Ever since reading about making a half-knight move in chess, my mind had been cracked. It is of course something that cannot be imagined except to have imagined that such a thing is possible, when it is not. This strange little world of softly thatched roofs and straw hats a-tumble beside a nameless sea had always been a wonderland full of empty moon snail shells and bright red poppies blooming in the fields for me. And people, well, it had been obvious to them who I was, I suppose. I had been the man with seagulls sitting on his arms flapping and sunning their wings. The only talent I had had was that I tended toward merriment rather than despair, when the latter appeared to be the only rational and boastfully reasonable option left. But why live the obvious? It wasn’t that I disbelieved these; I did not. They were akin to leftover breadcrumbs on the table after eating a fine enough meal to be swept off onto the floor.
Whatever friends I had had, they are useless. And whatever lovers I had had, they are useless. Whatever children, useless, too. I am an old leather boot: supple, creased, well-worn, well-traveled. The rest of time is to take the steps taken, the places been, momentous arcs that will have had no span. To guide a yellow or a purple thread through the eye of a thin enough needle, and do a little sewing then. It requires what most people don’t: sadness, and solitude, and a sort of lonely patience for the moon. Not in a mythic sense nor in a romantic one. The sort that sees even shadows on the face of the earth as borrowed from somewhere. The sort that has heard the thrush in the woods, that has watched its faded still eye sitting on a low tree branch.
I can remember my bike chain slipping off and, after putting it back on, there was a bit a grease and sand on my fingers and hands I could just not get completely off. And I’d continue biking another eight or nine miles uphill to where the bees were buzzing in their hive. There were two plates of glass between which they had built their comb, and I read a sign as a kid on the outside of the display that told observers that bees can sense danger. From that moment on when I have been afraid I turned it around so I would not get stung, a sort of push-away feeling when I felt the danger of bees and other things. I’d felt a little low as well about the gritty, black grease that was still almost smeared off my hand, but that’s just the way it went. It could not be gotten off; that’s all.
And, I think, as the deer pull at the cucumber vines that have grown to the top of my fence; or when the cat plops on the shiny wood floor a dead bird—worst of all a bluebird; or when the birch trees I planted with my son die off after a few years, these are just the way things go. It is somehow better to feel the ever-fading day all the day than to believe or wish to believe in some hand-picked diamond that you’d really have to be crazy to think would sparkle on forever. Things don’t. You can look at Monet’s haystacks and see that all the beauty and joy in the world was always fading away at every moment. It cannot be really disappointing that way—momentary highs are not sought, breakneck speeds on the highway are not driven again, even something as simple as a daily perfect cup of coffee isn’t brewed time after time.
All exists as if it were flight upon a dragonfly’s wing. It views the water over which it flies, hovers there, and, as if thoughtlessly, curves in design and then flies off elsewhere. And with its big-eyed vision-trackers, its primordial form, its shape and its purpose, they appear almost demonic. But this backwards flying mini-phallus is only another of the many nearly comic earthly reminders that we and it and all of what is this life here are just temporary lookers-on, be it over the river, near the pond, in the mountains, through the woods, beneath the late afternoon, tomato-ripening sun.
There had been times to do nothing at all. Nothing to make. Nothing to mend. Nothing to buy, even if it might have been needed. There really had been no need to polish anything at all. The brass pin that I had worn on my lapel, I could not remember even when I had stuck it in on the left side of my jacket, let alone gotten it. The peeling leather of my watch strap, same kind of thing. What it had been to be reminded of them now, like the weathered wooden pickets to a country fence grown gray and showing their grain splitting over time, is that these alone are the bring-about of death. When looking at an old canvas field coat, or a pair of well-worn boots, that is exactly in step with one’s own working, one’s own walking.
Some things, like gardens, renew themselves each year. And, if they are tended well, each year they grow a little better—only because the gardener has learned perhaps one small thing last season. But the gardener is older. Other things, inanimate, forever lifeless, they, too, have their own sullen beauty—stuck the way they are, almost the perfect emblems of eternity. If any change should ever come to rocks lying about the forest, such would only be through something cataclysmic, or something human and mad the way smashing them up to rocky small bits with a hammer would be mad.
The simple fact is that things wear out—valves to kitchen faucets eventually leak; tomato stakes rot at the ends; bicycle tires will get flats. That is how it goes with tree stumps chucked over the stone wall, with a sweet pile of sunflower seeds sifted through by the careful paws of bears, and with people, too, falling asleep to the back-and-forth sounds of katydids chirping again at night when the middle of summer has passed, the way I had in childhood.
The hands that had made the world are long gone. Whatever temples, and ruins of these, and fields long past fallow, these all remain somewhere. Even a simple walk is a reminder of memories that are no more. They are gone, they have fled, like childhood fairies weeping in the forest elsewhere unseen. All this has fled. Small reminders, they are here and they are there. Some wear the placards of nostalgia, and some—like candy necklaces on an elastic thread pulled on by wet sandy teeth near the food stand at the beach—are almost sentimental. Others wear signs for tourists, the lost folk of the planet hoping—with too much grease, salt, and time on their hands—that a real piece of kitchen baked pie can be bought and taken back home with them. Most of the relics that have anything left worth remarking on are completely nameless, outside of the scope of much of human history. Here and there a spent farmer’s hand must be detected, even as the forests have grown over the fields, and his family has completely dissipated itself by now between most of New England and the northern coast of California where the bright anemones are waving their colors in the clear shallow water among the rocks.
