. Muttered I.
None of them were moving anywhere at all. They went back to their play – to retell it again and again and again.
We left the castle and came to a place where nothing shines.
– All Amerika is a haunted ground. Said that Miner man that sat alone in the corner of the open-air car.
Why did he sit out there in the cold of the October night? His breath, steaming in lantern light, showed me he was there, told me he was talking. I did not yet go out to him. We was on the train Shavano, moving West over Marshal Pass.
Marshall Pass, 10,842 ft. high, was the first railroad ever to cross that Colorado continental divide and this was it. This country’s older than we’d guess. There was roughly five cars on this black train – the last of which was an observer booth – to breathe the air – but this was one meanin cold October night.
No no it was all deep somber upon the canyon tonight – No wind did murmur in the dying leaves of aspen, nor coyotes yip, nor owls hoot on the evergreens. Nor could stars be seen sown widely in the sky. Nor ther was no moon bobbing afloat there. Naw, all was quiet and ahush – but for that Miner man chanting in the corner of the car open to the cold.
I went out to him – maybe to smoke (common at that time) – but really to listen.
– All Amerika is haunted ground. Said he, in chant. Walk and She walks with you. She is older than you can ear. See for Her under your boot soles. Heel to heel. Feet meet in stamp.
A long life of Prospectin will crack a Coloradan’s face. Such was his. The pinching eyes, the hounding nose. His grey hair and shocky beard seemed to strive to escapin’ from him. A mining pan he wore on his head, like some Quixotic yokel – a silver bullet he clasped in his hand he shook like a papsist’s rosary. He had three teeth. And three Indian ears on wire.
Strange. A light of another Train appeared, grey but bright on the track behind us. Coming up from the Amerikan East.
– I chant of Time forgot! Shouted the Miner, standing up now – his arms rolling like a wave towards the East. I chaunt of Time untock! Chug steam and chugga dream! Choooo!
That grey Train behind us was moving fast. So very fast. Wanting to ram us. Frightened, I rang a bell beside the bannister – and the conductor of us poked his head out the engine car – and saw that grey Train pressing on us. Full speed ahead! Our car outran it as best she could we raced dangerously around bend and bend – where the canyon yawn’d on either side its black mouthin’ end!
At this point I done hunkered myself down, grasping the rail like is was my momma’s skirt. Wind quirtin’ my face. The scream of iron on iron rocked my eartams. The chant of the Miner man was now a loud viking yawp! – I saw summoning he was the strange grey Train – closer, closer.
– The tide is a-coming high! The breaks are bringin’ nigh! Chugga chugga choo choo ! He yelped like a wolf at the moon.
By now, the grey light of the Train was so close it overwhelmed all my eye. There was no warmth from it but a cold like driving me to somewhere. In my mind, ther was made the content of the Cars: Rottin men and women of the first civilization upon this divided continent. But now moonborn fresh as babes they wore furs and bones and jangling ornaments of earth make. They piped on flutes their breath the marrow of shins and thighs of buffalo and elk and eld animals I knew not their names. Giants. They wore horns and braids of owl-feather. They danced on their knees. The Miner man chanted the grey Train faster, faster, closer, closer.
Some made gentle invites to their square dance.
Some coldly accused.
They sat in the luxury car and swallowed greedily whipped black tea.
Nay they donned tall hats and raced wicker hoops about the hall.
Naw I saw they broke stones against the window, stones against the, trying to breathe out.
I knew these faces that changed. They changed into faces I knew. There was an ancestor seen in an old photograph. There was an Uncle. There, a Grandfather. Hiding under a chair was a youngon face I was yet to meet.
– The silver is passed! Through fields of underseen grass! I’d meet all in car at junction! I’d meld one in all in a black pipe of steam!
What was behind was now on the very verge of me. I would not let it touch me. A scream in the bright grey light. The trains rounded a bend. Ours almost tipped – the Miner man well he fell out he hurtled into canyon singing his summoning chants still! The Grey train, nigh enveloping– of a sudden sunk over rail and sailed into black abyss!
