Keystone

Keystone

The following short piece was written over five years ago, during a time when I was just beginning to understand the fields of post-structuralism and post-modernism. The piece arose out of my fascination with social construction. At this point I must have begun reading Derrida and perhaps Baudrillard (Foucault and Sartre came later, I still need to read Beauvoir), which gave me a sense of wonder I hadn’t felt since high school, when the profundity of Darwin’s evolutionary theory finally sunk into my hormone-raddled skull. These French writers with their isms and love of language did what the best poetry attempts to do: make the everyday world a far stranger place. While my thinking has matured somewhat, this fascination with constructed realities, linguistic play and deconstruction has remained, adding another tool to my critical arsenal (a tool which, admittedly, often gives way to stints of nihilism, but that is more a weakness of myself than of the method). This story (which like I said, was written in the early enthusiastic days of my study on the topic) pushes the idea of constructed, subjective realities to the extreme limit. It’s got some fun similes.

 

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The sky is a pale blue and his eye is a dark brown.  Both details lay presented and both are unimportant, but both exist.  When the wind blows down the cavernous avenue, it blows with it the recorded history of man as carelessly as a child drags a broken stick.  Meaningless, but necessary, this image is presented.  A dog barks in the distance.

He walks down the street, hands in pockets and mouth hidden within his scarf.  The wind is bitter, stabbing a thousand knives through the flimsy excuse for a coat he is wearing.  The air is filled with the hum of distant construction.  Few walk the streets at such an early hour.  He is essentially alone.  He is essentially an essence of solitude, if that makes any such sense.  He reaches a crosswalk and looks both ways, seeing only parked cars and a crow resting on a parking meter.  He crosses as the wind decides to blow again, sending newspapers and leaves into the smoggy atmosphere.

Soon he reaches his destination, an old apartment building overlooking the avenue in monumental silence.  A car passes, as does a man on a bicycle.  Across the street, two men are busy opening the shutters that covers their storefront.  A bakery emerges like a rabbit from a hat.  He checks his watch.  Still plenty of time.  He leans against the stone building and cranes his head to see the full moon, still bright and very much alone in the dawning pale blue sky.  It hangs there motionless and he imagines it to be a surrealist moon stolen from the anonymous canvas of an ancient Italian painter.  Something slams and one of the bakers lets forth a stream of curses in Spanish.  A taxi races by followed by a sedan and eventually another taxi.  The birds are starting to awaken.

This is the reality constructed by another portraying the last images of a man’s life.  The bakers and the taxi drivers and the couples sleeping in the nearby apartments are all unaware of this.  Of course, there is no reason for them to be aware of such a fact.  They have their own constructions to worry about; it should not be expected of them to know the fate of someone they don’t know.  However, this constructed reality that is about to collapse into itself is essential to the grand construction of the human reality.  With the death of this man humanity will once again be lost in the confusion of life, and all those reliant on this man’s construction will no longer know what is reality and what is unreality.  But that is unimportant.

He is leaning against a stone apartment building.  A car passes.  The distant construction halts, a silence falls over the city.  He checks his watch.  The hands mark six o’clock.  The cathedral bells down the street starts to toll out the time.  He releases a breath and a hand emerges from his pocket.  It holds a pad the size of a cell phone.  The thumb rubs the red button that adorns the top of the pad.  A car passes, the thumb presses down.  A beeping starts.  Quiet, hollow, equally spaced.  Soon the beeping stops.  Behind the scarf, a smile appears, the faint echo of a laugh escapes.  And the world disappears.

(November 2011)

The Returned

The Returned

Many years ago, a woman died suddenly of an aneurysm. Her husband, a failed alchemist and scholar, returned to their little cottage from herb-gathering on the nearby mountain to find his wife crumpled on the floor, her blues eyes seemingly focused on the porcelain teacup that lay shattered nearby. He tried everything he could within the confines of his medical knowledge to revive her, but there was nothing that could be done. The woman, his love, was dead.

It was not until the cock crowed the following morning that the man could convince himself to leave her side and fetch the village priest. A day later, she was buried in the church’s cemetery, attended only by her husband, the priest and a sad-eyed gravedigger.

After the burial was complete, and as the priest and gravedigger returned to the rectory to warm their numbed bodies with coffee, the man sat down beside his wife’s tombstone and thought. A cool autumn breeze played with his long black hair, while the cold moisture of the grass seeped its way into his legs. An idea was forming within his mind, one built on the memory of a passage he had read in one of his many occult and alchemical books. If he could not revive her with his knowledge of the natural world, perhaps he could try the supernatural. Rising from his seat in the churchyard, the man hurried home to his little, lonely cottage and tore through his books until he found the remembered passage in the memoirs of a long dead Swabian wizard named Rudolf.

