It will flash as bright frost,
Drowse like a gillyflower . . .
But surely and stealthily it will lead you away
From joy and from tranquility
— Anna Akhmatova
When the rules of love were written, one of them stated: “Once you put a face to the hunger of your heart, your heart cannot let go.”
Unaware of this rule, for love had never confided in me, I recently put a face to my heart’s hunger, and this was an unwise thing to do; for with the fresh sting of hope in its nostrils, its hunger grew exponentially and fast, and soon engulfed everything: my thoughts, my dreams, my room, my day, the streets, the earth, the sky, and before I really noticed, and before anything could be done to stop the beast, or even slow him down, my life was nothing but hunger for that one face.
Unaware of this rule, yes, but I am no stranger to the hunger. We are well acquainted, Beast and I. I say Beast, for Beast he is, but a beast with the softest voice and the sweetest yearning. He is the whisperer of dreams long abandoned and the promiser of delicious perhaps futures. He is also the ruthless and unremitting tyrant that, once you find yourself in his claws, will dictate, moment by helpless moment, what you feel and what you do and what you don’t do.
To this I should add that he is also a jealous beast, covetous not only of the here and now of her lovely face, and of its future, but also of its past: for in a brilliant corruption of logic, his greedy eyes can turn pastward and inward in an instant, to hunt for and there discover others, and with each such discovery his claws—issuing black, long and sharp from broad paws—will find and slash the tender fabric that is memory into long, painful wounds.
“But,” I protest, “I didn’t even know her then.”
At your voice, Beast slowly turns his shaggy head your way and fixes you with red eyes that quietly but firmly tell you to back off. Then he proceeds to seek and find new betrayals of you committed by a life you had yet to encounter. And with each discovery, real or imagined—in this frame of mind he is not very discriminating—he gouges yet another wound, another jealousy for you to ache with.
For a spell you retain sense enough to marvel at this amazing illogic, at this temporal sleight of hand, but soon enough his claws have gouged too often, your wounds have grown too deep and too many, and so the ache turns overwhelming, and then you will do anything, anything in this world, to quench it.
At which point Beast is as likely as not to sneak up on you from some unguarded behind and whisper in your ear, in your heart, another yearning, one so soft and so convincing that all is forgiven.
The poets knew him all too well, and as a rule suffered his rage through many a tribute, beautifully. Some, by naming him—Eros of brute lust, the lover of Psyche, the wayward child of Plato’s Aphrodite Pandemos; or Eros of spiritual love, the favored child of his Aphrodite Uranina; or Cupid, son of Venus, his Roman cousin; or Kama; or Freya; or Libido, that modern god so heralded—others by dressing him in one of his many euphemisms: affection, fondness, warmth, adoration, devotion, attraction, closeness, intimacy, passion, infatuation, fancy, desire, longing, wanting, pining, craving, yearning, ardor, heat, fervor, flame, rapture, what have you. And so they tried to wrestle him down onto paper, where they hoped to better view, perhaps even dissect and understand him (as if letters could shackle him and words keep him still). They soon discovered:
He is unnamable and will not brook inspection.
Others—the ambitious, the desperate, and the foolish—deluding themselves, searched their hearts for the one name they thought would fashion for Beast the magical reins with which to control him. Of course, none succeeded. There is no such name, there are no such reins.
Some so failed at this that they ended up calling him by the strange name Inspiration.
The rest, the many, knew him as the nameless force which made life worth living. The everything that touches grass with green and the sky with blue. The eyes and the hearts of their beloveds, and the stuff of their dreams. And so, to a pen, they succumbed to him aesthetically.
The poet of our day—if you can call him that: lyricist would be a better word, piner a word better still—has gone one better (or worse, rather) and has now so garishly embraced his defeat at the claws of Beast that you can—in just about any song, on just about any radio station—see him leer through the words from the first stanza to the last: confident, ruling, unassailable.
The mystics knew him better than the poets, and they never made the mistake of thinking him harmless.
Many a holy man spent long, hard lives poised to the danger, aware of his presence and alert to his faintest stirring. Some, to silence him, would replace his painful calling with perhaps greater pains of their own choosing: whips, ice, fire—while others, in an effort to starve him and so silence him, would themselves fast for days, weeks. Some succeeded. Not many.