We heard the thunder crash of metal – but no moaning sound of Man… We slowed. We stopped. There was total quiet.
We did search with lanterns the site of the wreck – nothin. As though all was a vanity.
I boarded again the Train. We set off West. But on the bench where that Miner man had sat, I saw these words done scrawled by dull knife:
‘A frate train was recked as yu saw. Yu saw wat yu will all ways see. If yu ever run on this redd again yu will be recked ded.’
Beside this was a single sprig of aspen, which I keep in my pocket to this very day to remember always what’d I done done, and the song I’d sung – the Train I’d summoned.
I had been feeling frightfully aimless. I felt a need to wander far fields, or knock the hats off those that still wore them, or to flee to the sea. While debating which of these to undertake, I had been wandering through the public park next to my home. Suddenly, a great cluster of trees surrounded me – I’d never seen them before.
Soon I was lost among their branch and bramble, their shade and frightful shadow.
No path there found my feet. But they crushed the thorns. And were cut by the thorns . Pits did imperil. Carefully I trod through that coughing ground, ere the slope of a mountainside I found.
The trees disappeared above the line of a thin, high air.
Grey rocks in upward slope. Up I walked. Up there were stars.
But a mountain lion was behind a grey rock. It stood out in front of my way, and would not move nor allow no matter my maneuver up. Its eyes shone with hellish gold. Spots, like spinning looms of Time, speckled its fur. It frightened me back down to the dark trees and the thorns that pierce and rend.
The lion stalked me, even into the deepest dark.
A man was under the moon, I called to him for help. Mr. Dante! an old friend, was wandering there. I hailed him. And he me.
I pointed out to him the lion, whose eyes glowed up in a tree. Mr. Dante nodded and said:
– That lion has a hunger insatiable. If you want to climb the mountain you cannot pass him here, but must take the other road, the longer road, which goes through Hell to Heaven. Journey is necessary. I can show you that way.
I sighed. There I was to go through Hell again. Had I not seen enough of that dull place? But some urge prods me up the mountain, up to Arthur’s bosom, or Abraham’s, or whoever’s chest it is that on the mountaintop, falls and rises and heaves. In beatific slumber.
He led me through the dark forest by some path he recalled, but that I could not see.
– Mr. Dante, why is it that you insist on walking the ways through Hell? What is there for you, or for me for that matter? Perhaps I have not the mettle for it ?
– The lady here might assuage thy cowardice. Said he, as always, dramatically.
Indeed, there was a lady there before us. The forest had led us out to a wide cliff. There were the stars, the moon, the whole horizon of the night’s vault we could breathe, and before this commodious expanse, the lady stood.
I’d met her once before on a vacation. We’d said hello. And she’d leapt into water, lithe like a nymph, swimming out to sandbar, just across the inlet of the ocean, yet farther than I’d dare swim – afraid as I was of water.
– I am Julia. She said, primly dressed, dark eyes glowing like the Cosmos.
– I know. I remember. Said I.
– I’m here from where I would return. Said Julia. I bid thee go. Meet me upon the mountaintop. For I care for you and your presence I long for as a home long missed. Mr. Dante will be thy guide. Be strong and courageous. I bid thee go.
A halo was around her head. This light she turned into, but not before I could notice the tears that her dark eyes carried like shining jewels I would not possess but gently erase. I felt courage. She was gone like a breath in cold air. All was as it was before.
Mr. Dante tapped me on the shoulder, and we went on the precarious path down over the cliff, into a ravine, a funnel, a cave, where a gross smoke emanated.
‘Through me the way is to the city dolent; through me the way is to eternal dole; through me the way among the people lost. Justice incited my sublime Creator; created me divine Omnipotence, the highest Wisdom and the primal Love. Before me there were no created things, only eterne, and I eternal last. All hope abandon, ye who enter in!’
