The bell startles me awake, and immediately it strikes me that I was mistaken about something, the first of many things I will be mistaken about here. I thought I had left Time behind, in Paris. But Time is here, too. Perhaps he could have been kept away if it weren't for the church. Those who built it must have known they could get away with leaving this place timeless, letting the forest act like a great, somnolent clock, its many hands of leaves turning. Perhaps they considered living free of him. Perhaps they took a vote, closing their eyes, raising their hands. But, having never lived without him before, they lost the courage to try, and brusquely put the clock on the tower, like a priest who, rushed, hastily anoints the last revenant's forehead with ash. Time had come with them here like a disease communicated by travelers. And so, even in this remote village, Time sits in his citadel, an aloof emperor ruling over an unthankful and distracted populace. Indeed, even the bells I woke to this morning have rebelled against him. Oh they toll when he tells them to, but no one pays them any attention. Time lives besieged here, like a missionary who, amongst the beauty of the pagan rituals, their customs, dress, songs, is beginning to lose his enthusiasm for converting the natives. Indeed, he begins to wonder if he isn't being converted by them. Maybe one day Time will go insane here, his black hands writhing together at midnight like the hands of a distraught neighbor at the door. Or perhaps his hands will, irrespective of his will, begin rowing backwards through the dark hours. It will be a great erasure, like a refugee scuffing out the marks her boots have made in the snow. And this valley will finally be rid of Time, and the very stones will rejoice for being out of the shadow of his dictatorship.
I had thought I could hold it together, but then that night in Paris... I was told later that I had tried to jump into the Seine to save Paul Celan. Or to save the ghost of Paul Celan. I made a scene that was embarrassing for everyone. My friend was trying to explain to the gendarmes that I had only been joking. They wanted to bring me in. When they finally walked away down the Quai she asked me in her beautiful, broken English what was wrong with me. I couldn't tell her that it was that book that had overthrown my mind so that I could no longer distinguish between my thoughts and the narrator's. The book that I had gotten rid of, leaving it in one of the bookstalls along the Seine, but that continued to haunt me. The book and the drinking and the heat were what did it. Without one of the three, I would have been fine, I think. But the book and the drinking and the heat conspired together to drive me mad, and my friends must have recognized the gravity of the situation, because in the morning they surrounded my bed and presented me with a plane ticket and instructions for how to reach this village. How I actually got here is not important. That I am here, alone, in my friend's ancestral house, the friend who made the cops walk away, that is what matters.
I went to sleep early last night, like a child, in the room I was told to sleep in: the bedroom of my friend's deceased grandmother, a woman of whom I know nothing but what I can divine from the photograph of her that hangs on the wall, one of those old portraits that hover in the center of a fuzzy white space that seems a crude image of the afterlife. In her great deep bed I might have slept well had the window shutters not kept blowing open and shut with a startling clap. I found a long piece of lumber that seemed to be leaning there just for the purpose I put it to. Finally, I fell asleep, and dreamt I was in a bookstore, looking for a particular book of poems. Poetry was shelved upstairs, of course. I struggled to climb the steps, being quite drunk and the steps being steep. The man who owned the place stood at their feet, accusing me of dereliction. I turned and mumbled something about poetry. He followed me up, and I knew from the sound of his ascent that he was lame: the sole of one shoe was three times as thick as the sole of the other. When I got upstairs, there was just one little shelf of mystical poetry: Rumi, Rilke, Whitman. I asked him where the other poetry books were and he said, "What do you mean? It's all here," pointing to the little shelf. As if the house was frustrated that I had managed to brace the windows, I woke out of this dream to the sound of the door yawning open, and for the rest of the night, no matter how firmly I shut it, it kept opening in the same somnolent way. It reminded me of how a parent opens the bedroom door to check on a sick child. It opened inquisitively, as if the rest of the house was curious about who had come to sleep in it. Every time I shut the door it seemed to promise me that it wouldn't open again, only to wake me (though it made a sound as soft as the bell-shaped sweeping of a dress along the floor). Somehow in the dark I found Swann's Way and braced the door closed with Proust's childhood. Surely, I thought, that world with its weight of faces, churches, flowers, could hold a door. And it did.
The bell tower itself was built in 1819. Whoever carved that date, their hands were alive as the two birds on this stonewall. When I came around the corner of the church, touching the stones like a blind woman, the bells peeled, the pigeons burst forth from the tower, sprung from time's blue hand. Moments later, down the valley, the bells of the nunnery rang. The nuns, sweet and weary in their habits, looked down at the rosaries in their hands. They prayed for us, we lost ones living up the valley.