Yet others vowed not to close their eyes until Beast—who among the mystics also acquired a good many names, among them Lust, Desire, Sin even—would evaporate from a lack of sleep. Well, so at least went the theory. This, however, did not work too well either, for in the end it was the vigilant sufferer, and not Beast, who went: hollow-eyed, feverish, delirious, raving, numb, lifeless. And so, as the soon-to-be corpse as a rule ejaculated in the throes of death, Beast would claim yet another messy little victory before slinking away to join the recently departed for a new attempt at living.
When it came to Beast, the mystics pursued one of two goals. The first, and ultimate, was to slay him outright. Few succeeded. Saints. Gods.
The second goal, less gallant but nonetheless valid, was to confine him—asleep and unstirring—to the dungeons of their marble hearts.
This dungeon: You enter from fine gardens—a spread of lawns, fountains, rose beds, the lot—across a wide, somewhat pebbly forecourt and up broad and well-worn stone steps to and through an impressive doorway into the first of many high-ceilinged marble halls (Versailles does come to mind) well lit by tall, clear windows: floor cleaned and polished to a shine. On through galleries with walls and walls of heavy drapery, elegantly embroidered with scenes of Napoleon-less battles and other noble deeds. Through these to a clearly marked (“Stay Out Of Here”) vast, internal doorway opening on to more steps, these also broad and wide, and also well-worn, these leading down into not so well lit—some would even say neglected Gormenghast-like—corridors leading farther and farther down ever narrowing steps and ever less lighted passages spilling onto, finally, the bedrock of the heart’s foundation.
And here, upon dark marble, riveted to this dark marble floor, stands a cage. Bars stronger than steel. Guards, several, impressively armed, stand about. Alert.
This, then, in this cage, is where he slumbers, this little kitten of a beast now, behind bars, on his fluffy red pillow, snoring softly (sounds a little like purring, actually). But beware, you fools, kitten Beast is a light sleeper, and down here, this close to him, you tiptoe as gently as you can, if in fact you are fool enough to be down here in the first place.
Were these mystics better off confining Beast to his hearty cage? Many claim so. It let them pursue calmer thoughts, a finer, more detailed embroidery, they say. Others say the struggle was not worth it. Tensions too taut. Nights too torn. Days too long.
Such a light sleeper.
The few, those who slew him outright—those Saints and Gods—are more certain. Life, they report back to us, grows light and serene with him gone, and possessed now of pure and hungerless hearts they are free to admire beauty, they say, free to dwell upon true affection, upon love even, ever without fear of arousal or attack. The very few. Those Saints and Gods.
As for the rest of us. We neither mystics nor Saints nor Gods. If you by some uncanny fortune find him asleep in his cage, here is some very sound advice:
Do not remain. Do not stay down there. Remove yourself. Then stay away. Far away. Walk the gardens. Think calm, happy and grateful thoughts.
If you still, despite this admonition, and for some dull reason of your own, find yourself deep in the earth of your heart, find yourself outside his cage, find yourself regarding the sleeping little thing—it’s curiosity perhaps, or perhaps you’ve glimpsed a face—you must tread very gently, breathe quiet gentle lungfuls. Do not make a sound. For to wake him is a folly bordering on insanity.
To not only wake him, but to then let him out of his cage and then feed him, is nothing short of suicide.
Call me suicidal.
I have always been partial to long, dark hair. There is something in that scented blackness that for me hides an inner beauty, a wisdom even, that I feel compelled to touch, to explore, or at least long to.
Charles Baudelaire knew all about this: “Let me breathe the fragrance of your hair for long, forever,” he said, wrote, hoped. “Let me plunge my whole face in it, like a parched man at the water of a spring. Let me wave it with my hand like a perfumed handkerchief, shaking memories into the air.”
Wonderful words of a man who’s been there, done that, longed for and suffered the beauty of this wonderful, wonderful dark shroud.
