Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Martin Nakell
from Stories from the City Beneath the City

A Continuation

A breeze. A tropical bird flown far from home. A desperate economy. Truck gears at a precise pitch. Wherever you’re going, you’ve been there again. Why do you write about the indescribable beauty of the thin lines woven across the skin of the pottery of your city? Why do you imagine the Mind of the mind that envisioned them the hand that inscribed them unless it was you or your double at some time in history? The house where the murder took place is closed up now and the family dispersed. Who founded your city became a myth in the shape of an animal whose shape remains changeless throughout time. In the piazza outside the 4th Temple a band of musicians plays throughout the afternoon. Having made your small daily sacrifice to the most simple god, the god of the moment by continuous moment where the water meets the land, you settle down to observe the whiteness of things or the sound of a spade made by your friend cultivating the soil across the road. Last night with the window open so you could see the moon to make sure that it still existed you read in the book how good, how pleasant it is to sit together. The fragrance of lemon mixes with the smell of tomato from the arbor inside the garden. One bird has abandoned the tropics for another paradise. A wandering singer knows only the one song about death but it’s possible that everyone has already made a pact with the eternal. You drink only water now because wine tastes bitter in solitude. Someday, you swear you will begin, or you will begin again. You would tell yourself a story to pass the time while waiting for the others to arrive in time for it but you are a little tired now, and stories take energy, so instead you give in to a momentary living in pure hope, for people who have exhausted the colors of their art forms for a time then wait for the seasons to pass to restore the necessary pigments to the harvesting grounds. The town crier’s song awakens you though at first you can’t tell if it’s just the calling of the hours that he chants or the latest dramatic news that might require your attention.

Game : Card : Window

If you keep playing cards it’s possible you will be dealt a card you’ve never seen. You will show it to your friend of many years even though you should never show your cards. After a good laugh together, you and your friend agree to put the new card aside so you can go on with your game.
When you’re done for the evening, you clean up as usual, but you leave the new card on the table where you find it the next evening, when you come to play again.

Your card games, which you’ve played every evening, become enlivened with an unknown vitality, an urgency they hadn’t had. During the game, you and your friend both ever wondering what the new card could mean, invest more playfulness in your playing. You both play a more crafty game.

The complexities of chance, probabilities, the extent and the limitations of numbers play out in your mind. You discern now the myriad absolute differences between a three and a seven. You comprehend that although the combination of the cards 2, 6, and 7 mean the same thing in the arithmetic of the game as the combination of the cards 3, 8, and 4, these two sets have completely different significances based on the way one number interacts with another, or the way two combinated numbers interact with a third, or the way three combinated numbers would interact with a fourth.

License wanted this to happen next: Waking up in the middle of the night, you go into the salon where you play cards. The new card lies on the table in the darkened room, illuminated, radiant, emanating….what? You don’t even know what. It’s something real but unknown.

That doesn’t happen. This happens: at 3:12 a.m., you awaken. You walk the short hallway to the stairs, up the eight stairs. It is dark all the way. You don’t need light. In the common room, there, on the card table, the new card, not visible at all. Any illumination at all is your own, it comes only from inside you, any radiance, luminosity, nuclear energy.

You walk to the row of eight oblong windows that look out over the cliff to the sea, windows you and your friend look out of everyday, either with a purpose, gazing, or casually, hardly noticing. In her absence, your friend’s voice speaks to you. I don’t know if you’re reading my mind, she says, or I’m reading yours. You say, quietly but aloud the names of everyone you know. It takes a long time. Each name interacts with every other name in an ongoing and only nearly infinite series of combinations constantly rearranged by the forces of every human emotion a list of which you begin — but don’t finish — compiling on a blank piece of notebook paper left on the card table three days ago.

By dawn, the daily Coast Guard patrol boat passes by, east to west, at its precise appointment.