How beautiful is the breathing of stones! All night they inhale the cold like people drowning themselves, like Paul Celan inhaled the green water of the Seine. All day they inhale the heat until they become warm as fresh loaves of bread. If we could see them breathing we might have more regard for them. We might even take the time to build stonewalls again. But you must touch them with the back of your hand, like checking a child for fever, to know this thing they do.
The families of this village keep tombs. When you die, you are buried where you lived. Your grandchildren bring fresh flowers to your grave. It is one of their chores. I had thought at first that it would be lonely to be buried alone like that, in a plot, the path to which requires constant work to keep open. But they seem to keep it open somehow, as if to lose the path to the grave would be akin to losing the person who lies there. And then I began to see it as a sweet thing, being buried all alone like that, off by yourself. There is room here to die your own death. One isn't doomed to a room in the vast subterranean motel of the cemetery. In your death you are like one of those hermit haiku poets who only received a visit from a friend or a student every few years.
The sound of crockery at suppertime: I imagine the bowls are brown and white, of heavy clay that breaks easy. Passing under their window, I think of the care with which husband and wife pass the dishes back and forth, asking one another with their eyes who's outside.
Dents in the wall where the window handles have gently slammed for ages from the rushed harassments of the wind. Old floral-stamped bedspreads, humbly festooned chairs, rickety wardrobes in which are stacked thin folded linens. Paintings hung high on the walls, haphazard: Mediterranean scenes in blue and sere yellow, the painters unknown, their hands plumes of bone rayed open in graves. The cupboards full of old china, the baby teeth of the house. The stillness and patience of this little cup, waiting to be filled, to be needed, holding its concavity through the years like the spirit in hiding in the attic of the flesh. The old iron door-locks that close with a weighty click, like the click of a pistol hammer thumbed back nine steps into the duel. This house was young once, unsure of itself but proud amongst these old mountains, like a young woman in a strange city with a letter of introduction in her hand. For a time the stones that compose it gloated for having been raised into a house. They carried themselves like aristocrats whom business has brought into a rough quarter of the city. But over time they grew humble again, and the house as a whole acquired as if through osmosis some of the wisdom of this place. While the world was shivering through its memes, these stones stayed stacked one atop the other like the vertebrae of stargazers. The walls only let me sleep within them because they know I am weary, and was a child once. They will never quite accept me. It is a long apprenticeship. They are like men who come back from a war and cannot love their wives because of what their hands have done.
The rain crushed in ten minutes all the mint in this immense valley and now in the aftermath the scent rises like a swelling of cellos during a rehearsal that will neither be recorded nor remembered.
Memorials on either side of the church door for soldiers who died in the world wars. I think of the charred bodies being carried back here, along these winding roads. Of their fathers standing unhatted in doorways, of their mothers wringing dishrags so hard they groaned. And the spirit walking alongside the body, one hand on the coffin as if to steady it.
At night they light the church with floodlights set in the ground. As I go under green waves of sleep that break solemnly over me, she stands, roseate, blushing, like a young woman being courted, her name-book growing thick with the florid signatures of suitors.
Dogs of this village, lend me some of your patience. Please. You stare at me, dole-eyed and kind. You do not bark. I bow to you, beg your pardon for disturbing your silence. You were born in vague litters that scattered soon after. Your mothers are long dead and your fathers never were. It is as if these very mountains engendered you. Perhaps this is why you are so patient.
On the floor of the room in which I am sleeping there is a footprint singed into the boards next to the bed. I have no way of knowing how it got there, or how a foot got so hot it burned its impression that deep into wood. Whoever's burning foot made that mark, they must have been huge, gigantic. If their foot was burning, I assume their whole body was, too, which means that once upon a time there was a gigantic burning person in the room in which I sleep. Being next to the bed, and pointing towards the door, I can only conclude that this giant woke up in bed burning. The room is small, the bed short: I imagine the giant curled up to fit in it. One night he woke to find himself on fire and got out of bed and walked out of the room and down the stairs and out into the night, incandescent in the music box dark of the valley. Every night, getting in bed, I must step around this singed impression. I am learning to live with this, to accept that this is the way things are here. The burning giant jumped into the river and extinguished himself in a hiss heard clear down the valley, a great shushing of the childlike land. Now a blackened giant stumbles disoriented through these woods. He wants to go back to bed. He is tired and wants to curl up and sleep. His body will blacken the sheets but he won't care. He will sleep clear through the tolling of the bells. He is lost now, but he will find this house because he must. I pray that I will not be asleep when he returns. I leave Saturday: it is Wednesday now. I do not think he will return before then, but three nights are three nights: anything can happen in them, even the return of a blackened giant. He may be nearing even as I write this, but I am tired and a guest of this house and this is the place I was told I could sleep. Who am I to complain? I'm doing my best not to worry. Really I am trying my hardest to be brave.