But this dark hair must be alive: In waves, in slow spirals, in ripples, curls, motion. Even at rest it should move. The long, ironed variety, although undeniably beautiful, does not move me. Well, it moves me, but not enough and not irrevocably. The slow, black river of oriental hair, for example. Aesthetic, yes, and wonderful too, but austere. Geometric, may be the word I’m looking for. With hair, I don’t yearn for symmetry, I yearn for life.
At the other end of my long, black hair spectrum:
The wild tresses of Jeanne Duval, whose hair was a jet-black jungle thicket and who drove Baudelaire to such heights, and to such despair. Well, that jungle moves me too, but I find it a little too unruly for my taste. Not so for Charles, bless his heart, who drowning in it sang, before going down for the third time: “Let me bite your thick, black tresses forever. When I gnaw your springy and rebellious hair, it seems to me I’m eating memories.”
Poor Charles. Consumed by Beast, he spent a short and glorious lifetime seeking, stalking, describing; insane in the end by the syphilis of it all. You know, once upon a time, and not so very long ago as galaxies go, I was quite convinced that I was he, that I was Charles Baudelaire reincarnated, and now, looking back at a life I have since studied and shared: Well, why the hell not?
But it is not Jeanne Duval’s tresses, but the gentler river of black that moves me today, that infiltrates, that beckons, cascades to softly land on shoulders, on neck, on back, rippling, swaying, alive.
What you do, what you do if you see him purring away on his red pillow, is you tiptoe away from him, very gently. For the last thing (if you, as I said, are fool enough to be down here in the first place) you want to do is wake him.
So what happened?
It wasn’t me. Well, that’s not true, it was me. And not. It was a dream, though undeniably my dream. It was a faint, barely audible wisp of a dream. More like a suggestion of one, but brave enough, nonetheless—or stupid enough—to without hesitation and quite happily slip through the bars of his cage and snuggle up against the soft pelt of the purring demon. Out of ignorance, I suppose.
Yes, I must confess, there was a face involved, and yes, there was some long black softly alive hair involved, too. And from seeing this face, framed thus in softly black, from hearing it talk and from talking back to it, sprung the notion of further understandings (sweet potential sharings), sprung the wish for one more smile, for a soft kiss even. No, nothing beastly at all, this dream; just of words coming and going, of the tender rush of knowing what she means, of knowing she knows what you mean. Of an exchange of the spirit. What can be less beastly, or more innocent? And hardly even a dream this thing, more like yearning, a shadow of, a dreamlet.
Is that who woke him? Was it her nestling up against him that did it? A brush of Dreamlet cheek? Or did I wake him myself, in seeing that face, discerning again the word possibility? Was it my admitting that my perennial wish for understanding (we do carry it, I believe, from birth to grave), so long ignored and smothered under the pall of what my life had become—a life now and then staring back at me from inside the mirror, busy shaving, resigned to simply glide from here on out, to eventually and gently settle on some distant point of ocean, to soundlessly sink—was it my allowing that this wish might after all, for all my graying weather, for all my out of practice, for all my rusty gears, that this wish might after all be plausible, feasible, possible? Was it my fanning that ember? Could well be.
For Dreamlet, once hatched, took one deep lungful of possible and said, simply and with some conviction: “I am.” And that, I believe, was that.
A life of its own. I watched in amazement, in near horror:
That deep breath. Slid up to the cage. Slipped through the bars.
Beast asleep still? Yes. Well, pretty much though not quite. Stirring now. Aware of Dreamlet cheek on his, it seems. Purring still? Why, yes, actually. Cuddly still? Sure, yes, naturally. Innocent and soft, a gray and brown and yellow ball of contentment, shifting awakingly now on his red pillow in response to her touch.
Then she thinks, Dreamlet does, and oh, so clearly, and loudly, loud enough to wake anything—that perhaps, wasn’t it just possible, that maybe we could, that lovely face and I, that we could, not beyond the realm of, was it? And look at him, he’s been harmless now for so long, has been not at all bad for—what, years?—said those large Dreamlet eyes looking back at me, look at him, look at the little thing, so furry and gentle, stirring and yawning, look, ah, come on, just for some air, just for a little while. What do you say?
Call me suicidal.
