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Chapter One

They come in the dark and do terrible things to me. They go away.

In the morning there are bruises, memories. Eva traces them across my chest, down my arms. She asks no questions.

Their heads are like foxes. (I have seen, in the old books, pictures of foxes.) Their feet are hooves. They leave prints of bloody paws on the door, the sheets.

I do not know what country I am in. A strange sky streaked with blue clouds, yellowish hills far off, always the smell of damp clay and dust, and the twilight hovering over our heads like a moth. I do not know the name of the language I speak, though I speak it, I'm told again and again, quite well.

Eva does not speak the language.

Eva paints.

Her latest: myself, dying. There is a smile (I think it a smile) on my lips, the smile of a man who has achieved his life's ambition. For some time I envy the man trapped there, this circle closing itself.

What, in the drudge and dazzle of the days, I keep forgetting: I am here for a purpose. The expedition is well financed; they will expect results. This journal? Eva's paintings? Neither will be enough. They expect nothing less than une petite cosmogonie complète. While my own book lies dormant as the Kraken, as Kansas corn, others continue, miraculously, to find their way to me – they simply appear in my room – for jacket blurbs, review, consolation, criticism. And in the meanwhile my poems wander among the baffles of their words, looking for salvation, redeeming wisdom, gnosis, wherever seams and corners come imperfectly together.

I visited the grave today.

It rests in a tiny valley between two hills. Atop the hills are fig trees, down their sides, kudzu. There is a small stone.

A woman was there before me and stood looking down at the grave. From behind I could see that her shoulders were wide, waist narrow, legs muscular and long. She wore a leiderhosen sort of thing, of old leather or something much like it, over a long-sleeved white shirt. On her feet were ankle-length oxblood boots with low, narrow heels.

Strangers rarely came to see us here, and I was startled to encounter one so casually, still more startled at her hair, of a forbidden black. My own had been bleached to a pale bluish white before I came.

When she turned I could see her breasts, but partly contained by clothing, small, upturned. I thought of the snouts of small animals in the old books.

— I came too late, she said. On her face a mask, beneath it (I sensed) a smile. — I tried to come earlier. Everything has become so difficult. Why do they always leave me?

I sensed, could almost feel, her own features sliding inside those of the mask, rearranging themselves.

— They always go away. They flee to foreign lands, the back rooms of libraries, they have families, become editors, forget me. I ask so little of them, only love. AM I so hard a woman to love?

The features of the mask changed perceptibly.

— Look at me. I am beautiful, spa? And young, always young. Anything a man wants, I can be. I become the hollow only he can fill, I empty myself into him, nourish, protect. And still he will not stay with me. My hands close on air, my legs clasp empty space.

The mask was now that of a Greek comedy. Inappropriate affect, I thought, remembering words read long ago, when I still thought it possible to understand, to know.

The sun shrugged to its zenith overhead as shadows flowed back to their sources, this woman's mask blanc now. A hand moved, palm open, towards the gravesite.

— He last spoke of killing me. He put his fist against my throat. Another time, a knife between my legs. I saw the world spinning about – a désordre I had never known. The walls of the room collapsed. I saw at the window the eye of a whale.

A shrug, or shiver, passed over her. For a moment the mask was silver, a mirror in which I swam watching.

— Some of the things he saw: I do not doubt it. But I don't know how he bore them. How any of you do.

She turned away to the grave again.

— I have been in hospital, she said.

— Yes.

Features flared on the mask, faded. — You knew?

I told her my name.

— You have changed, she said finally.

I nodded. — It's been a long time. Many years, many poems, many abandoned books and stories.

— And women?

— Abandoned?

— Or otherwise.

— A few. One in particular, a painter named Eva. She is here with me.

— But you will send her away, now that I have come.

— No.

Her silver mask tilted upwards and swept slowly across the sky, a tiny observatory dome.

— You cannot go on without me.

— Perhaps.

— You will encounter deserts and thirsty rivers. The gound itself will tremble as you pass across it.

Taking a step towards her, I lifted a hand to the mask.

— That is not allowed, she said.

— In art, I said, all is allowed, and pulled it down. It hung, ineffective, pitiful noose, about her throat. While above it like a moon rose Eva's face, impossibly old.

And so I walked away from that grave, from that place and time,

And I came at last onto a green field beyond which I could see a small settlement,

Like (I saw for the first time) a natural thing, a growing thing, alive,

And the vast empty spaces around.

They come no more at night.

I watch Eva's face in the moonlight.

The book is almost finished.


Chapter Two

Metonymies of Europe and its civilization: tea, excellent manners, trains. I had my taste of the first two while waiting for the third.

