Catching the Sunlight
On a terrace overlooking the valley, people, some holding glasses of indifferent wine talk to each other, unsure of names. Others hold glasses of fruit juice that won’t affect the action of their medicines.
Time has set, like aspic. A song on the radio comes to an end and nothing has changed. There are some who watch, intense as hawks. These are the doctors.
The beat of wings fills the mountain air. Silence reaches deep into the ears, searching for echoes. A shadow passes, and the world begins again. What has been watching us, what pursues us, ransacking our darkness? A nerve thrills, as if to answer. A word slips away from us like an eel.
“Tell me again: In the high and horned mountains? What was it, your tale?”
We walk about foolishly, like men who have built a wall around them, for protection, and forgotten the door. But with each sunrise, something, a little, seems to be gained, something has been overcome, a spell removed. What is overcome? To know that, we must interrogate our silence; the powers that swamp the human; the powers arising from the lesser human. Those powers, too, await their sunrise, and the maturing of the merely magical into the miraculous.
There is a story that begins like this:
“The King of the Birds stretched forth his neck and shook out his feathers and sang in the morning, ordering the sun to rise. The dog turned three times in his basket, licked his lips and slept again. The cat alert for twitches in the shadows, watched with blank intensity. The sweet smell of the byre and the swish of tails and the warm breath of the beasts and movements of sparrows among the rafters brought in the daylight.
The day plodded like a farm horse over clods and furrows, harnessed to some obscure duty and the promise of a mouthful of clover, and a still view of quiet fields.
The king of the birds strutted among the poultry, a confirmed materialist.”
Night falls again. An aeroplane winks its lights among the stars, following its rational course, and is gone, and the stars follow their rational courses.
If nothing moves, is it night forever?
In the High and Horned Mountains there are horses; their hair turns to scales like pine needles and their manes and tails are thin. The bass and echoing roar of lions fills the snowy heights; their ribs are clear beneath their fur and old blood mats their locks.
One man came seeking dragons, another, a wise man’s cave; a third just wished to see the world from a high, cold summit.
At night, the only birdsong is the owl on the lower slopes, and by day the knotty branches are home to none but crows. The caves in the High and Horned Mountains reach far into the earth, and rocks from those mountains are turned up by the ploughs of far distant farmers.
“What became of them? The three, I mean.”
I can only tell my own tale.
It began in the village and took us far into the mountains, and beyond, into a sunlit valley. But storms threatened, and we needed shelter, which we took in a cave. It was said to be the home of a wise man who demanded a great price for hospitality.
Later, in the city, they met in a cinema, where they found the film unlikely and banal. In a café, later, they remembered seeing each other in a high valley, somewhere dark and enclosed.
One night. No words: such was the contract unspoken, but understood. No words because we are in a hurry. So it was supposed to happen in a pocket of time, one night; only one night, for we are impatient, and no words, because they bind and remind of the other’s humanity. And that is the true object of desire: a universe of meaning that cannot be explored in one night, even though such an exploration might require no words.
Fingers touching lightly the spines of the books in the library, lips barely moving, whispering the titles. These words touch something: it is what inspiration is like, what spiritual health is like; rising to the unknown like a snail’s horn stretching in ignorance towards the light.
“Tell me again about these mountains?”
There was no disguising veil there of orange light; no traffic noise. Heaven was closer, the stars nearer, taking their places as the night deepened, like a silent audience, their attention undivided, watching how we act out and improvise on their compositions.
Or perhaps they were, rather, doctors, looking into us to perform their loving surgery while sleep anaesthetised us?
Certainly something was happening there that you could call “theatre”.
“Yes. And in the daytime?”
The sky shone through holes in the turf: there is no name for its colour. It was like peach blossom; like the colour of life itself. The mountains bore on their shoulders heavy clouds; gravity their business. But we were on a springy raft of peat and heather, stretching across the sky, drawing from it into our limbs the equal and opposite force of levity. The bark of a fox in the night, and a stag’s hooves beating into the distance of the forest. I remember a wood-ants’ nest, moving, rich with activity. There was the summer sun and the sound of the cold stream.
“Yes. And this film. What was it about?”
An old fable.