For I said, thought, heard myself answer: I said, well, sure, I guess, why not? What harm could there be in just a tiny stretch of furry legs, perhaps some warm milk for an empty belly, a whiff of fresh air, but then back to sleep, okay?
Mr. Hyde has nothing on Beast. Stirring, the little darling looked up at Dreamlet: What is that in your hand, what is this you have brought for me, a collar? Then he looked around, at the cage, at the bars, around the marble chamber. Then those two sweet little eyes fell upon mine.
Mr. Hyde has nothing on this guy. Once those sleepy little eyes met mine and in them saw her wonderful face shimmer, saw her softly black hair alive on her shoulders, saw her eyes, her lips, her cheeks, her hands, fingers, heard her voice, once those sleepy little eyes caught all this they widened, pulled back into something much darker and deeper and then screamed their hunger like enraged twin monkeys.
I startled, of course—their scream still echoing—quickly looked away, then, after composing myself a little, I sought his eyes again, surely I must have been mistaken, they had not screamed, had they? But his eyes had left mine by now, watching instead with some interest Dreamlet readying the leash. Then he stretched his little neck out to receive the collar, nice Beast that he is.
Dreamlet tugged the leash gently and he, soft-pawed, followed her out of the cage, across the dark marble floor, up the many steps, up through passageways and corridors and into the galleries and halls, then out through impressive front doors and into fresh summer air, where again he stretched and yawned and then—with one swift slam of suddenly larger jaws—severed the leather leash: Free at last.
We looked at each other, Dreamlet and I, she with half a Beast-less leash in her hand, holding it up for me to see. Would I look at that? Me stunned.
And Beast, he had already reached the nearest fountain, was lapping the water, quenching a thirst. Then, finished, water still dripping from nose and cheeks, he looked back at me with black eyes, found mine, and seeing there her face again, he suddenly rippled throughout with the effort of size as his face and legs and torso convulsed and stretched and grew into true nature, rending his joke of a collar into so much ripped, lawn-bound leather in the process.
Now he approaches with the muscular certainty of a large cat: His shaggy head, the size of a tiger’s now if not larger, slowly moves from side to side while his eyes—shifting now from black to red to something of both: a burning black—again find mine, and hold them, and holding them he enters my heart to now sear her face upon its innermost walls: a vicious trick of his that in effect devours me.
Meanwhile, Dreamlet, the little turncoat, scrambles away from all this and up the broad steps, mumbling something about finding him something to eat.
The effect of this searing:
I close my eyes, I see her face. I slice a cucumber, I see her face. I hear a song, I see her face. I brush my teeth, I see her face. I start my car, I see her face. I feel the wind, I see her face. And it is not only seeing, for the other senses all come along too. It is yearning with the pit of my stomach so hard that I gasp at the sensation. It is feeling the touch of nonexistent fingers upon my arm. It is hearing the timbre of her voice. It is the smell of her hair in every word I write. I am the one leashed and Beast is my master. That is the effect of this searing—that vicious trick of his.
The next few days devour me whole. There is only the seared and searing hunger. I wake in the middle of the night from it. I drop a glass into a thousand shards from it. I cut myself shaving from it. I dream constantly in the throes of it. There can be no other point to life, there is no other point to living: Only her face.
“But,” I protest, whisper, whimper, “she barely knows me.”
He is not so big on arguments, is Beast. No matter how logical, or prudent, or clearly stated. For him there exist only two things, and both occupy me, rule me, leash making sure:
Her face. The hunger for it.
Now the dreaming starts in earnest. No, not dreams like the little Dreamlet traitor that set the whole thing in motion, and who now, by the way, is nowhere to be seen—she never came back with any food; that was just an excuse to put distance between herself and catastrophe, methinks. No, not like that little Dreamlet puff of a wish, knowing itself, in its heart of hearts, to be nigh if not utterly impossible. No, not at all like Dreamlet now safely ensconced somewhere under hearty blankets.
No, these dreams are more like weather systems moving in over land complete with thunder and punishing rain, pelting the Earth of my life with a near-diagonal force, washing over it with madness and conjuring within me a strength I recognize but barely, and with a hope that rises as bright as the sun, and as real as the sun, and with which I paint, with which I color her face, her limbs, her smile as my face, my limbs, my smile, my perfect mate.
