The small things that I had remembered had been the the small things that I had forgotten. Somewhere in the blandishments of my day to day living, the moanings and the excitements, I must have gone straight into the marketplace to pause. People must have have milling about, looking for something new, something fresh. A baby bear fed the stump end of a broken carrot? A double-terminated crystal, clear and colorless, with one of the tips smacked off? A black typewriter ribbon unspooled to line the inside of a talking doll’s universe? All sorts of events, both minor and major ones, had had some effect on my corn husk broom, the dead cats swept off the dirty midnight streets of Tunis, the speeding trains that slowed up just enough to make perfect time on the dot when arriving in Zurich, like a ballerina en pointe. All that I had overlooked, and all that had overlooked me, it was all mentioned in the waters whose rings had disappeared when the pebble I had tossed again and again sank, where the flashing coy fish swam down away to the murk and corners. Were there to have been a difference in the body politic, the grease anointing a king, or a mottled purple gown for another, surely I had raised my head to watch the geese flying overhead, flying south, or flying north, confused by the weather over which way to travel en masse upon the coming of evening during the approaching winter.
Everywhere in hell I looked, I could not find a place tiny enough to fit her heart. I went first to a galvanized bucket full of last winter’s ashes. The burned remains of wood were overflowing from the long season’s cold, so there was no room for her heart there. I went out to the dirt, where I had planted radishes, garlic, and tulips. As it was already springtime, all the green-growing beds were taken, and nothing else could be planted, even her heart. During the summertime when I was chopping wood, I thought to stuff her heart into a crack inside my woodpile for safekeeping. Alas, I had chopped so much wood in my loneliness, the pile was stacked so high, so high above my head, it was impossible to lift any to slip her heart in, it was so heavy. By autumn, when I began to notice overhead geese flying southward, I thought to toss it up to them, up in the air to catch in their honking bills. They were in such a hurry and such a clamor, I could see their fat red tongues and sharp geese-teeth also had no room for it, her heart was so small. Later on, after years, after years of keeping my beloved’s heart on my windowsill, I thought to take it to heaven. But heaven I also know is a place for all the most forsaken, the tiniest of tiny hearts there ever were, and I felt she had deserved better company.
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.
All he did one day is putter around the place. He cleaned out the stovepipe by unscrewing its pieces and shoving down a stiff wire brush. He tied up the tomatoes against the wooden stakes with torn up bedsheets. He swept the kitchen floor, and was surprised at how much dirt and hair there were. He folded the music on the piano. He thumbed the wet bristles of his toothbrush. He sat on the back step and heard the crickets and katydids. He sat on the front slab of stone and cursed the cars speeding by in his heart. He thought of rust. And he thought of the density of hematite, how heavy it was in the palm of his hand. And the smell of the cow’s wet hay at the end of road where he ran just after dawn when it was first light enough to see everywhere.
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.
To us there is a difference between the fallen and the brave. We may sort out the backs of the dead. We may separate the coats, gray from blue. Time and borders and affiliations sift about and spill over as they do and must. This is all seen in red and white, too. I had, picking strawberries, hunted about the overgrowing vetch which had blown over from afar, from another farmer’s field last season, for something succulent and sweet to eat. So it seems. So it was. So it had been. And even down the low narrow line in the forest, I had witnessed the doe in the mist, her head lowered while the world itself was framed by constant death. The butternut tree had fallen, and the beetles had undone to rough yellow the bark of the standing ash. While for some, all human records of these are deemed memento mori, I had not been able to agree. Not from my standpoint, not from the toss of space where I had landed. For me, all had been some visions of life. Chaff and wheat. Fool and sage. Villain and hero. And so on. The usual dualities never applied. Never were. Never had been. There were just gradual mixtures of dusts in the heavens, in earth, and somewhere in the seas, too.
I can’t have said who the people were, who they had been. They had separated themselves, distinguished themselves, naming themselves that before all others and all other things. There had been traces, remnants or remains—it can be hard, difficult, sorting out broken pieces of stones, shards, the rubble of earthenware—just as sometimes war and nature precede the overlapping moments when the future’s eye turns backwards upon the sands of Egypt, and so on. Walls that seemed to have been forever were in fact only erected a short time ago, not even two hundred years. A hundred fifty, perhaps. And before that, who knows! Who knows what plains, and deserts, and oceans had been before all this.
There had been some world, long before language. Twelve thousand years. Sixty-eight thousand years. 2.5 million years. All these funny numbers! As if mapping out all human history (and all human pre-history) would make some difference. Instead: when the driving rains come, the black carpenter ants will seek high ground, scurrying and hunting for refuge anywhere they can perhaps find it in your house. And when the driving rains have stopped, the same ants will, too, recede as though they had never been, and find the low ground again somewhere outdoors. All this, like child’s play upon the shoreline of a beach, the wet holes dug in sandbars, cities on the lower cusp of Africa, as well as the tiny village of Kirkenes at the tip of the upmost world, will be washed away and filled in. What the people had known was this, and all their days was a sort of profound and elemental mourning, in full scope, in full knowledge of what had been, who had borne their own witness of it all like eyes within the bubble of a growing but rather thin-skinned universe.
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.
While I could not remember who exactly—Anaxagoras, Democritus, Plato, or Aristotle–somebody had claimed that for all things that come into being, there is decay. And me, I had for most of my life, for the eternity of it, held this precept as close to my chest as Roy Batty holds a white dove to his own. For that is not all. No, there are moments of decay’s beautiful impermanence to behold. Seeing the child looking at the sand pouring from between the small fingers of the child’s even smaller hands. The paws of raccoons having left their marks behind the overturned garbage cans in the mud. The smiles on photographs of unknown relatives before they are burnt up behind the closed metal doors of the woodstove forever. The sweetness of the smell of blackberries in a large, glass bowl just picked. The ubiquitous rattling of a brood of cicadas portending my death if not in the next seventeen years, then in the next seventeen years after that. And after summer rainstorms, too, the forest is spotted here and there with the wildest growth of things—mushrooms and fungi of different colors, different shapes. They stand so briefly whose spores will fall out in a day or two like red rubies tumbled from a fallen crown. While alive they have an animation that defies the natural order of things, as if to say they alone have the privilege and the momentary pride to halt time itself, for just as long as they are able to support themselves, and no more.
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.