The man set about preparing as Rudolf instructed. Candles were lit, lavender was placed on each windowsill and as the sun was setting behind the eastern peaks, the man began reciting the ancient dead words written phonetically in the wizard’s scrawl. The words, unintelligible as all dead tongues are, nevertheless escaped from the man’s mouth like poetry. Each sound, rest and syllable brought a degree of comfort. When the script was finished, the man took up a knife and sliced open the palm of his left hand. As instructed, he let his blood drop onto each of the lavender plants adorning his windows as well as on the blue kerchief of his wife, and then covered his wound with a rag. He then blew out each candle so that only moonlight remained to halt the darkness. The man, suddenly weary, crawled into the blankets of his bed and for the first time since his wife’s sudden passing, he slept.

 

*****

 

The man found himself seated in a little rowboat, rocking gently with the waves. The sea around him was calm, a relief as no land was within sight. Wedged into the bench in front of him was a silver rod threaded with ebony line. The line disappeared into the water, which was almost as dark. The sun was still low to the horizon; whether rising or sinking, he could not tell.

The man felt at peace. He had not visited the ocean for many years. In fact, he realized, he hadn’t left his homely mountain valley since he married and built the cottage. A breeze came from sun-side (either east or west depending) and nudged his boat as if it were a child’s toy. A saline odor graced his nostrils and he breathed it in with gusto.

He heard a slight groan and spied the rod a bit more bent, the line a bit more taut. He reached for the reel and awoke.

 

*****

 

Two blue eyes greeted the man as he opened his own. They were dark and deep as the ocean that he had just returned from. He rose onto an elbow to get a better look. For a moment, he felt a wave of feebleness pass over him, but the clearing of his sight sent it on its way.

His wife sat before him on the bed. Same blue eyes, same auburn hair, same lazy posture, same half smile that spoke of inner mischief and love. Around her forehead was wrapped her blue kerchief, completely cleaned of his blood. The sun peeking in from the window gave her a faint halo.

Hurriedly he grabbed her hand. It was warm and a bit rough, the same hand he had caressed for years. He squeezed just to confirm its reality; she squeezed back.

“You’ve returned!” he choked out. She just smiled her half smile, beatific as he remembered it to be. He gave a cry of joy and then embraced her. As tears escaped his eyes, he breathed in the love of his wife. She smelled wonderfully like lavender.

 

*****

 

The next few days were met with uninterrupted happiness by the man. Every morning he awoke and she was there beside him. Together, they ate, cleaned, went for walks along the mountain paths and did all the other little things couples do to pass away the time.

Only three things weighed on the man’s brain as these days passed. While they were not so important as to worry him, he could not keep himself from ignoring their existence.

First, his wife would not speak. Yes, she sewed, read books, dressed, emoted, washed, cooked, arranged flowers and kissed him the same, but her voice was strangely absent. Every time he would ask her questions, she would respond only with movement or facial expression. She seemed fine with this arrangement, so he didn’t push her to speak. But he missed her voice, which his memory had supplanted with an almost angelic property.

Second, after several days, his hand still bled. No matter what salve he placed on the wound, no matter how tight the bandage, he still bled. The many nicks and cuts he was awarded during his alchemic efforts always healed so quickly. Something was off, and he was starting to feel a bit more tired than usual. But this all did not get in the way of his love or his work and so it remained in the back of his mind.

The last weight was so minute that he figured it was just the product of his own overactive mind. Occasionally (and he stressed occasionally) while losing himself in the eyes of his returned love, he thought he caught the subtle glimpse of something he had never noticed before. It was something…heavy. Perhaps not melancholic (how could his revived love be melancholic?!) but some kind of blue, a shade against the bright blue of her irises.

However, these concerns were washed away by the tide of his love, and as is the case with bliss, they were to remain subterranean until their presence could no longer be ignored.

 

*****

 

The days continued to pass, but the man was growing weaker. Soon, he was unable to leave his bed. Days would be spent gazing at the ceiling while his beatific wife cared for him. Nights were spent back on that dream-ocean, the rowboat rocking and the line always so tense. The more time he spent there, the more he observed the subtle strangeness of the place. The water was so dark that, when he placed his hand into the waves, he could not see his fingers.

The sky was also a bit odd. It had a greener tone than he was used to in the waking world. And the clouds never moved, as if they were islands painted onto some covering canvas. Perhaps, most curiously, what was it that pulled the line? Whenever he reached for the reel, he would wake.

 

*****

 

As the man grew weaker, his opposition to the truth of his condition weakened as well. His hand still bled (the cottage was running out of bandages) and the beautiful creature which cared for him still did not speak. More and more, he let the truth approach. Of course, the warm and cheerful image of his wife could not be his wife. She was gone. And this copy, while so close to the original, was not the original. The person he loved was gone. More specifically, whatever it was within his wife that was incapable of being copied was also gone.

This acceptance was accompanied by a new train of thought. Just who or what was this being who now lived with him. The Swabian text (as best as he could translate it) ensured that the spell would bring back the dead. But what did it bring back? Perhaps, he considered, the spell had not returned a being lost, but captured a new one. And perhaps, through the strength of his desire, this captured something had been transformed into what now sat down beside him, holding a hot bowl of soup. Was he truly the perpetrator of such cruelty?