Thus said the etching above the door of Hell. Which Mr. Dante was so fond of citing. Yet I noticed that the etching was eroded almost completely away, as though it had been thousands of years, or more, since last I’d seen it – though only a few weeks ago I’d seen it!
All Hell had changed. I did not recognize it. Where there once was a great black plain, now was all twisting tunnels! Purple moss overgrew the roof and walls. And men and women slumped along the walls, dejected, as though unaware of our passing.
– What did these do, Mr. Dante? Asked I.
– Nothing. Said he.
– I’d thought nothing would come of nothing. What then is nothing’s punishment?
– It is not punishment. It is nothing. Nothing of nothing indeed.
We walked and walked. My head felt too large for the tunnels. They cramped me in.
The people were everywhere slumped on the ground. I could bear it no longer. I stooped and asked one of the men – who was very plain and dull – what he’d done. He only sighed. I asked another, a woman – also unremarkable – and again I heard no word.
I tripped over one of them and fell on my face. I fell face to face with one of these men – who I saw was awake – we met each other’s eyes directly. He blinked once then said:
– I did not trip you.
– Yes, I’m afraid you did. Said I, sitting up.
– I won’t help you up. Said he, sighing and rolling over.
He picked up a rock and looked at it, and poked at it, as though it was more interesting to him than any visitor. He squinted at it. And scrolled.
– What’d you do to get put here?
– Nothing. Said he, sighing again, poking his rock.
– That’s not true. Said a woman next to him, poking his head.
– I would prefer you not do that. Said the man.
– What, this? Asked the woman, poking him.
– Yes. I would prefer you not do that.
– Do something about it. Said she.
– I will do nothing about it. Said the man, sighing, putting his filthy feet up on another man’s face, who was greatly displeased, but said nothing.
– You should not put your feet on him. Said the woman to the man she was poking.
– I would prefer to do that.
– You should not.
– Do something about it. Said he.
– I will do nothing about it. Said the woman, sighing, and continuing to poke his head.
As I looked around the tunnel, I saw that everyone there was in fact greatly annoying each other, and each was complaining to the other regarding these annoyances, yet each was refusing to do anything about it whatsoever.
I wanted nothing to do with them. They were too mean for Heaven, too dull for Hell – not a remark made by them was worth mine – and I’ll say not a word more of them.
I wanted to continue the Journey, and quickly.
We came to the end of the boring tunnel. There was a marsh there, which we crossed to a great river. I saw a great white and red Missouri Steamboat was paddling over to us. A fat, carnival man was waving us to its deck. Grimly, I boarded the vessel.
I received a letter in the mail today from a Mr. WS. It seems he had heard of the predicament of Life I’d found myself in, and so sent me a Sonnet as consolation. Poetry often serves to calm what is a troubled soul of mine.
Though this Sonnet he’d sent did not calm my storm. No not a bit. Or so I’d at first felt. I’ll explain what I mean. First, you may read it if you’d like:
“Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Or how shall sweet summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation; where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back,
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love might still shine bright.”
What was I to make of this truthful rag? This eloquent accusal? This harrowing surprise?
I immediately took it as a personal affront.
What else could I do? This to comfort me; to console; to soften a scorning life or caress the bruises left in blue? Brass statues corrode and crack. Stones moss like the old, are attention’s lost. An abundant earth withers. Boundless sea mounts my city.
This was an attack.
Gates are waved in and there the breach of Time harries what I’d held out. He more than sweeps, but the ravage there.
Oh troubling thought.
Oh burst of the fear fused. The treasure’s chest, o’ how unlike Pandora’s fate, never opens again but all boxing evil hounds me closed from rest. Overtakes. I hold my hand to cover my face. Feet are kicking. I forbid with breath feeble the fume on my face. The exhale of graves.
And yet there is an ease after a declame. Like the shock after a shout. I stop on that pause. And I say to myself what I’ve said, turning its sign, pasted on a board, left for the empty air to mind.
I passed it by on the way back. And catch a gleam again in my eye. How hath letter so black have might? There’s the miracle, that black ink might shine so bright.