That afternoon’s card game goes somewhat differently than usual. As you play, you keep score on a piece of paper laid over the List of Human Emotions. At one point you say to your friend, I don’t know if you’re reading my mind or I’m reading yours. Your friend laughs, of course. We’ll see who wins, she says. But you tell her, It has nothing anymore to do with winning or losing. Your friend answers you: You’re falling into clichés. You must not have slept well. Winning or losing will always be important.

No, no, you tell her. I don’t mean it like that. Every day, yes, winning or losing makes a difference. But I mean it scientifically, scientifically it has nothing to do with winning or losing. Think about it. E=MC2 has nothing nothing at all to do with winning or losing. Just because, your friend says, Albert Einstein was your Uncle…. It has nothing to do with that, you interrupt her. I’m trying to explain something to you.

Your friend takes the new card from where it sits on the table, tears it in half, tears those two halves again into four, tears those four again into eight, says, ok, now let’s play cards!

Why, you ask her, counting the torn pieces of card, are there nine pieces here. Why? Laughing, you throw them into the trash. Don’t think, you tell your friend, that it won’t happen again. If tomorrow, if a thousand years from now, it doesn’t matter.

The Stolen Hour

Ornella and Claudio discovered that every day an hour was stolen from them. Trying to find the thief was worse, Ornella told Claudio, than trying to find the accuser in Kafka’s Trial. Making matters even more frustrating, as their days diminished, Claudio said, he couldn’t waste even one minute hunting for the thief. Living became more desperate minute by minute, as Ornella and Claudio tried to remain calm, tried to sustain an urgent calm, so that, as their opportunities for living diminished each day, they could achieve their pleasure in living only by finding the peace with which they could enjoy the time left to them each day. During the last hour of each day, Ornella and Claudio exerted an effort to become more cognizant of every experience, for tomorrow, that hour would be lost to them.

Just before all this began, Ornella’s good friend Rebecca had given Ornella and Claudio a gift, a bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon, the best vintage in a hundred years. Ornella and Claudio had planned to open that bottle on the day the stealing of the hours began. Alas! That day ended abruptly, before Ornella and Claudio could open that bottle. When the time came the next day to drink this gift, again the day abruptly ended. This went on every day. On the last day, with only one hour left, Ornella and Claudio couldn’t open the bottle, occupied as they were, as they had been during all these very short days, with more compelling activities, some of which included just staring out at the sea nearby. They had to take the principle of pleasure seriously, without deforming it by seriousness.

Eventually, Ornella and Claudia’s days diminished into the bizarre. They had to choose very carefully how to utilize the eight, then six, then four, hours of their day. Talking together was indispensable. Some sleep was indispensable, not for rest so much as for dreams. And for some demarcation of one day from the next.

When the last day ended in the expiration of the last hour, Ornella and Claudio did not die, they did not disappear. They exist; but they have not time. How can I describe what people without time are like? I have only words with which to describe. Words are made of time, even though time is not made of words and in fact no one knows just what time is made of. The bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon remained in the cellar where Ornella and Claudio had stored it at just the right drinking temperature. Is it possible that, had they drunk the Dom Perignon, Ornella and Claudio would have gained time, not the time they lost, not even the kind of time they lost, but some kind of time? It’s possible. Claudio had once told Ornella that wine partakes of every aspect of human life: the soil and the seasons of the earth, the labor of agriculture, the craft of winemaking, the civilized dining table, the art of assessing and tasting, the senses of sight and touch and smell, the pleasure of the right company, the experience of the body changed by taking in some substance. But there it is, the bottle, which cannot be drunk without time in which to do so.