As she spooned the liquid into his trembling mouth, he avoided looking into her eyes.

 

*****

 

Another day passed. The man felt the weight of his selfishness grow heavier on his chest. This thing did not belong here. In his wife’s form, bending to his desire, the whole situation felt perverse. He was not this type of man. And yet…

When he looked at the captured creature, he saw the woman he loved. Such perfect mimicking of her behavior and moods created the illusion of time travel. He was returned to the old days, the days which in their distance had gained a dull sentimental edge which symbolized peace and love. Yes, the present was only a debauched image of this nostalgic past, but at least it was something. And as long as the illusion of timelessness remained, he would not set the creature free.

 

*****

Anemic and pale, the man passed out well before sundown. He found himself once again in the little rowboat. It was later or earlier in the day than the previous dreams. The sun was nowhere to be seen; only a violet glow on the horizon remained. The sky above was peppered with the stars bright enough to withstand the approaching/receding light, and thus the constellations seemed disjointed and crippled.

Once more he heard the creak of the rod as it bent under pressure. He reached out his hand and grabbed the reel, but this time he did not wake. He pulled at the thing caught on the line somewhere beneath the dark waves. It pulled back. He pulled again, but the reel wouldn’t turn.

In the next moment, the man was underwater. Whatever pulled back had suddenly found an incredible reserve of strength, yanking both the silver rod and the sallow man into the dream-ocean. The man let go of the rod but he still sank. Further and further into the deep he went, not attempting to swim or struggle. He was uncertain of whether he was breathing the water around him, but such details did not matter here. For many minutes he dropped, alone in the all-encompassing blackness. If it weren’t for the subtle waves of pressure passing by his ears, he wouldn’t have been able to tell whether he was actually moving.

In this darkness, he did nothing. No kicking, no yelling. No panicking thoughts. In fact, he had no thoughts at all. After a while his eyes adjusted a little, and he saw, or thought he saw, a great many creatures moving in the obscurity just beyond his field of vision. Whatever they were stayed just beyond his perception; but for the ceaseless movement or the slightest glimpses of some strange appendage, he might have been able to convince himself that he saw nothing.

Suddenly, his feet hit what felt like a sandy bottom. He tried once more to perceive the things beyond the horizon of darkness and failing that, closed his eyes.

 

*****

 

The man awoke to find his wife sitting on the edge of the bed, staring into his eyes. There was no denying it now. The shade he thought he had detected in her eyes early on and had tried so hard to ignore was definitely there. It was a shade of sorrow. He searched this sorrow for an accusation, but there was none. No, in the deep of her blue eyes, he only saw pity.

He tried to open his mouth to speak, but he was too weak even to do this. With all the strength remaining within his body, the man released from his body two words, more breathed than spoken.

“I’m sorry.”

With this final effort completed, the man died. The creature watched the body of the man for several minutes and then carefully closed his eyes. She turned to the window. The sun was setting somewhere behind the mountains and everywhere the shadows of night were slowly spreading the rear guard of day. A warm breeze came wandering in from the west, rustling the trees like a mischievous child. Somewhere in the forest beyond the gates of the little cottage, something gave a cry.

 

(October 2016)

 

The Gone

The Gone

The following is excerpted from the August 8, 2016 edition of The Buffalo News.

 

Two found dead in Batavia cemetery struck by lightning, police say

News Staff Reports

Lightning apparently claimed the lives of two people found dead Wednesday afternoon under a tree in St. Joseph Cemetery in Batavia following a thunderstorm earlier that morning, Batavia police said.

R.G., 34, of Newstead and J.M., 32, of Corfu, suffered from injuries consistent with being struck by lightning, according to the Erie County medical examiner, though the cause of death is still pending further tests.

Lightning struck the area sometime between 2:30 and 2:45 a.m. Wednesday, when a storm passed through the area, the National Weather Station said.

Both G. and M. were arrested last August in Bergen on drug charges, including possession of heroin and crack cocaine, along with hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia…

 

 

Two bodies in the cemetery only draw attention when they are not in the right place.

(The story is underwritten, and I have too many questions. Who found the bodies? What did they look like? What was found nearby? Were they identified from police records, or did somebody already know? And of course, there are the broader, unanswerable questions. Why were they there? What made them choose the cemetery? Did they have nowhere else to go? Did they enjoy irony?)

They had been out of confinement for some time, but now their names were besmirched. Young enough (in these days) to have a future, but now the indifferent, overworked office rats and hard-eyed landlords who scanned their resumes and rent agreements will only know them as addicts. Decades of side-eyed glances and mutual distrust ahead for them, assuming the heroin doesn’t do its job correctly.

‘Life is a hell without the comforting warmth’, she said once, as they lay in a stupor. He did not respond. He rarely did.

