Sunday, October 7, 2007

overture to part II


Walter Benjamin wrote that death is the sanction of everything a storyteller can tell, “suddenly,” he said, “in his expression and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him.”

I was born with the gift of touch. My father said it is because she took me into the sky with her when she left, when she rose like Medea in her chariot of the sun, but that he brought me back from the clouds. He carved me out of her belly with a kitchen knife, while her body was still warm, and I was wearing the caul, still tethered to her heart by the umbilicus which he cut, and he breathed his own breath into my lungs. Since then I have heard the stories imprinted in objects, of stones and soil and fabric, all things singing their own history in layers of complex variations like a symphony.

There are fragments of stories I touched as a child, pieces of cloth I stitched together to form a memory of her. The stones I held in my hand as an infant described to me in detail her first steps in that wind-torn field—how the leaning grasses suddenly stilled, awaiting her breath, how the dry wheat shafts were raked by her child’s unselfconscious steps releasing (from the cocked legsprings of tiny, skeletal animals) a sudden volley of sun-refracting flight.

At night the moths told me fairy tales, like shadow plays flickering in the dust of their wings. I held my breath and watched her life unfold before me on my pillow at night like the wings of a cicada emerging from its shell. The dragonflies told me she knew the true names of all the plants and animals, that she understood the language of horses, that she had first learned from birds how to fly.

Before I went to sleep at night, I witnessed as the fields and sky and clouds wrote her stories on my tongue. And as we watched the stars through telescopes before dawn, I would tell them to my father, and he would make me promise never, ever to lift my feet from this earth, not to listen to the beckoning song of the sky, like she had done, but to stay close to the words, for they would anchor me, and this is what I have done.

A key I found in a box possessed the memory of their wedding--how she had opened the door to an old hotel where she had lived as a child, how everything was covered in dust, and there were still toys on the floor that held the imprint of her hands playing with them before the last time she ever walked out that door. The smell of the cedar closet had made her cry, the furs that hung there for so many years still steeped in perfume from a ball, and when I touched the cedar trunk I saw that here she had unfolded the lace of her own mother’s wedding dress, and moths had fluttered out of it like angels. My father had seen their wings reflected in the liquid of her eyes. It was then, he said, that he knew he would not be able to hold on to her.

She married my father in the field of yellow grass behind our house, a shotgun wedding beneath the sky, and the wind whipped around her dress and it billowed such that he thought she might be lifted into the clouds, and the wind took the words, their vows, and carried them to a place where they might never be found. I have always searched for those words. I suspect that they are kept by Aeolus in his cave too soothe the winds.

Before he died my father found the book of poetry she had stolen from his house long ago. He said he knew she had taken it, and he had loved her more for that singular act of necessary thievery than perhaps anything else. I have it now, and use it to remember the sound of the wind that blows differently now that she is gone.

And my mouth still whispers the lyrics to a song about the end, for it is always where my story begins: her tentative steps out into that familiar sun-scorched field, the wedding field, how she walked shedding hope, stepping out of the clinging undergarments of faith, standing naked and pale beneath the light of clouds, clothed only in the heavy weight of a child; how she let go at last the thread that tethered both of us to the incarnate world, that most fragile thread of silk that held her heart to the turning blade, the knife edge, of her corporeal existence, her grief. I touch the earth of the field where she last stood and inhale the familiar smell of the soil, the overabundance of nitrogen, the faint, far off scent of lightning. The metallic particulate of burned gunpowder hovering, later, in the astonished air; the casual way she shrugged off her earthly weight like removing a heavy shroud. And then she was free, fragmented, fleeting upward in a fusion of light and memory, at last unburdened by the density that had pressed her down: this earthward pull, what had brought her here, and me, all of us, longing to experience the fragile beauty of light, the smell of skin, the delirious sensation of taste and touch, and sound.

And now I tell your stories to keep you close to me, until I, too, am safe again in the weightless world, for the stories, as Benjamin said, are like “seeds of grain which have lain for centuries in the chambers of pyramids”—what is germane and vital still, and born again in bread, sustains us. You were, Rilke said, “like bread on the altar before it is changed…”

I tell the stories beginning to end, middle spiraling outward, or from end to the unraveled beginning, where the sky first fell in love with you, a glinting fleck of star, fallen from the infinite heavens, for the first time perceiving within yourself the insistent longing for gravity, not knowing the weight, the sorrow, that was its bane. For the stories remind me of who you once were, and in the telling we are redeemed.