“Yes. And afterwards? After the film?”
We took to our separate streets, separate lives, unconnectable dreams. From the first, she hated me for raising the question, and I have no gift for the tragic. And yet our pulses regulated to the mutual mistake. We kept finding ways back to each other.
Later, while trying to salvage our hearts, the shape emerged from beneath the middens of contempt, the shape of what we separately longed for, somewhere else, with someone else, the form, the outline of love. The yellow oblongs of light of the windows in the evening and the thought of warmth waiting indoors.
And you? Shall we continue our conversation? Take a turn down the drive?
There is a long drive winding up to the sanatorium with fields on either side. Pigeons flutter fatly from branch to branch. A magpie chatters and labours on short wings to another tree. Seagulls wheel and swoop and glide; athletes of each current of air. They meet without fellowship in the fresh-turned furrows. The clap of a distant gun sends them aloft, each in his tribe, until some deep signal brings them back.
I had to go into hiding, condemned to be myself, sentenced to ignore the commonplace version of who I am. The mask for negotiating with the world had to lie unused, a caricature. I needed no mask in the shadows of my hiding place; it was pure. I only wondered how I would behave if men in other masks broke past the guards. Who would I be in the face of death? It matters. How they would characterise me matters, for that would be what they describe to the world, and I am forced to be a stickler for the truth.
I remember a car journey, the unfolding of well-known roads through strange landscapes, veiled in familiarity. A couple walk through a field, two horses gallop over the tussocks. Sheep are herded across a bridge, a girl walks down a village street.
A man has made unexpected choices about his facial hair. Carloads of unexplored universes urge themselves forward, pushing back the limits, and always limited.
How hard it is to relax into interest enough to unlock and reveal the mysteries of others. The fibres of other lives brush the fibres of ours, and once again, the fabric is refolded.
What did we witness, after all? The trees moved in the wind, a dog barked, a horse galloped away in a field, a light came on in a distant house. What shall we tell?
We shall speak of miracles or stay silent.
What do they call the flowers that grow on the distant hillsides, out of reach? And those birds with unexpected flashes of colour in the woods. What are their names? And there’s the animal that comes in the middle of the night, rooting in the garden. Give me their names and I shall know them. I open an old book and read:
The Emperor stood at his window, and as far as his eyes could see, he created his world, his mind the inside of all outside it. The royal self he had created looked at him from the mirror and was satisfied. His peacocks and panthers strutted and prowled among his jasmine and aromatic trees; a fountain plashed in his pool of carp. But what was that bird? No-one had ever seen such a creature. The Emperor saw it rise and consulted his memory. No, it was new. He turned from the bright window to ponder in the shadows.
“Let us examine the facts; facts are things that can be examined. They render themselves susceptible of analysis. They speak for themselves. Good. The statue, you say, had once been painted, and two shadowy discs remained for the irises of the eyes.
“Then, you claim, as you looked, the eyes turned to look at you, and then moved back to their original positions.
I put it to you that such could not possibly happen. It must have been a delusion, a trick of the light, wishful thinking. Yet you insist.”
Yes. I insist because I must. The impossible thing happened but you cannot reflect it within you. It is not a failure of my cognition.
We shall speak of miracles or remain silent.
Rain out of a blue sky; it can happen sometimes; or dew blown from trees? It is not impossible. I felt it today, rain out of a blue sky. The trees were blown dry long since. So it must have been rain. Just rain out of a blue sky.
* * * *
Nuns in grey habits raced down to the river’s edge like a flock of furious birds. They drew from the water a woman with white, moon like skin, wailing and whimpering as they wrapped her in towels. Their feet, bulging the black polished leather of their shoes, moved like a pack of sleek rats, quick and purposeful, and her naked and cut feet captive among them, hobbled up the gravel path.
Sister Concepta, explained a boy, placidly watching. She’s mad.
“In my pockets are charms and talismans. I blink my eyes for a shower of sparks. The heels of my boots beat smoke out of the ground and my toes point the way to the hidden kingdom. My rings shine and sparkle with ancient magic and my teeth hold the key to secrets. I dance enchantments and skip unbreakable spells; my voice is thunder, or a whisper in the trees. The birds tell me their discoveries, the beasts seek my advice. My back is alive with sense. Tell me your dreams and I’ll tell you your story. My hair reaches out to the stars. I smell out wickedness and clap my hands to expel it; I leap seven leagues and cheat the wind. I am human in spirit and nature and I strive beyond both.”