The currents had drowned them long ago. They were but waiting for their bodies to be snagged from the river by some elderly fisherman waiting out his own last days with rod and tackle. One could go back and trace the patterns of their lives, but it wouldn’t do ‘em any good. Such things are greater than a little private history.

It was cruel of the world to expose them to the concept of death and even crueler to sell them a living variation. The acceptable vices – alcohol, gambling, pornography, weed – could only dull the pain, blanch the emptiness. They were not strong enough to fill the hole.

They examined the vacuity of others, they asked ‘How do our neighbors and relations fill their holes?’ But the answers they found (shopping, boats, church on Sunday) were not applicable to them. Money was rarely a given and in their lives, God seemed only to chagrin.

Heroin was cheaper. Crack cocaine did not judge. In the embrace of opium, guilt was revealed as nothing but a human invention, and shame, nothing more than society’s whip.

They drew closer together. It was not love (junkie’s know no love) but a mutual understanding. They were the gone ones, the lost, orphans of the first world who in each other found safety and support. She was not terribly pleasant, he not very bright, but the bonds of the gone are stronger than such petty differences. In the shaded valleys and burnt hills of the gray lands, such bonds are all that matter.

With no place to go and nowhere to be, they wandered. Here, there and everywhere…

(This has all been a fiction, but let me be presumptuous for just a few paragraphs more.)

Summer nights were better, they needn’t worry about the New York chill that otherwise blanketed the land. The new supply was in, their release near. She said they needed somewhere quiet where they could be alone. With a self-satisfied grin, he suggested the cemetery. They were both probably aware of the irony.

The night had grown darker than usual. The wind was picking up. They sat down beneath a tree, surrounded by the granite totems of their gone kin. When she was younger and her flame still lit, such places as this inspired fear. She reflected on this as he prepared.

‘There is nothing the living fear more than the dead. There is nothing the dead care less for than the living.’ She understood where she now stood within this dynamic.

The wind was growing stronger, the tree seemed to rustle in agitation. The process was advancing, and they used the distant flashes to measure their work (it would save their phones’ battery, at least). A light rain began to tickle their arms. He watched the droplets wander his bicep as he searched for a vein.

The storm raced through with a fury.  In the distant houses, children stirred from their covers and hid in between the familiar warmth of their burned out parents. Dogs paced their living rooms in surprise, while their feline antagonists hid in the crooks of antique armchairs. For a few minutes, the world seemed on the edge of collapse, the very wind itself wailing in pain.

But soon the storm passed. The rain slowed and then stopped. The clouds broke and stars returned to their accustomed positions in the sky.

In the cemetery, the two figures leaned against each other. They did not move the whole night through. They did not move as the sun rose above the eastern hills, wiping away the stars like an overzealous maid. They did not move as the birds began their practiced routines, nor when the squirrels commenced their morning calisthenics up and down the tombstones and fences.

And they did not move when the police came for them a second time, notebooks in hand, mud flecking their leather shoes as they eyed the burnt skin and shooed away the ancient fear creeping up the back of their spines.

 

(August 2016)

Note: The article quoted at the beginning of this piece is real and can be found here. All that follows after is strictly fictional.

 

The Mapping of the Night Sky

The Mapping of the Night Sky

Exhausted from her day at school, Faye slumped down on the fraying couch and turned on the television.  The box flickered to life, the image settling on the figure of a lean, bearded man with messy hair in an unassuming suit before a chalkboard.  He was speaking past the camera.  Occasional edits showed that he was speaking to an audience of college students and faculty, a lecture of some kind.  Faye let the remote drop to the floor and closed her eyes, listening to the quiet voice of the lecturer emanating from the direction of the television.

“…and what is it that makes man great? What is it that has led us here, to this room, in our nice clothes and with full bellies, enjoying the warmth of the central heating and the company of a hundred strangers? I argue, as many have argued before, that the greatest power of that entity called Man, that odd species of ape which feels itself so dominant in the world, is the power of delineation.  One could also refer to this power as definition.  In any case, it is the delineation of boundaries, the definition of limits, that places Man in the position he is in now.

I am fascinated by delineation.  The nerve we as a species must have to create difference where there seems to be none! Delineation is the work of God, yet each and every one of us undertakes it at every moment.  We play God and then hide our shame (for we have much humility) by shielding our actions behind the created image of ‘God’, ‘Humanity’, ‘Science’.  Perhaps, it is because we have realized that what we are doing is wrong, that to bring order from chaos is arbitrary and pointless.  Perhaps, the need for religion, science, politics, history, and all those other structures we invent is to give shape to the formless, because we as a species cannot accept un-form, un-being.  In this day and age of capitalism, state-ism, militarism and all those other ‘–isms’ we insist exist, the individual has reached its ascendency.