I should mention also, before turning off the light, that in the corner of this room there is a staircase that leads nowhere. The stones where it ends are different from the stones that compose the rest of the ceiling. They look older. I should mention also that the stairs are inaccessible (not that one would need to access them: they lead nowhere) because each step is completely lined with pair after pair of old shoes.
What I had imagined was a nunnery down the valley is in fact another village. There is no young nun down there reading the Gospels in French, a woman whom the world tried to defile but who escaped and has found refuge here, where I too have found refuge. Our eyes will never meet as I pass under the window because there is no nun because there is no nunnery. There may be a window and a woman gazing out of it, she may even be reading the Gospels in French, but she will not be a nun and she will not be free of the world, even here, in this isolated valley on this isolated island. This is too difficult a truth for me to accept, so I've decided that there has been some mistake, that it is, in fact, a nunnery, a nunnery that has disguised itself as a village so as not to be destroyed.
I can hear the goats down in the valley. The bells they wear gossip about them. They call out,
"Here they are! Here they are!" I wonder if the goats get annoyed, if they want, for once, to go in secret, like pilgrims, but are always betrayed by their bells, those albatrosses hanging from their necks, those beautiful necks that will be cut because the farmer who will raise the ax has never not known where his goats are.
After going into this little chapel, dimly lit with candles at dusk, I can never again endure the grandiosity of Notre-Dame. God doesn't pay any attention to big cathedrals because they are too full of people with cameras, brochures, neck aches, Rick Steeves books, prayer intentions, check lists. God loves better this little chapel dedicated to St. Anthony, and loves the woman who limps up here every morning and evening and lights three candles: one for her dead husband, one for her dead son, and one for you. I don't know that I can go back into Notre-Dame after seeing those three candles burning and thinking of how they will go out one by one while I sleep, the church darkening in stages until the only light is the lambent light the white statues cast like shadows.
The neighbor lady is calling for an animal. There is a black cat cowering guiltily behind this wall. I don't want to embarrass myself trying to ask her if she is looking for this cat, nor do I want to betray this cat in hiding. She is still calling. The cat just yawned.
Just back from a walk, on which I watched two dung beetles rolling a ball of manure across the road. One pushed and the other pulled. It wasn't graceful. They fell and tipped over but tirelessly they went on, like any two workers anywhere on earth. When they came to a crack in the asphalt, the ball of dung rolled down the fissure against their will. Summoning what must have been their last reserves of energy, they succeeded in crossing the divide and continued across the road, fully convinced of the importance of their task, knowing only their world, the exhaustion on one another's faces, the globe of dung between them. We too believe in our lives this way. We are essentially no different from dung beetles. But how easily I could have crushed them.
The white butterfly that rises up off the stonewall because I peered too close and disturbed it with my breathing lightens the stonewall: the stonewall, so heavy, so set in its purpose, goes floating through the air vicariously through the butterfly. In this way it is like an old man watching children catching fireflies and feels again what it feels like to be a child.
This mountain is too big to go online. It won't fit. People have tried to get it online, people in Palo Alto, who've managed to get most everything on there, but this mountain is too big. It's bigger even than Everest, than Denali, because those two mountains fit snugly side by side in my mind, while this mountain looms before me, massive and nameless, and it's going to stay right here, though they've tried to drag it online with chains, come-alongs, barges, trains, you name it. It won't budge. It's a really fucking big mountain.
On a stone at the corner of the bell tower someone has etched a cross, thin as the t's in this sentence, the horizontal line crossing the vertical line about a third of the way down... How clumsy is this description of such a simple and beautiful thing! I've ruined it. I may as well have taken a penknife and scribbled over this fine-lined, vivid cross someone carved into the stone, as if the church had somehow gotten it all wrong and they wished to start Christianity over again.