They Arrived by Bus

They arrived by bus, the boy and his mother together. They got off the bus that afternoon without knowing anything about us or our village. When they stepped off the bus I couldn’t tell if the boy held the mother’s hand, or the mother held the boy’s hand. They stepped down the bus steps into the cool air of that spring afternoon. The sea is wrestling with the air, my friend had said to me at that moment, as we stood together there, watching the mother and her son. Well, I was watching the mother and her son. My friend, probably, didn’t take any notice of them. You know I hate that way of talking, I told my friend. The sea doesn’t wrestle with anything, it is just the sea. I have been to sea so many times, so many different ways, in so many different weathers, with so many different purposes, that I know that our sea has no intention and no desire. The bells rang from the church then, drawing my attention away from the mother and her son, momentarily. When I looked back the mother and her son had walked past the line of waiting taxis not refusing them but unaware of them so involved as they were in walking that way, together. They walked all the way up the hill toward the upper village then turned left at the last street before the crest, where the motor repair shop takes up the whole corner.

I saw them the next day at the market, buying fish. She asked to see the swordfish, was it fresh? But the son stopped her to ask couldn’t they get the sea bass? When the fish monger brought out a whole sea bass she looked it over, checked its eyes and its flesh, then asked for it to be wrapped up. They bought a few more things, vegetables, milk, coffee, eggs, then left the market. I was there to get a number of things myself. When I went to the back of the store, the fishmonger asked me if I knew her. “No,” I said, but, then, yes, I said, “I do know them.” “That boy,” the fishmonger said, “seems like he’s swimming in a dream of his mother.” “He’s a child,” I told him.

The next time I saw them was in the woods. I’d gone out to hunt mushrooms, as I do every year, with my friend, the same friend who’d stood at the bus station with me when the mother and her son deboarded. They were under a pretense of mushroom hunting, I think. She had a cloth-covered basket, he carried a small spade. But they looked to me more as if they were just out to be together in the air of the woods, the smells of the earth. “Would you like me to show you where you can find some very nice mushrooms?” I asked her. The boy looked at me like I was not just a stranger, but a strange creature, as if somehow he was not used to encountering human beings. He looked delighted, to me, smiling at my question, bemused by it. Why would anyone ask us such a question? “Thank you,” she said, “yes, that would be very helpful.” I took them off up the path toward the second valley, over the hill then down into the rich plain where a field of mushrooms blossomed beneath plane and oak trees. “Thank you,” she smiled at me, “thank you very much.” With that dismissal, I left them to their gathering, taking home my own hoard of mixed mushrooms with which to make a mushroom rice dish I make every year to celebrate the first harvest of one of my enduringly favorite foods. It reminds me of my own mother, when we would go mushroom hunting together at the first of the season. My mother was a hardy woman, she walked through the woods with a heavy steady foot never loosing her step. With a thick hand she would nonetheless pick the mushroom at its stem with a gentle even delicate motion of snapping. Coming home, she would make the same mushroom-rice dish for all of us - including some aunts and uncles and neighbors - that I make now for whomever happens to be around. Somehow, for some reason, I imagined that it was the son of this mother-son out in the woods who did all the picking of mushrooms, snapping them up then presenting them to his mother to put in the basket that hung over her arm. Why did I want to walk back up the hill just a way to watch them? I did stop halfway up, turned, looked back at them to partake with my gaze in the mystery of their bond. Each mushroom he handed to his mother carried a message of abundance with it. The earth there, as I saw them, put forth its plenty just for them, even though it was a popular spot for many of the villagers to gather mushrooms, this year the whole harvest in that area was made for them so that when the son snapped off the mushrooms at their stalk they released a perfume of the woods that we hadn’t ever taken in before. I smelled it even from where I stood, looking back. It filled the air. I closed my eyes. I smelled as if with my eyes. No, not “as if.” I smelled with my eyes.