Is this a memory or a Sight?
I say this, and Time runs on as words in a halt-less mind.
What a strange thing it is to be sent a poem from WS.
William, Shakespeare. The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems. 2. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008. Print.
I realized one day that it was very difficult for me to remain angry at anyone. Concerned by this, I immediately examined the cause of my agreeability, and arrived at several theories:
My memory is very poor, or my nature is very amenable, or conflict I disdain. Therefore a wrong I have suffered remains not long in my heart. Often the offender is startled to find my returning to them, in all good graces, as though the offense had not been, bringing happy greetings and gifts to boot.
Of course I was aghast at this amenable quality of my Self! I’d therefore resolved to alter it. I would be a grudge-bearer! But life, as often happens, has other plans. As an old knight once said to me:
‘It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.’
In this spirit I set out for the court of King Darius the Great. I’d heard from my friend, Michel de Montaigne, of a practice this King employed by which He held onto his grudges. I knew not the method. I was intent to find out.
Getting there was quite simple: Another friend of mine, Herodotus, was on intimate terms with one Durias, a cupbearer to the King. I was to be snuck into the court, under wine-jugs, in a wicker basket, which Durias offered to do if I gave him three aspirin, his job being, it would seem, prone to headaches.
Well of course that was no trouble to me, as I carry several with me at a time (for I often read political news). I arrived at the Court of the King of Kings that very night.
How strange and mystic was that Tacharan sight, where Zoroastrian chimeras bannered above the dais, and cherubim winged the royal faces and the court like stars on a cloudy night covered in silks and silver and lapis in shimmer.
Tall white hats, masted above pleated silks of many colors, sailed through the incensed hall, through stately door and glory gate, like perfume rivers to waterfall. Instruments – harps and drums and fluting sorna – like the seawinds – moved these barques all the Court afloat around crowned islands of Satraps and Dancers Sárapis and the bounteous table of the Old King.
For a time I could not measure I forgot me my mission, and was lost in the procession of lotus fevers of my mind awed by the court of the King of Kings.
Reader, pity me, for there I was aslumber when I should have been angry!
I floated to the table of the King. I took the first open seat. The King sat at the head of the table. I studied him closely. Seeing Him, I remembered myself.
For He looked like a very old King, and quite tired of it too. He dipped his food in wine to soften it. He talked to none but was talked to by everyone. Servants brought Him food and gifts and gossip and a head of an unheard enemy.
One servant whispered in His waxy grey ear a sentence repeated thrice. What did he say? After each, the King would slam His old ruling claw down on the table, scattering plate and prickett and morsels to the dogs at his feet. Next, He’d mutter and frown a dreary face. Lastly, into his goblet He’d hollowly sigh.
I inquired of the Satrap next to me the meaning of these Kingly gestures. From my incomplete understanding of Ariya, I understood the following:
The servant was tasked with stating to the King thrice each night: ‘King, O King, the Athenians, remember the Athenians…’
The Athenians. That rather learned group of Greeks had defeated the King at Marathon. Darius had sworn revenge but was yet to fulfill. To remember His anger, He had tasked the servant to restoke it, like a billows, long into the night, each night, until His anger might be consummated with a martial nuptial.
Here was the method I was seeking! Now, at last, I could hold a grudge!
I approached the servant and told him of my dilemma, how I could not remain angry with an offense, and asked him to work for me.
– Oh sir, no wise man would want such a burden as I must bring. Said the servant, in a Persian manner. I’d rather drink a poisoned cup of the King than deliver such deadly ire, to stoke and re-stoke such dry old fire!
– Why is this, servant?
– Look upon my burnt out King! Could age alone have withered His greatness? Nightly thrice I pass the bitter cup of memory unto Him. And like the greedy bark beetle in vulnerable pine, the venom gnaws and feeds upon the soft phloem of this stoutest Tree, Falling fruit and flaking bark, making Him the King all a husk. The Tree does not fall yet still it dies! Our Tree of Trees is Dead!