The tea shop nearest the gate at New Paddington Station was a small one with perhaps eight tables, all of them empty so early in the morning. I shrugged out of my wet mac and was served by a middle-aged woman intent upon making, of my tea and toast, a deferential ceremony. She wore a rather tight brown uniform and, over it, a navy blue cardigan stretched long in front from many years' pocketed tips.

My train sat idly steaming in its slot. A few passengers made their way aboard, most of them burdened with various bundles and unwieldy bags, as I sat over breakfast. At last taking up my own single parcel, I walked the train's length searching for empty compartments, finally settling on one encamped by (as I soon learned) a young seminary student. Moments before departure we were joined by a breathless woman of about the same age.

"I assume you're not a believer, of course," the student said as we pulled away from New Paddington, looking up from his Greek bible first at the woman, then, getting no response, at me.

I simply looked back at him. The woman took out a paperback The Brothers Karamazov and began reading (though there was no marker) somewhere near the middle of the book.

"You don't have to believe, of course: that's the message of the modern world," he told us. "Only faith matters. And if you can only have faith – in beauty, in the world, yourself – those also are among the names of Yahweh."

Having got all that on record, he took refuge again in the orderly decline of Greek. I though of Tillich as aplogist, the history of religion a graveyard of dead symbols. This gentle young man with his dead language and dead mythologies. This city illimitably, yet with great civility, dying also. I watched, silent witness, as station after station went past. At first these were frequent, active; then the intervals between increased, their platforms ever more sparsely populous, until the last hove into view overgrown with honeysuckle and kudzu, colonized by rats the size of beaver.

Soon then, our train broke into a blasted, scabrous landscape. Stark and sere, trees stood, jagged dark teeth, on the horizon. We thundered past collapsing structures once buildings, past steel and cement, water towers like downed Goliaths, the plundered remains of bridges, signs gone grey and featureless as stone.

The morning's rain had given way to sun. Soon, too, our tracks gave onto bare earth and, both my companions being occupied with books, there being little landscape to observe now, I elected to join them.

Untying its thong from around a sort of button, I opened the cardboard satchel I always carried with me and took from it a manila folder. I read over the most recent pages – it had become my habit to type up the manuscript page by page as it progressed, and the newest pages were uppermost – then replaced the folder, removing in its stead a pad of cheap yellow paper and pen.

Far off beyond the hills, I wrote, I hear the rumbling discourse of dynamite, and wait for the winds that will roll down towards us.

In her letters Violet writes of ordinary things that seem to be receding ever further from me: walking to the store for milk, a new coat, newspapers. The sky looms overhead like promises one should live up to. I read Dostoevski and wait for meals.

Today, walking in the hills, I came across a gravesite.

Towards noon, hand wrapped about a teacup that would do most others for a soup bowl, the train's engineer joined us. I took note of a limp, the left leg, if I remember correctly, and mused that his face resembled some wooden implement left outdoors for weeks and finally retrieved.

"First time?" he asked my female companion, who went on reading.

"How about you?" he said to me then. "Been to the settlement before?"

I said that I had not.

He drank. I noticed that his left hand, whenever he removed it from the cup, shook.

He took in the land outside our windows with a quick glance.

"'S the future," he said. "You don't doubt it, do you? I been a railroadman a long time." Another mouthful of tea. "Pushed down some borders myself in my day. Lasted longer than most, too. My kids come home from school and they don't know what any of it was all about, what it was for. Don't have enough history to cover a shirtsleeve."

He drank what seemed to be the last of his tea.

"That's what'll save us, the settlement up there. I hope you folks have a nice stay. Do it myself in a minute, if I could."

He trudged along the aisle and out the compartment's doors.

The woman had exchanged Karamazov for Balzac, the student his Attic scripture for a Talmud. Miles to go, one supposed.

"The captain strolls on the deck in moonlight," the woman beside me said after a while.

I nodded. "Quite."

The student looked up, a little befuddled: our scriptures were apart from his. I became acutely aware of the woman there with me, of legs tight against the coarse fabric of pants, the lift of breast and bare arm, more than anything else, perhaps, a familiar, fugitive sense of promise, of possibilities.

"You are traveling alone?" she asked.

I said that I was and she returned to her book. I watched out the window for a moment – a few low clouds, an abandoned machine or two – before returning to my own.

I remember, as I entered the settlement for the first time, thinking that I was aware, not in some remote, faintly acknowledged manner, but physically aware, with a rise along my spine, that simultaneously we all inhabit two worlds, the one we carry within our minds and the external (or projected) one, and these two meet, the "real" and "shadow," only selectively, like the scant overlapping lips of Venn diagrams.

With some surprise I realized that both my chapter and journey had come to an end. The train was as at a standstill. Clusters of simple buildings loomed in a curious twilight.

Both companions already stood. Leaning close as I closed my satchel, the woman siad: "My name is Eva. We'll see one another often."


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