We have made ourselves special. We give ourselves names, ethnicities, gender and all those other odd definitions.  Of course, the rest of what we deem ‘nature’ could care less about our names, our histories, our favorite sports teams and the like.  Nature, what some call reality, just is.  Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre- all have approached this being that some call Chaos, a being that is without meaning, without reason, and without structure.  Philosophy as a whole has developed around the problem of defining the seemingly indefinable.  And the indefinable has always won this seeming opposition.  It has the greatest weapon in existence, the ability to have (I choose ‘have’ as opposed to the verbs ‘bring’ or ‘create’) death.

Death is reality’s response to the human need to define.  To die is to not live.  It is the greatest boundary of our existence, and yet, we did not create it.  All the limits we impose upon ourselves, all the boundaries we draw on the ‘natural world’ pale in comparison to the boundary of death.  It is, as far as we can tell, the closest thing to ‘the end’ that we can approach.  It is reality, that singular, infinite blob, reinserting itself back into that rarified ‘reality’ us humans have created for ourselves.  It is that spectacular explosion of un-meaning coming through…”

It was somewhere around here that Faye gave herself completely over to the sleep that had been biting at her heels for the last few hours.  In some indefinable space of time, she had drifted from the finite of the waking world to the infinite of thought’s other kingdom, the passenger of a lazy boat floating on a quiet sea.

(April 2014)

Two Glimpses

Two Glimpses

The City-State of Calvino

The palace of President Emmanuel Vilgo sits between the city of Calvino and the sea. In the past, it was a magnificent sight to behold, with its white towers rising over the messy collection of two and three story buildings that is Calvino’s West Ward. Foreign dignitaries, recently landed in the port, or later at the international airport, were led down the tree-lined Poseidon Boulevard to the great brick walls of the compound, over 20 feet tall. Once inside the gates, they were feted in magnificent courtyards or given extravagant feasts on the palace’s private beach. Guarded from the city sprawled out beyond, these dignitaries were often heard remarking on Calvino’s wondrous success in this “less fortunate” part of the world. During the Cold War, when proxy battles between the two ideological giants raged all across the “third world”, the city-state of Calvino was touted as “a jewel of tranquility in cataclysmic seas.”

But when the global war abated and the titans of the East and West turned their respective eyes inward, the importance of this ‘jewel of tranquility’ faded. The oligarchy, which had solidified their control through the financial support of both great powers, saw their incomes diminish and fell into bickering over the scraps that remained. With the ruling power both discredited and distracted, the people (who throughout most of Calvino’s history were not terribly important) rose up, demanding greater political representation and greater access to the increasingly limited economy. Calvino, for so long sterile and silent, roared to life with a kinetic energy most of the world’s strategists and academics thought was impossible. The city burned for weeks.

It was during this time of unexpected chaos that a young and ambitious military general took it upon himself to bring back order.

Born in the slums on the western edge of the North Ward, Emmanuel Vilgo worked his way up through the Calvinian army, one of the only institutions in the city that allowed for such audacious social climbing. While his childhood peers wallowed in the boredom and frustration that poverty breeds, the brilliant and ruthless Vilgo rose to the rank of colonel. In the twilight years of the Cold War, Colonel Vilgo served as an advisor to the neighboring government of Mishima, which was in the middle of a seven year civil war with a nationalist rebel movement.

While the oligarchy began its incessant feuding, the colonel was learning, successfully hunting rebel conspirators in the cities and perfecting anti-insurgency stratagems against rebel camps in Mishima’s rural and mountainous east.  Calvinian newspapers, variously owned by the political and military elite, ran flattering stories of his victories in the North in the hopes that success abroad would mask the fractures growing larger at home. When the colonel returned to his home just before the public revolt, he was one of the most famous men in the city. The cult of personality that would become one of the defining characteristics of his near thirty year rule was already prevalent when, on the 25th of April, 199x, Colonel Emmanuel Vilgo declared himself acting President of the Democratic Republic of Calvino. By the first of May, the city had returned to its silent and sterile state. And in that state, it remains.

(February 2016)

 

A Saintly Dialogue

The pariah and the saint walk down the tree covered path that leads from the monastery to the village. It is a morning warm and muted.

 

Saint: Ah, what a joyous day to be alive. God in his kingdom must be glad.

Pariah: Why he be glad?
Saint: Because all is right in the world.

Pariah: All is right? The villagers hate me, I am terribly alone. The world is gray, the sun is black.

Saint: Yes all is right.

Pariah: Why is all right if I am hated?

Saint: It is because you are hated that all is right.

Pariah: What?

Saint: All things exist in relation to other things. Things do not exist by themselves, you know. That is God’s law. Without your existence, the villagers would not be able to tell what they themselves are.

Pariah: What are they?

Saint: They are not you.

Pariah: I don’t get it.

Saint: You don’t have to. That is not your purpose.

Pariah: Well, what is my purpose?

Saint: Why, to exist, my child.

Pariah: ………..I hate you.

(April 2014)

 

The Genius Eliza

The Genius Eliza

Once, in a time and place far removed from whichever time and place in which you currently reside, there was a young princess. This young princess was special. Now, to be fair, all princesses are special, especially when you compare them to the moppets of the peasant class, but this particular princess was special even by princess standards. For, this young princess (who we shall call Eliza because I am overusing the word ‘princess’) was, by all accounts, an undeniable genius.