“May dogs growl and bite when you pass and cats hiss and scratch. May crows dash at your head in the streets; may your hair fall and clog your sink; and your teeth shatter and crumble on a nut; may your fingers fail to grip and your tongue to find words; may your toes turn backwards and your head twist on your neck; may the holes of your body be stopped until you burst with bad air and foul matter; may a toad squat on your coffin to keep your soul from flying; and all for a slight you gave me, child of love. Or was it you, at all? Children of love are we all, and all cursed the same.”
She ran away, and fed herself from bird feeders, and dogs’ bowls, shooing the creatures to feed herself. Such was her madness. The nurses have given her new clothes.
On a calm evening on the terrace she told us how it was in the beginning.
“It was a deep red copper shining. Then came the wind that played on the shining, and the green appeared at the edges. This was carefully preserved in the quiet place until the Dancers came and the Shining grew rich deep blue. Some of the blue was taken to the quiet place, and the wind blew gently on it. Strife came with the shattering of the Shining into unnumbered sparks of many colours, and the quiet place looked up at the sparks as they found their paths in the Dance. Their rays met the quiet place and thought themselves in it: and thus Mankind was born in the world. Such was the Beginning.”
Tea is brought in, and we all relax into quiet chatter, dropping biscuit crumbs.
“Below in the city, the streets are full of magic. Statues wink. Pigeons curl their coral toes on sentient stone heads. Wise birds sit in the branches of municipal trees. The roofs and garden walls are patrolled by familiar cats. A dog barks, and the bushes are alive with intelligence learned by the birds from the barking. The moon delivers wisdom in the form of moonlight on the rain wet slates. Some call it the Green Language, but it is silver.”
When she is calm, the air is bright around her. She accepts her medicine with a smile, and will get rid of it later. The nurses talk among themselves. A male nurse with bare, freckled forearms unfolds a mystery of his own.
“At first we didn’t believe it. Then Tom came back and said it was all true. That convinced some, those who thought Tom was a good bloke, but it wasn’t good enough for me. Then two or three others burst in with the news. That changed a lot of people’s minds, but I don’t reckon you can be too careful. So I held my peace and didn’t say a yea or a nay. Well, when the dog died, it convinced a lot of the others who were still swithering. A voice at the back of my mind said the dog was old, after all. It could have been natural. But I was one voice amongst many, and so I went along with it, against my better judgement. But you can’t argue with the majority.”
My friend of the masks sadly reviews his life.
“Looking back it’s like a city; I turn and walk through dark stinking alleys, and dingy side streets, loud with cursing, past the shebeens and brothels, past fights and grudging looks from dirty windows, or turn into broad avenues, full of noisy men. There are houses where women weep and children are hurt, or afraid. There are occasional bursts of laughter. I keep walking, looking for broad boulevards of handsome buildings in the sunlight, summer parks and fountains, and happy, innocent people.
In the end it’s all the same. In the beginning, all is variety, discovery and change. The middle promises nothing more than memory, but the end is calm. No regrets, no expectation.”
The nun comes, rattling softly her pills in her fist.
“In the green language, the world is described in the gaps between things, between breaths, between light and shadow, in words that don’t always quite seem to fit. Like flashing neon reflected in a puddle, my notions come. To be alive in a body of flesh and blood is to be swallowed by the dragon, and the task is to transform the dragon from within. And yet how often do we feel the skin itching beneath our dragon scales. To know where it itches is to know what must be healed.”
‘Wherever two or three are gathered’ comes to mind. We allow plenty of space for angels to pass.
It ends in a sanatorium by a lake with mountains mirrored in its surface, and two people placed carefully beside each other on the sunlit terrace. The man idly turns a coin in his fingers, catching the sunlight. The nurses in bright uniforms with watches at the breast, catching the sunlight, bring tea on a rattling trolley, filling the cups from a steel pot catching the sunlight.