That rather articulate fellow then fled from me, fading back into the haze of the Court… I could not find him again. Nor, I suspect, could I afford him… Dejected, I left the palace of that sad and frowning and wrinkling old king.
And I went on forgiving everyone of everything.
Cheers to your Sunday morning…
~J Christian Lawrence
Herodotus Hist.. V, cv.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, ‘The Knight’s Tale’
– Art knows. He said, with emphasis, steadying his hand from spilling the black coffee. The effect is expressed as shock, as catharsis. From the very moment when Eve ate the apple from the tree of knowledge, mankind was doomed to strive endlessly after the truth.
He lay on the hospital bed. In the cramped, dirty hospital. A thin blue blanket covered his thin skin covered his jutting bones, like a thin-stretched tent. The cancer had his body, naught else.
I’d travelled to Paris to see him – he’d told me he was dying.
He’d fled his home country long ago.
He dozed off. So I sat by him and thought about his films. I drank my own black coffee and stirred and thought.
His movies had been a mystery to me. They were almost silent, perfectly capable of image sustained alone. Stalker especially. What sounds he’d have were of mud and fire, and rain in wells, and bombs and an old organ and metal on metal clanking, steam and muttered Russian poetry. What was I to make of that? Was I too to doze? Or muse?
I recall a time I’d stolen into a third-rate theatre in Petersburg to watch Andre Rublev his great film the Sovs had marked ‘third-rate’ because of its perfect Christian religion. The Sovs had recoiled like a bull and stamped the movie into the dirt. And that meant the film got no money and, money being very important to the Sovs, could only play in the cheapest of theatres and I was in one to watch it with the frayed screen the unclean projector the dim light the burnt popcorn the stained carpet the gummy torn seats sticky with spat plugs of tobacco and the clung dirt and lung-matter of Beloms.
Maybe three people were with me? I don’t remember.
But the fat muzhchina who’d slumped into the seat next (why the one next ??) had fallen asleep pat on the part with the boy making the brass Church bell (at risk of his own life, tolling for he), the best part of the slowest picture.
I think he was poisoned by the Sov’s because he’d made films abroad and they couldn’t stamp that out – they hated that their best wasn’t them, not really. Not in the way that Totalitarianism wanted. Which is to ‘Banish once and for all the neutrality of chess’…
Totalitarianism also wanted to finish once and for all the neutrality of cinema. All films for the Party. All for the Big Lie that everyone clucked on the Animal Farm.
But Andrei had made a movie called Nostalghia in Italy and in it a man walked a candle from one end of a ruined, Roman, waterless bath to the other and it was one take (one shot) and it took twelve minutes because the candle kept snuffing, and he had to keep starting over at the beginning but finally he got to the end. He got frustrated but he kept going. There was a spot of white in his black hair.
– With man’s help the Creator comes to know himself. Said Andrei, sipping his coffee which pained him. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death. To plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
– Of course, Andrei, that’s very good. I said sadly, not really listening but thinking about the movies.
Ah the movies! The movies! Could our frenzied minds but still and sit to these profound flickers! How much we might learn! Under panoramic sleights! Were we not so pushed to tap our fingers, flick our eyes, stamp our feet and distract, distract ourselves from our own pulse. What purchase there might be for us on our weary climbs, falls and swerving clinamens.
The Sacrifice: The nuclear war is nigh. The family man makes a bargain to God; I will sacrifice, and You will delay the apocalypse. He burns his house down. The bombs do not fall.
Stalker: The three men steal into the forbidden Zone, a place where tanks rust mid fire and water flowing everywhere, and in the center? (the blank the beginning).
Ivan’s Childhood: The Russian Boy goes behind the German lines, again, and again, and again – he remembers a well where his mother reflected.
The Mirror: The house burns a-flame under rain. The poet is dying of disease on the bed. He holds a sparrow in his hand, yet to release the last flying thought.