This was undoubtedly a surprise to the various folk of the kingdom who made royal-watching a significant part of their daily business. For Eliza’s father, King Rolf, was known throughout the continent to be a short-sighted fool. As for her mother, Queen Isadore, well, she was as average in intelligence as a royal could be. And let us not even get started on the academic merits of her older brother Marcus. Even the fawning royal historians of the period couldn’t come up with anything nice to say about his brain.

But back to Eliza. You see, this young princess had a real knack for comprehending the truths of the world. By the age of five, she had mastered five languages, and was fluent in three others. By the age of nine, she had read all of the leather-bound books that had been otherwise gathering dust in her father’s royal library. And by the age of fifteen, she was so knowledgeable in the arts and sciences that no tutor or professor could teach her more.

Now, there comes a time in all princesses’ lives when they must settle down and marry the strapping young lad from some other kingdom that their parents have chosen for political or economic reasons. Wise readers, you of course know that this is the only reason for princesses in the first place! Many princesses take this new, un-sought-for position in life with a certain zeal, because really, what else can they do? Fight the patriarchy? Why, that’s hard as hell today! Can you imagine the opposition in the distant past, when the world was flat and the sun was led across the sky in a golden chariot? Who would be foolish enough to risk her life to maintain some form of independence?

Well, Eliza was. Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, her father announced her impending marriage to the middle-aged Prince Antony of ______. This was a real shock to the young princess. She was aware of Prince Antony – who didn’t know of the Hero of Randall’s Bridge? She was also aware of just what her virginity was worth (an alliance and two provinces on the coast). Worst of all, she was aware of what Prince Antony expected in his wife – total obedience to his princely whims, whims which included a complete halt in academic pursuits. All of this added together to form a storm of frustration and anger that could only lead to one possible outcome. A week before she was to be married, Eliza ran away.

Taking with her nothing but a few days’ food, a heavy woolen cloak and a notebook containing her most prized facts and figures, Eliza fled into the most remote frontiers of the kingdom, the Red Mountains. Ancient pillars of granite pierced the sky as she roamed higher and higher. Having spent her life confined to the marble palaces and chilly castles of her kingdom, these silent sentinels from Earth’s past filled her with a most profound awe. Oftentimes, she would stop to break by some little stream, or atop some ragged outcrop, and gaze lovingly at the landscape around her. Her eyes, well-trained by thousands of texts and years of people-watching, took in every edge and every shade. Alone and in wonder with the world, Eliza found herself happy.

Unfortunately, happiness does not fill your stomach. By this time, Eliza (unused to rationing and the depredations of hunger) had already ate through her supplies. To make matters worse, the land was not proving as fruitful as she had read it to be. After three days of nothing but apples and spring water, Eliza considered returning to the comforts and privileges of home.

It was at this moment of wavering resolve that Eliza came across a small cottage built carelessly alongside the shore of a rambling river. Freshly caught fish lay drying in the afternoon sun while a fire crackled lazily in a pit nearby. Lying in the shade of a drooping willow tree was an old man. He appeared to be sleeping.

Eliza approached quietly, uncertain whether she should wake the old man and beg for a fish, or just steal one and run. One method hurt her pride, the other her carefully constructed moral image of herself. Both were disagreeable, but her stomach demanded a sacrifice.

Luckily for her, she had to choose neither. As she approached, the old man awoke and noticing where she was heading, smiled. “Hello. Would you like a fish then?”

Eliza froze, her face reddening from embarrassment. “Uh, yes, if it would not be too big of a problem for you.”

“Of course not.” The old man rose and taking two of the drying fish, carefully placed them on large sticks. With a great deal of finesse, he perfectly positioned them over the fire. He motioned Eliza to take a seat nearby and threw some more wood on the fire. In a few minutes, the fire was awake from its lazy slumber and the two sat listening to the crackle of wood and fish meat.

“It’s rare for me to have company up here,” said the old man, glancing at the princess through his shaggy eyebrows. “I apologize for not having anything besides fish and water to offer you.”

Eliza quickly waved away the sentiment. She was still a bit embarrassed. “Oh no, really, this is very kind of you as it is.”  She shifted in her seat, trying to think of what to say next. “If I may be so forward to ask, why are living here so deep in the mountains?”

“Oh, I like the solitude. Where I used to live, there was always something going on. Places to go, people to see. It was quite tiring. Here, there is quiet. Time moves at a different speed.” He chuckled. “But these are pleasures for old men. What about yourself? You do not strike me as a local.”

Eliza told the old man of her impending marriage and her fear that such a marriage would hurt her ability to pursue knowledge, being careful to not mention her position as princess of the realm. She finished her story as the old man silently lifted the fish out of the fire and placed them on two old wooden plates. He passed one to her and began eating. Eliza waited for a minute and then said, in barely a whisper:

“I don’t know if I did the right thing.”

