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.
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.
The land itself was some kind of autochthonous lie, treasure of history going back one generation beyond the next. Those who had kept it, worked it, those who had lived on, who had scratched out thin crops from it, these people they were all gone. All of them were dis-remembered. And I had been there once myself, having sorted out the soups, the guarapo, the mountain a-fire. And there in the lagoon I had sunk my own money, harbinger of dreams, troubler of domestic discord, all mixed up in the boondoggled memory of sentimental if not sanctimonious notions of thatch-roofed futurity. For those dozens of years the coy fish swam and had swum, none inscribed nor encumbered by felonious intent. In the wintertime they must have sunk, they sank below the water, mixed and mixing with debris and mud, to live again, offspring of the next season of seasons thereafter. The rocks and trapped rainwater, these might have held onto life like angels must have held their breaths, such as passersby passing by are who may be about to put their own fingerprints on the blank mist, the clouds hanging low, the empty standing air.
Half the stuff that I had had had been obliterated. And in order even to see it I had had to put the CD-R into the pop-out side-drive on a machine that had been my own daughter’s from 1999. My thought had been to copy over the back-up folder that had held everything, a folder called “Bane,” which had been at one time the name of an old machine, and then destroy both. But that did not work. Even going folder by folder, copying one folder at a time one folder at a time, did not work. Files got mangled, and I got curious along the way about what had happened to the pictures. I had had to suppose that in a fit of smooth drunkenness I had either a) deleted the whole self-incriminating lot, or, b) stored it in a place so secretly secretive that eighteen or nineteen years after the beginning of the recording and accumulation of these facts, the information was just as good as gone without a trace. The apparent neutrality of this present account notwithstanding, however, belied the uncertain corruption of the words and images that had been, for all intents and purposes, believed to have been destroyed. Like the small bit of pain when biting down on a bagel in the back in between back teeth that promises some sort of eventual root canal in the rotting nerve end’s ineluctable dying history, I had had to face the prospect of biographers pulling out the thousands and thousands of loose digital ends, prying loose the files, searching through extensions, making multiple attempts to pry out rotted bits of biographical gold that would further complicate and baffle any coherent understanding of my otherwise muted character; or, I had had to have destroyed the nearly one dozen machines in my possession already themselves. Though I had been once told by a friend decades ago that even then I had overestimated the ripples of my importance, the willful destruction of as much of my one-time presence on Earth by all means necessary, by anything I could dream up at night, more than anything else, this sort of human self-cleaning had become for twenty years already my lifework. There had been only so much attachment to grief and horror, misery and disappointment, misdirection and recklessness, amidst a vast sea of accomplishment and generally regarded renown, that I had been able to take. In lieu of this, I had opted to turn back to what had become, in retrospect, some of the oldest public technologies, and had had to use these against themselves to erase, step by step, everything as successfully as they had made it possible.
Everything I had known, and everything I had held dear had deserted me. And, unlike Yeats’ circus animals whom he claimed had deserted him, what remained for me was an incandescent flame, a vivid, hand-held torch with which I had always and will always hold aloft. And it is by this light of God that I will see the paintings on the wall where for fifty thousand years people haven’t since traveled before. By this I will even view the perfect moment John Wilkes Booth saw like a red maple leaf fluttering down while shooting and killing Lincoln in his theater box. The crimes and sacred moments of humanity, life, and sometimes glimmers of my own death, I have caught these like melting snowflakes falling into my autumn fingers.
To me, I have felt the sorrow of being the common cook whose food had accidentally poisoned the great Buddha. But I have also felt the rope breaking the neck of a bewildered Saddam Hussein. That I have no friends to turn to, nor scarcely any possessions, even an empty dresser drawer to slide in and out, I don’t even have that simple enough human pride of such wooden ownership to stand beside and claim as “mine.” My destiny had become to be a shipwrecked sailor to be cast upon another sea, to drift without craft, and to all my life wander from land to land in search of a numberless people who do not exist, whereupon, like the curse of Odysseus, giver and receiver of pain, my oath was to plant my alien oar.
There are so many things when I am walking that I no longer touch. I may see a leaf or I may see a stone, and these objects in the woods are so lovely I want to take them home. But I have learned to keep my hands still at my side. I have learned to see with my mind better, and look with my eyes. Even dead forked sticks that have fallen from far above, once I had sought to clean them up as I might clean up debris. But these suspended branches are really just hanging there in balance for a time. Nobody could position them as they are. Human hands are really no good for this. Instead, how long will this be so? Instead, what breeze is that? Instead, what life will bring a man at times to walk like this, and what events befallen him just as softly, gently sometimes to his knees?
The first time I passed the wild turkey feather lying on the ground I had wanted to pick it up. Its tell-tale stripes, its white and brown bands, make them easy to tell apart from any other. Any little kid would, and so would I. Now I have passed this same soft feather many times since then, and it has lain there all the while. It looks bedraggled now, having gone through dozens of rains. I myself grew old. The darkness of night had passed over me and my hair woke up gray. Seasons, too, went by and more creases formed along my face. Somewhere, far beyond these forests I have wandered all my life, I remember the stilly murmur of the distant Sea still murmurs there, and I am even a little bit older this dark new morning.
These stones had been here for almost two hundred years, maybe more. Cleared by a farmer’s hand, he laid them atop another much larger one he could never move, to clear his pasture land for grazing Ancon sheep. These short-legged, wooly animals were a genetic aftermath of some Massachusetts mistake permitting low stone walls and shallow fences around the countryside to be built. These stones I had found here and there about these woods were leftover afterthoughts of some greater task. No Giza in the desert. No Chichen Itza. No Stonehenge. Just a practical doing away with a bit of solitary labor. For me their anonymity was a great relief. Unless some reckless body troops through these woods again long after I am gone, they were there. Unless a Wrecker of Mead Halls, some outlandish, wanton arm of purposeful carelessness comes by, these rocks must remain lovely and pointless as the backside of the illumined moon, dust upon some forgotten shelf of being, a pair of wings fallen off a nameless angel. Long after we ourselves had been allowed to fade away like nothing, like that hard-working farmer’s breed of sheep, all our sunken thoughts were still awaiting some rising of the great Ocean’s long forgotten seas.
We were festooned with leis. We were draped in scarves of many colors. We were seated on blankets, on hand-sewn kanthas, on silver-stitched carpets, on birch bark peelings wide enough for lovers, on just plain green grass. We had had our peace pipes and panpipes ready to smoke, and ready to play. We had had our minds all set to hear sacred and holy things. We had all gathered in the open field together to hear the great man speak. And just beyond our lowered heads, a little ways just across the right outfield of the town’s baseball diamond, just over that, just beyond the rusted iron fence, the just smiling Dalai Lama stretched out his robed arm and pointed to the ancient graveyard. “The final destination!” His Holiness said, before he had said a word.