Andrei Rublev: The boy’s bell is cast. Its ring is loud and clear and true. Andrei embraces him. Andrei paints; we see his paintings in bright color and harmony.
– The thought is brief. The image, absolute. Said Andrei Tarkovsky, as he dies on the hospital bed.
The World goes with him. I drained the rest of my coffee and rented The Mirror on the way home and I watched it with a friend and it kept us awake all night.
Friday morning, I received an invitation in the mail to join one of my friends for a leisurely stroll through hell. Of course, I would not have accepted this had it not come from Mr. Dante himself, whom I knew to be quite familiar with the region – its persons, its local customs, its tourist traps. Agreeing to join him, I set out for the nearest Walmart.
There are in fact many entrances to hell in America.
One need not clamor up mountains, or down doleful ravines, to stumble upon one. Almost every retail outlet in America has an entrance– usually somewhere near the employee timecard. In fact, on difficult days, entrances to hell pocket our ground like so many mole-holes. Some larger than others.
Curiously, I once found an entrance between a telephone and its app – about the size of a thimble – through which I could not fall but could certainly smell.
I also know for a fact that our Capitol building is not only an entrance but is an entire wing of the Infernal itself. Though I’m not sure whether the occupants there are the devils or the damned.
Anyways, I slipped my way into a crevice inside the Walmart (this was just between the denim jeans and the dollar books), crawled downwards into darkness for at least one hour, slid, fell, tumbled, tambored, and at last arrived.
Mr. Dante was there waiting for me – holding a raised blazing torch.
He told me:
– Through me the way is to the city dolent; through me the way is to eternal dole; through me the way among the people lost. Justice incited my sublime Creator; created me divine Omnipotence, the highest Wisdom and the primal Love. Before me there were no created things, only eterne, and I eternal last. All hope abandon, ye who enter in!
– Yes of course, of course. Said I, dusting myself off. You’ve explained that many times, Mr. Dante. Now what is it you wanted me to see?
Dramatically, he turned and led me forward with the torch. Through the hot air we went, and the sound of cursing tongues diverse, and hallowing shouts, and horrors I mention not.
We came to a field of small sepulchers and open tombs littering the ground, their slabs not yet shut, their falls open to us, where fires burned at bottom.
I looked down into one of these open graves – a thousand or more persons there writhed within.
– What’d they do? I asked simply, familiar with such sights as these.
– Heretics. Said Mr. Dante. This is my lesson to you. These, who believed the soul existed only with the body, now suffer the permanence of the soul. They be, and be, and be. Death not ends to be.
– All harm from a thought-of unthought. Said I, pitying, and (quite selfishly) prizing my stance above them. A round goes around, a wheel turns, nothing reels the rest, nausea spokes the best…
– An American! Shouted a voice.
We found a man had hauled himself, by his fingertips, to the lip of one of these flaming crowded cluttered graves. He hanged there as over a precipice and peered up at Mr. Dante and I. I thought then I knew him.
He seemed old, white yet burnt, in tattered suit yet dignified, burning yet positive.
– American! Said he, smiling. I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!
– A rich soul was this one once, though not rich in soul. Said Mr. Dante.
– Were you rich, oh poor soul? Asked I.
– I’m still rich! Said he, laughing as though unaware of his condition. My bank account looks like my phone number! Hanging by my knees is this year’s swimsuit model! What year is it anyway? Hello! Who’s there? Tell me something son, how much do you make a year? Right here right now tell me.
He seemed to drift in and out of a clear thought and place. At times he spoke it seemed a speech, at another, to cry out to some intimate friend a despair. He asked me again how much money I had. Embarrassed, I told him the figure.
– Listen to me, if money isn’t everything, then go work at McDonalds. You have to unlearn all the thoughts that were making you poor and replace them with new thoughts – rich thoughts. He said happily, shining bright teeth above the flames, with the flames.
– You seem to know not where you are, in what condition we find you… Said Mr. Dante.