The old man considered this as he chewed. “Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? How are we supposed to know?”

“Do you think I did the right thing?”

The old man waved away the question. Such difficult questions always made him uncomfortable. “I cannot answer that for you.”

Eliza said nothing but stared vacantly at the fire.

The old man panicked slightly. “I am just an old man living in these mountains. I certainly do not have the knowledge or authority to answer such a profound question. But I know someone who may be able to help. We shall go see her tomorrow if that is what you wish.”

Eliza nodded and remembering that she was really quite hungry, started to devour the fish. That night she slept by the fire with the spare bedding the old man was kind enough to lend her. Before fading into sleep, she counted the embers that floated from the blaze and disappeared into the sea of stars above. After forty she lost count and the next thing she knew, it was morning.

After a breakfast of nuts and berries, the two mountain folk, one old and one young, set off across the mountainside and into the forest, away from the river with its warbling and meaty fish. After an hour or so marching they reached a little glade where a log cabin sat as if were but a part of nature itself. The old man gave a call and from the cabin emerged an old woman. She was darker than the old man, and not nearly so wrinkly. A feeling of serenity seemed (to young Eliza) to radiate off of her.

She welcomed them to her home and presented them with some tea she had just finished making. They graciously accepted and took their seats, Eliza on a wizened chair and the old man on a rug nearby.

Eliza took a quick glance around the old woman’s cabin. It was a single large room, with a bed in one corner and a pantry in another. One wall was completely covered in bookshelves, filled to the brim with dusty volumes of various sizes and many different languages. Eliza could scarcely imagine the effort it must have taken to bring all of those books so far out into the middle of nowhere.

“It has been a while, old man,” she said, taking a seat on a well-made wooden couch. A little orange cat appeared seemingly out of nowhere and curled into a ball on her lap. “And you have brought a stranger along with you. Two wonders in the same day.”

Eliza leaned forward anxiously. “It is a pleasure to meet you, madame. Thank you for this tea. You really didn’t have to.”

The old woman laughed. “Oh, no worries at all. I am alone so often here. It is always a joy when company rears its head.”

The old man adjusted himself into a cross-legged position and sipped the hot tea. “Eliza here comes with a question which you perhaps may answer. You are the only wise one I know around here, so I thought a visit may do her good.”

The wise old woman raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Well, it’s nice to be needed.”

Eliza looked at the old man, who merely motioned her to go on. As she did the night before, Eliza spoke her story, making sure to leave out the royal bits. At the end of the summation, she asked the question which had so recently pierced her heart.

The wise old woman sat quietly for a few minutes considering. “Did you do the right thing? Well that, as a question, is unanswerable. It’s too vague. Too imprecise. And as we all know, you cannot answer a question unless that question has an answer. Perhaps then, it would be better if we phrased it differently, into some way where an answer is possible.”

She paused for a moment, pursing her lips and furrowing her brow. “Ah, how about this. ‘In the pursuit of knowledge, is one willing to sacrifice all their connections, with their people and with their home?’ Yes, that will do.”

Eliza sat silently and considered this. She considered it as the wise old woman and the genial old man chatted about their mountain gossip. She considered it as she said goodbye to the wise old woman and her cabin, and as she followed the old man back to the river. She considered it that night as she lay watching the embers float into the heavens.

And how, you may ask, did she answer that question? I don’t know exactly. She never directly said it out loud. (Unfortunately, I am not omnipotent.) But perhaps we can infer from her actions.

Eliza stayed in the mountains and never left, building her own home in between the cottage of the old man and the cabin of the wise old woman. In time, she grew old. From the outside world, her old world, she heard only bits and pieces. News rarely goes far in the Red Mountains. In time, she learned of her father’s death and her brother’s rule. She heard of wars and famines and peace and grand harvests. In time also, her old neighbors perished and she came to know new ones.

Perhaps, at this point, I should propose my own theory as to the question asked and the life answered. Perhaps the wise old woman (as all wise old men and women sometimes are) was incorrect. Perhaps the question itself was incorrect. For it seems to me that in her pursuit of knowledge, Eliza never really sacrificed her people nor her home. I would go so far as to argue that in entertaining her curiosity, and defending her choice, Eliza the genius found her people and her home. The old man and wise old women, the various mountain folk who passed irregularly through her life: all of these brought meaning to her self and to her quest.

I choose to leave the story here with a final image, one that reflects my own little theory: that of a wise old Eliza answering a knock on her door, and finding on her doorstep a young ragged child seeking knowledge of the world.

 

(July 2016)

 

 

Brooklyn-Bound 3 Train

Brooklyn-Bound 3 Train

I am sitting on a Brooklyn-bound 3 train, completely engaged with a ragged, second-hand copy of Miss Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (which is the closest thing I can call a friend at the moment) when a hand taps my shoulder. I look up, preparing the disdainful expression I use to shoo away the homeless and/or good Samaritans, but am stopped by the sight of a surprisingly familiar face. Standing next to me, decked out in a fancy black dress and holding a slender tote bag on her shoulder, is the woman I once thought myself in love with many, many years ago. I am flustered and confused. She is smiling.