The water here tastes old. No one would say it's great water. It's not very cold. It has a murky quality to it, like someone trying to decide whether to lie down and read in midday. It doesn't seem quite content to be in my glass, in my water bottle, in my mouth. I think it misses the secret aquifers from which it was drawn. There it knew itself, down amongst the stones, barely remembering when it had fallen as rain, like an old man who has forgotten the ardent kisses of his youth. I beckon it come to me through the broke-necked faucets and it comes but reluctantly, and it fills me with shame to piss it out.
These stones will never be turned into bread. They could be, every stone can be if touched by the right hands, but no one who can accomplish this miracle will come up here and touch them. Well, I shouldn't be so certain. Maybe there is a child in this very village who is beginning to go off alone, after chores, who goes away for hours but always returns when he should, like all saints. I hope there is such a child in this village. Otherwise these stones will never be turned into bread.
Yesterday I was sitting outside and a man and a boy appeared, pushing an old man in a wheelchair with difficulty over the cobblestones. They reached the flight of stone stairs that wends its way up to the higher tiers of the village and the boy beckoned me over to help carry him. It reminded me of carrying my grandfather's coffin: it had been so light I felt he was floating through the air and we grandsons chosen to be pallbearers were merely accompanying him. The wheelchair was similarly light. I merely held the handle. Neither of us seemed to be exerting ourselves, as if the old man had lightened himself for us out of kindness. When we reached the house there was a flurry of hands, and I returned to my book on the sunlit patio. The old man never said a word and I never saw his face. Then I remembered that my friend had mentioned that her elderly uncle was going to return to the village to die, and so I assume that this is the man I helped carry. Her uncle had a twin brother, and the two of them were once amongst the most famous singers in France. They sang all night in the cafes of Paris to the artists and painters Hemingway described, who had worked all day in solitude and gathered at night to forget about it all and listen to these twin brothers sing. I think of the two of them, almost identical in appearance, the source of arguments and bets: which brother was which? They're voices too must have blended into one. Girls must have lain in bed with their hands over their hearts, suffering in indecision about which twin they loved more. Now, this crippled singer I helped carry has lost his brother and suffered a stroke. He can't speak anymore, much less sing, and he is still above the earth while his brother is below it. His gestures and mannerisms, paralleled by his brother all his life, are his alone now. I wonder what he does in that dark house we carried him up to. I wonder if he listens to his own voice on scratchy records that spin with all the somnolence of the earth itself. I believe he sits there in silence singing, full-throated and strong, and that no one can hear him but his brother, the one he sings for, smiling on his back in the earth.
Last evening the neighboring family returned. Three daughters, a bright-eyed baby, mom and dad, uncle, grandpa and grandma. They're goat farmers down in the valley, their lives entranced by milk. The old man has a face weathered by laughter. He comes up the steps, spritely at 83. He berates the baby for being a baby. He berates the dog for being a dog. He points at me and seems to say, "You are you and there's nothing can be done for that." He talks all night in a continuous stream, pausing from time to time to talk to me in broken English. I've only understood a handful of things he's said. He said Americans drink whiskey like tea and then they put on their little hats. While looking through his binoculars at his sheep high up on the mountain, he pointed and said, "Hunting season." He asked me if I'm a cowboy and when I said "Sure" he asked how I stay on a horse. I gripped invisible reins in the air. He shook his head no and slapped the insides of his bare thighs. He asked me how long pigs are pregnant for. I guessed five months. He said I was dead wrong, they're pregnant for three moons. He has beautiful eyes and the expressions of a Shakespearean actor, equally capable of tragedy and comedy at any moment. Out of the blue he told me he'd like to burn his own house down before he dies. He explained very seriously that all five of his sons built their houses without having their heads lopped off. While smoking a cigarette he told me I shouldn't smoke cigarettes, pointing to each lung deliberately, as if making the sign of the cross. He said rich Americans come to his country and throw their money down on the ground and stomp on it. When I asked him would he like some chocolate he said, "No, but I won't refuse."
It's time to leave. I doubt I will be remembered. I doubt that anything I have said or done will remain here. All vestiges of my presence will be swept away. The house will recover its composure, the bed will smooth itself, my fingerprints and footsteps will fade. My time here has been a life within my life, like the endosperm in the seed. And my leaving is dying. I am practiced now in death, and I have the village to thank. Read More