– If the circumstances around me suck I change them. Said he earnestly, erratically. Or I change me. Said he, looking about himself, then becoming silent, as though he dare not risk more argument, and realize.
We left him hanging there. We wandered back earthwards, Mr. Dante talking aloud endlessly, myself lost in thought, leaving with more question than answer. I parted ways with Mr. Dante, thanking him for the trip, and returned again to Walmart.
As I passed the perfume aisle, I thought of myself as caught onto a turning burning wheel; perhaps it was a carousel.
Just last night, when unable to sleep or to dream, I left my home for the beach. An East-coast beach is quite cold, you know, and it’s bare, and like a barrier at night. And I walked barefoot along the sand – where the breakers crashed in a monic lull like a mind out of word.
I stopped suddenly; the clouds cleared; the Northern Lights leaped above.
I watched them for a time, until I saw a man in a grey suit, looking up at them also, and walking along the beach.
Relieved that a fellow traveler (on this weary road of life) could share in my experience, I caught up to him and said hello. He turned blankly on the sand and faced me. And we made quiet intros, and innocuous small talk, and small trades of our scrapped ideas.
We were both writers, it would seem.
As often happens in these circumstances, I challenged him to a Writer’s Duel. He accepted, we shook hands, separated by ten paces, turned around to face one another, looked up at the Auroras, drew our typewriters from their holsters, and readied. He made the earlier shot.
– ‘This is form gulping after formlessness, skin flashing to wished-for disappearances and the serpent body flashing without the skin.’ Said he.
– Chiaroscuro auroras, in clouds like moving grass, through ion and air, lights in frigid brilliance pass. Said I.
A good volley. But soon he readied again, and as he wrote, a form appeared on the beach, a sandcastle:
– ‘Farewell to an idea… A cabin stands, deserted, on a beach. It is white, as by a custom or according to an ancestral theme or as a consequence of an infinite course.’ Said he.
– And the door swept open and the sand surfed the floor and broke like water upon the wall and dried the couch and the bed, and the way out and the way in. Said I.
Another good exchange. But he was leading and I was following. Ergo he:
– (as he crafts further the sandhouse) ‘Upstairs the windows will be lighted, not the rooms. A wind will spread its windy grandeurs round and knock like a rifle-butt against the door.’
– And the wind will make its drifts, and its hills, and circling, circling eddies across the floor along the feet of the father who sits in
– (interrupting) ‘In space, wherever he sits, of bleak regard, as one that is strong in the bushes of his eyes. He says no to no and yes to yes.’
– And yes to no. And no to yes. And goodbye. Good morning and goodnight.
– ‘And in saying yes he says farewell.’
– He fetches shows from air, carnivals, and turnings of dance. Said I
– ‘Scenes of the theatre, vistas and blocks of woods and curtains like a naïve pretense of sleep. Said he. We stand in the tumult of a festival.’
– We turn in the fest of a tumult… playing in stage, strutting in plays. We frett for curtain falls, we fawn for sleepy applause. Said I. All is brief.
He sighed and turned away and began to walk again along the beach; I heard him say:
– ‘It is a theatre floating through the clouds, itself a cloud, although of misted rock and mountains running like water, wave on wave, through waves of light.’
The sandcastle began to crumble as I followed him a ways, saying nothing.
– ‘It is of cloud transformed to cloud transformed again, idly, the way a season changes color to no end.’ Said he, walking and minding me no longer.
He looked up again at the auroras, shimmering above the black water of shoal and surf. He stopped. And he was angry. He shouted in his anger:
– ‘This is nothing until in a single man contained! Nothing until this named thing nameless is and is destroyed! He opens the door of his house on flames. The scholar of one candle sees an Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame of everything he is. And he feels afraid.’
Perhaps satisfied with this outburst, he again plodded forward along the sand, his hands behind his back, saying nothing. I did not follow him. Following there would be then, and not now; our battle would be again, but not to win. I turned aside and went home.
And I slept well in my own bed and I finished my thoughts there.