“Fancy seeing you here, TS,” she says, utilizing a name I have not gone by for some time. Her voice is a tad bit wearier than I remember, but it otherwise matches my woefully incomplete memories. “I didn’t know you were in the city,” I say, trying to keep my useless voice steady. It’s a problem I have. When you don’t speak much, you forget volume control.

“Oh, I’ve been living here for the past few years. Cleveland was a bit too small, ya know?”

I nod in assent. That’s as good a reason as any to pack up your life and move 450 miles east. The train is slowing. If she is getting off at this stop, then this interaction will be over. I do not know if I want that or not.

The train comes to a stop. The doors open and people flee, but she is not one of them.

“So,” I mumble, “living in Brooklyn then?”

She shakes her head. “Upper West Side actually. I’m attending a gala at the Brooklyn Museum. Hence, this.” She motions at her fancy black dress. It fits her perfectly. I know little about clothes, but even I can tell it is of impeccable taste. “How about you?”

“Bay Ridge Southwest Brooklyn.” I say this quickly. No one knows where Bay Ridge is.

“I see. On your way home then?”

“No. Not right now. Actually, I’m going to the central library. I like to stop there after work sometimes.” I pause. “So, we’ll be getting off at the same stop I imagine.”

The train is speeding along again, charging east through the muggy tunnels with wild abandon. We are silent for a time, each listening to the clack of rail meeting wheel. It is she who breaks this temporary entente.

“So did you become the writer you always said you were gonna be?”

I wince slightly but keep my voice light. “I decided to keep that a hobby. I’m a translator actually. Russian. How about you? You were pretty uncertain about things last I saw you.”

She shifts the tote bag to her other shoulder. “I’ve been a bit of a career nomad. Acting, editing, writing, temping, photographing, whatever drives away the boredom for a while. Today, I am the executive assistant to Mr. Thaddeus Croft, Chief Financial Officer of the Gladwell Corporation.” She speaks this title with fake haughtiness. “So, as you may guess, I’m a babysitter.”

We laugh. I’ve heard of the Gladwell Corporation. It’s one of those massive, shapeless conglomerates that makes everything and nothing and will probably one day be exposed as a front for some near eastern kleptocrat. Their tower, a glass monstrosity vaguely shaped like a giant penis, mars the eastern skyline of downtown Manhattan. Despite my general hatred for the privileged, I find myself somewhat jealous she is able to exist so close to such power. Even if it is only as a babysitter for an ill-named one-percenter.

The train slows again. While we were talking, the stations had glided by. I am surprised to see we have pulled into Eastern Parkway station. We have arrived.

I place the now-forgotten novel into my bag and follow her out of the train. No one else in the car follows. I feel strange.  This is weird. Does she think it’s weird? I mean, she’s smart so probably. I did not plan for this tonight. I just wanted to shed today’s stresses with a good book and the library’s free air conditioning. And here I am panicking, and even worse, hiding that I’m panicking. I need to get away. But I can’t just run. My mother said I should stop running. She’s dead now. But that’s beside the point.

I walk in silence beside her, down the platform, up the stairs, through the turnstile and out into the humid Brooklyn evening. The Brooklyn Museum stands before us like a classical monolith displaced in time and space. The little plaza in front of it is packed with people and limousines. Most are dressed in fancy tuxedos and backless gowns. Some kids skateboard in the periphery of this knighted group. They seem to recognize the subtle absurdity of it all.

The woman-I-once-thought-myself-in-love-with turns to me, a soft smile on her face. I try to read emotion in her eyes, but they come up blank. Perhaps I am projecting. Mine are probably blank too.

“Well, it was nice seeing you TS. Have fun with your reading.” And with that, she turns into the throng of velour and satin snobbery.

I consider saying something. “We should meet for a drink sometime.” Or, “Have fun at your gala.” Or, “You really hurt me and I was foolish to fall in love with you, but really I wouldn’t take it back because those times you weren’t hurting me were pretty fun, and you know how they say all great artists suffer, not to say I am a great artist but you know, sometimes it’s good to find the positives.”

But I don’t. I keep my mouth shut, my voice caged. I lose sight of her pretty quick. I am alone again, a lanky man in an ill-fitting suit with a backpack, milling by the subway entrance while the rich and the talented mingle before the institution they built.

I sigh, and start to walk down the hill towards the library. The sun has already dropped behind the horizon. I pass joggers and strollers and families and hawkers. Cars race by, their inhabitants rushing bare-mouthed and screaming into the approaching night. A kid skateboards past, shouting “Fuck off!” to one of his peers further up the hill. As he swerves through a gaggle of students and out into traffic, a car horn answers in response.

(July 2016)