When I asked around who these two were, where they came from, I found out that her uncle had owned the house where they now stayed, empty since his death, and, of course, I remembered the uncle, a mechanic who had worked in the engine repair shop until he died in an accident when, taking too sudden of a turn in his three-wheeled truck, it flipped, killing him. He’d been alone at the time, so only he was hurt. When I asked about why she’d come to inhabit the house of her deceased uncle, the Mayor told me that her husband had died, that she’d come here to escape the memory of his youthful death, or so the Mayor had heard. When I asked him who he’d heard that from, the Mayor couldn’t remember, but it may have been from the uncle’s boss at the engine repair shop, or maybe it was from his wife, the Mayor’s wife, because she had a cousin in the town that the woman and her son came from, or at least the Mayor remembered his wife telling him that, but he couldn’t be sure that was it, he’d have to ask his wife again.

I next saw the mother and her son in a café on the road back behind the sea. One of the café’s I often stopped in, called the Flowering Herb Café. She and her son sat at a small table outdoors. She drank a glass of white wine, the son drank what looked to me like soda water and snacked on peanuts. I could not imagine anyone so at ease at that time at the end of the day when we all begin to take our ease. Everyone passing by on their evening stroll seemed to me to fall into their ease just a bit more as they passed the mother and her son, or was that my imagination? I think I fell into their ease when I sat down three tables away from them, facing the other way into the street. Even though I’d been to Flowering Herb Café a thousand times, I fell into a different kind of ease. Every worry I carry around all day with me dissolved. The air itself took on a new clarity of presence. I existed as though – no, not “as though” - I had never before known myself, never known who I was, but was now introduced to myself for the first time, or perhaps in such a long time that I had no memory of it. I wanted to speak to them, but I restrained myself for the sake of sustaining this revelation. I wanted them to speak to me, and then they did. She spoke first, telling me how grateful she was for my help in mushroom hunting. Then the boy spoke, in that same delighted way as when he looked at me first in the woods, and with the same tone of voice as if he spoke to a hitherto unheard of creature, a human being, yet of course he’d seen people all his life, thousands of them, he said that the mushroom paté his mother had made from the mushrooms I had showed them to was sublime. The son held out the dish of peanuts to me, offering them. He got up from his chair, walked over to my table, brought the peanuts to me, offering them to me in the same way that he offered each mushroom to his mother to put in her basket. I took some from that bowl, ate them, washed them down with the light summer liquor I often drank. The son, sitting down at my table, talked to me about things in my life that had been on my mind in such a familiar way that I must have told him what I was all about. I answered him, we carried on a conversation that way, so that by the time we finally took a pause, he had become a mature man, someone with whom I could talk in earnest but without too much seriousness even with a playfulness of engagement about the concerns of the world. We carried on for some time, until the friend I was waiting for arrived, the same friend who had stood with me at the bus depot when the mother and her son arrived. As I stood to receive my friend, along the with son, who stood to receive my friend, and we all embraced according to the custom in our village, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that the mother was gone. I turned back to the son, as we sat down, to ask if his mother was in fact, all right, if we should go look for her, but the conversation between the son and my friend had already taken off at a great pace about the art show that had been just mounted at the museum in the medieval tower that rose over the other side of the village, an installation in wood and stone by a Japanese artist who’d lived in our village for many years while he gained an international reputation and now had built this site-specific show in our own gallery where some of our people helped him construct it to fit exactly and precisely and seemingly precariously if securely balanced inside that ancient structure.


The child didn’t speak, she told us, until he was 32 years old. Everyone knew, she told us, somehow knew, that he could speak. Physically could speak. Vocal chords. Tongue. Teeth. Mouth. Even the mind for it. Especially the mind for it. They knew. Why wouldn’t he speak all those years? Why wouldn’t he say, “I’m hungry,” “I love you,” “I’m sad,” something. She said that some people who were around then took him as having a special kind of speech. His father always said, He speaks. We can’t hear him. His cousin said he spoke to her but everything his cousin reported him as saying was so obviously what the cousin wanted him to say that no one believed he actually ever spoke to his cousin.

His mother? She was ashamed. Why? That’s just what they say. Ashamed. Got angry with him. Speak! for god’s sake everyone knows you can you just won’t why won’t you please please just speak so we can be done with this. You are my son make me proud of you please speak.