Things had lost their luster, kept their glow. An old quarter kept in the pocket, just the pocket of memory, nothing else. Years, dances, people. An old man had roared up to my house on his motorcycle and was gone. The melting snow, too, had melted and was gone forever. An infinitesimal comet paired up elliptically with a smaller orbit will return someday. And we had not. Oh, well. The cubic yards of dirt I had dug day after day will still probably remain for some good time. Not of any further use at some point. Once we had gone, there wasn’t the same use. That’s all. It hadn’t been that important. The gravel. The driveway. The automobiles. All of us had once been so busy, so occupied. We forgot ourselves in our own peerless lives. Once I had looked inside the mica window of an old rusted oven on top of a Canadian island and had been amazed at the blackened reflected eternity. It needed nothing, I suppose, besides a boy’s eye to have seen it once. Had the Italian seen it, I am almost sure he would have been just as happy, no less proud peering at that than the dwindling chambers of a nautilus’ shell’s cross-section, all dwindled in mathematical perfection, no less so than Archimedes once shouting in the first person singular perfect indicative active tense we had later borrowed as the English exclamation for all discovery, “Eureka!” And behind all this the spectral illumination of the moon had continued, like the halo of an evening’s haze outshining itself with nothing to ever bear it any witness besides the comfortable peasants who had once dozed upon the sloping hillsides of Mother Earth, sunken and old and gone away forever.
The sunlight had glistened on the tops of trees. And it was the tops of the trees that had glistened. So, it meant that the sunlight had shone there. And each morning that I had risen from bed, from my sleep, I had looked forward to this. I had looked forward to cold winters, winters during which the snow had never come. And I had looked forward to summers whose rains were just as hot as sweat. Autumns whose colors were like brightened memories. All that had come back again and again, like a sweetness I could almost touch, almost taste, almost see. Everything had hinged on the “almost.” Had I lived in perpetual sunshine, perpetual warmth, the human comfort of love, I could not have been more than a day. It had become like a gaze in whose stark absences longing made me a sort or sorceress, dreaming up tubers of recollection, prophecies of others’ pasts, and soft unguents tending to the morrow. My rake and shovel had kept me company most of the time. I dug more trenches with my hoe, planted more seeds, grew more to eat. I had counted on nothing. I dropped a stone at my feet and was amused by the ever oppressive force of gravity. It alone had never changed. Its certainty could be depended on, relied on, predicted. Even the day’s next coming had seemed a contiguous moment in space and in time. And even death, like a common penny left outside an envelope containing a hand-drawn letter posted to the beloved, was not possessed, was not known, was not held or cradled or kept.
I had had no visible means of support. No web extended from corner to corner holding in place itself where I was crouching waiting for a kill. Not a bunch of leaves packed high up in a tree with all sorts of gathered autumnal debris between forked branches to keep my fur warm during the cold winter. Not a pyramid of gold on which to lay my body nightly and dream. Not even a mountaintop on which to rest my fog. Mine had been entirely invisible. It had been kept there deep inside my mind. It was a place that nobody saw, and nobody had ever seen. The blackness of space of holds itself forever there. And in between there nothing falls and nothing rises all the same. The closest I had felt this once before had been sitting in a yellow wooden chair in a room quietly by myself alone. My arms had been crossed, resting on my thighs. Even my shoulders had been slumped rolled forward just a bit. And my eyes had floated down. For some while of uncertainty all had been so easy. Like the rains of November, it had passed me by like sleep.
I had only wanted to fuck, split wood, and talk. I hadn’t been interested or concerned with new restaurants, cake recipes, and donating clothes and broken unwanted watches to the local chapter of Good Will. Adding chromium to iron to have made it withstand becoming rusty, or the southward or northward ice floes on the estuary besides which I had lived—matters at hand such as these, or the pathetic death of Christopher Marlowe; or the adding of the dropping of the letter “e” in Joseph Conrad’s short tale Youth when spelling “Marlow,” and how this alone signified all writing, and signified all speaking, these were the clouds of things that drifted and hung forever in my brow and stayed there. And women whose unclothed bodies were strong, who had over the calenderic years that in the end will take us all down before our brains’ wild magic has given away its own mystery to nothingness, I had been like a tumbling jester reveling in the freedom only he is permitted—so outrageously—in the presence of the Royal Court and all its retinue, ever happy beside theirs clutching my tawny and muscular nakedness. Between each swinging throw of my axe, there had been a thousand thoughts arisen, and when the blade fell against the sawn length of timber, another adventure’s telling had been with the wood’s cracking into pieces gladly destroyed. My mind’s simplification, like a map whose borders can be drawn distinguishing all territories from another with any three chosen colors, had been reaching the frontiers of its own natural limits. It had been nearly as perfect as it could become, the way a single floating seed aloft is carried elsewhere by the present and unseen wind is also perfect in another way.
I had waded in a standstill stream. Below the water’s surface my hand had reached for smooth, curved rocks. Each of these had resembled planet Earth afar, from outer space. And each one I placed inside my apron’s front pocket. I wandered on some time, never thinking to look again at all the stone planets collected in my dress. Some time ago, I stood ashore; the oar I held was pointed downstream, pointing towards where my little boat was next to float again. I had to paddle past the boulders and their violence. If not, the boat was sure to break. If not, what then? Time ago, I woke upon my back in the middle of the night. On waking on my back full of nothing, I watched the moon above my eyes. It had been blurred by clouds. I thought of nothing of where I had wandered. I thought of nothing of where I had once waded. I thought of all the stock-still chances I had forsaken and forgotten by the water where by myself I had been walking long ago.