Just the other day, a friend of mine asked me about one of my other dear friends, Mr. Franz Kafka. She had heard good report of him from me and was rather eager to make his acquaintance. Jealous of these affections, I immediately set out to dissuade her.
I booked passage on a steamer, SS Ahasver, which after a sea-sickening journey along the coast, brought me to her residence. She welcomed me in. I, bumbling with all Mr. Kafka’s letters, stories, and novels I’d brought with me, immediately set about demonstrating to her his errors:
– Well he only wrote in very rough and partially burnt German drafts, you know. So you’re never getting a polished or original text.
– His characters have no character! They seem forces of parable!
And most triumphantly:
– Many of his sentences are quite long.
Of course, all these efforts only succeeded in exciting her the more to meet him. Pressingly, she demanded I leave all these documentations with her to peruse at her leisure.
My point blunted, I left her to his letters, and set out to visit Mr. Kafka myself – and thereby, perhaps, to dissuade him from the fatal contact which would prove him the better writer.
Traveling to Prague was no easy journey. It took a few months to will my way through the maze of bureaucratic passage. Bribes, begs, and blunders stalled, stalled my way. At one time, I was required to confess my sins to a Czech priest – who was quite delighted to hear them. Another occasion, I was asked to paint a picture of ‘a picture’, a portrait that took much to unpuzzle.
Finally, after passing an exam on the interpretation of kabbala, I was at last permitted to visit him.
I arrived by plane this time. It was night. Mr. Kafka’s dwelling, a small and cramped apartment, was stuck between a Shochet’s Slaughterhouse and a Jewish Mercantile. I knocked on his door and was immediately let in, it seems, by the door itself – no one was inside.
I wandered through his one room apartment, peering under and behind stacks of books, where a few times I’d found him before – but all to no avail. I was at a loss. And I was lost. How was I ever to prevent my friend from finding him?
Then I saw a white light shining through the window – his balcony.
I went out onto it, but there the light was so great, emanating from a little table, that I could not see who was sitting in the little chair there. I attempted to gain a clearer view of who was there by the following methods:
I stood up on the tip of the balcony’s bannister; I kneeled down and tried to look from underneath the table; I walked around the table; I leaned as far as I would dare over the table, and explored with my hands, finding a great book open on the table – a magnifying glass lay upon it.
But I could not identify the occupant who surely sat there with this book and this light.
– Mr. Kafka? Is that you sitting there?
I heard no response at first; after a time though the light shifted, as though moved to better see me, and I heard the response:
– Good evening. Now, what can I do for you?
– Am I disturbing you? I asked.
– Yes. Yes. Said he, shifting his light again. Must you stand there? I’m studying.
– You’re studying?
– Yes. Yes.
– Well I don’t want to interrupt you; I’ll go back in. Said I, moving.
– So you’re still here? He asked me, before I could entirely leave.
– Well yes, but I’m going to be really going. If not now, then sooner or later. I wanted to look at you out here, while I was still here. It’s completely dark in the room, impossible to see, you see. Said I.
– Well who are you?
I explained to him my name and my business, that if he was Mr. Kafka, how we’ve met before. And I explained to him also my predicament. I was quite careful not to speak too highly of her, lest I incite him. I explained that under no circumstances must she be permitted to see him, lest she be spirited away.
He listened quite patiently (or perhaps he didn’t; the light too bright to tell) and said:
– If I had to choose between my studies and having acquaintance , I would naturally choose the acquaintance. But all my efforts are geared towards avoiding the necessity of having to make such a choice… Well I will get back to my studies. But do come over and visit us again sometime; I can set aside an hour for you every night if you’d like.
– So… you’d advise acquaintance?
– Absolutely. Said he, his voice strangely sounding like a boom like a multitude of voices in the deep.
I flew back to America that very hour. I relayed a message to my friend with Mr. Kafka’s address and his open invitation to call upon him for a teatime. This time, I did not slander him, except of course to say that his tea was often too cold, his cups too cracked, and his manners, too obscure.