The Priest had a go at him, she told us, at his mother’s behest hoping that either an exorcism would work or some spiritual grace, filling him, might drive out his refusal. He was patient with the Priest. He was 12 years old then. I remember it, she told us because the Priest asked if I would bathe the boy, cleanse him physically in preparation for his spiritual work. During the bath the poor boy got an erection. Did he hide it? No way. He stuck it out, leaned his shoulders back, strutted in the tub, giggling, but silently. Truth is, he aroused me in a hundred directions desire chased my mind. Truth is, I bathed him as the erection subsided. I talked to him in a low patter: why don’t you speak? I asked him. Is it, I said, because you have some secret you’re afraid will come out? Is it, I asked him, because our language is our compromise? Is it because silence is so very satisfying? Is it because the body itself already speaks? I washed him nearly everywhere, his lips, eyes, his nipples. Everywhere I cleansed him. Do you not speak, I asked him, to be special? To have everyone wonder about you? We all do, wonder after you. Do you not speak because you are afraid to speak? Do you fear lies? Do you fear truth? Do you fear being human, a mere simple human being? Do you not speak as a way of speaking? Do you not speak as a way of singing? Are you hyper hyper sensitive to sound? Do you fear ugliness in your voice. Don’t you feel alone, not speaking? More alone? I washed his legs, his belly, his thighs. Is there something, I asked him – the last question of my litany – that you have to say now, only to me? In hope, I listened to his silence. I calmed. I finished my work in devotion. I robed him. I sent him to the Priest.

After the Priest, his parents gave up. They left him to wander the streets of the village. Everyone gave him something, a shirt, a sandwich, a drink. Even the prostitute took him in once, surely without payment for his parents never gave him an ounce of currency. I asked her, the prostitute, had he spoken? No, she said, not spoken.

Strange how it happened, she told us. I took notice of things that don’t speak. Stone, for example. I mean the great stone, specifically, the one that divides the road near the Café Dialogique. The sea, of course, she told us, every day I stand somewhere at least once or twice to gaze at the sea, so I thought about the sea not speaking which naturally takes you to the sun which naturally takes you to the moon, stars. A house. A building. The building where the stationary store is as you walk into town. A glass. A football. A floor. Everywhere a not speaking. Until all that not speaking sounds to me like a voice of some kind. I can’t explain it. I sort of heard it. I hear it still. Then I listened more ardently to the hum as people speak. In a bar, I’d sit listening to four or five conversations babbling all at the same time but I listen just to the rhythms of speech. Drama. Punctuation. Emphasis. Rising. Rolling. Do you think that all those years he wouldn’t speak he was thinking in words, like we all of us do? I even asked him once when I found him walking up toward the lighthouse, Do you think in words like the rest of us? He smiled that smile he would smile at you when he thought you were being kind or charming to speak to him when you knew very well he wouldn’t answer you.

When he spoke, she said, at 32 years, 8 months, 27 days, 7 hours, 16 minutes, 4 seconds old, he said: Language is free. Can you imagine! She broke up laughing. I broke up laughing, she told us. Language is free, he said. What did he mean? What could he have meant? I’m old now, getting to be very old. I’ll mediate on that as long as I live and maybe longer. Language is free. Don’t you see it? It has every meaning possible. It’s the primary thing there is to say. All else follows from that and includes that. He said it at 32 years old, 8 months, etc. etc. That was just two days before the invasion. He worked for the Resistance. Doing what? Translating documents. He had a natural talent for it.

We believed her.

Copyright ©2009 by Martin Nakell

Los Angeles poet and fiction writer Martin Nakell has published several works of fiction, including The Library of Thomas Rivka (Sun & Moon Press), Two Fields that Face and Mirror Each Other (Green Integer), and Settlement. He is a professor of literature at Chapman University.

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