And so I bring her to life through this hope, this burning hope—perhaps long lost, perhaps eons old, but mine and hope nonetheless—very much in the here and now. Yes, she springs alive, in my room, near me, complete with emotions and understandings and, yes, of course, she is, for me, and always will be, perfect, world without end. Amen.
And so I dream:
She understands everything I say, everything I mean: Yes, yes, I’ve seen it, too. In Paris a few years ago. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece, I think.
Or: I heard it sing as a little girl, we—my father and I, Mom was off somewhere, seeing her sister I think, helping her with something or other—we had gone fishing, Dad was quite intent on teaching me how to fly fish although I was only twelve, and the water, yes, it sang, softly of course, you needed more than ears to hear it, but, yes, I know that song.
Or: especially the second movement, it gives me chills—to torture a cliché.
Or: and if you drink it too fast, your entire forehead turns to ice, hurts too, have you noticed that?
Or: I’ve never heard anyone say that before. I’ve thought it many times, but I thought I was the only one. Are you sure you can actually say that?
Or: and the smells, the smells.
Or: I knew you were going to say that.
She reads my stories and I’m a genius, she says. Compares me to Peake, to Banville, to Helprin, to Gallant. All of whom she’s read, of course, extensively, and appreciates. She tells me I am an unheralded phenomenon, but not for long, she adds. For she has a few contacts in the publishing industry, wouldn’t you know.
And so I dream:
She always smells good, always fresh and just-out-of-the-shower clean. And although she’s not snobbish or anything, she dresses with style and taste and her clothes are always just back from the laundry or dry cleaners.
Her hands are exquisite. Fingers are long but strong. Piano fingers. But not the piano, she explains. The cello. Do I mind? Do I mind? I’ve been looking for a cellist for years (to help adorn my songs).
Her nails are glossed but not colored. Perfectly shaped. Shorter on her left hand, a fraction, to facilitate fingerboard dancing, she says.
Her breath is like fresh wind. Does not smoke. Vegan. Just like me.
She reads a lot, between cello practice and performances, and has a deep understanding of all those writers I emulate, along with many incisive opinions about their art, and how they achieve their effects. You’re as good as any of them, she says and hugs me. Often.
And so I dream:
She is probably an heiress to some large fortune. This is her secret. She does not want me to know lest I would only love her for her money—she fakes, if not poverty, at least frugality, to prove to me how inheritanceless she is.
And, yes, of course, goes without saying, she loves music. When I first brought up the subject we both, spontaneously I swear, quoted Nietzsche in eerie unison: “Were it not for music, life would be a mistake.”
And yes, of course, the music she loves is the music I love. She is only a few years younger than I so we grew up with the pretty much same bands. My music collection has significance to her, in other words.
And of course Monk, and of course Jarrett, and of course The Beatles, and of course Jonatha Brooks, and of course the Weepies, and of course, and of course, and of course, but not so many of courses that I don’t have things for her to discover and for me to rediscover with her. For it is true (and not just dream-wise) that I enjoy sharing music far more than listening to it by myself.
And so I dream:
The other night, for example, I played her two Steeleye Span tracks, Let her Go Down and White Man, neither of which she had heard before, and she enjoyed them so much (I could tell by her eyes—which nearly held tears—by her smile, by the involuntary rhythms that spread throughout her body and seemed to make her blood dance) that I actually levitated, well just about.
And as for sex, well, I haven’t got to that part yet. No need to. I’m plenty happy with the dreams as they are, no need to complicate them.
But then the room returns. It always does. The carpet, the kitchen, the sounds from the street outside, all so Heatherless.
Heather. Yes, yes, that is her name. The rightful owner of the face. Heather. Not even sure what her last name is, she never told me. Heather. Never thought of it as a beautiful name before, but it is, isn’t it? Heather. Named for the plant, named for the heath on which it grows. Northern England. Moors. Mist. Wuthering Heights. A limber name, a limber word, there are no clumsy sounds in Heather. You can sigh the name. You can whisper it with ease. You can drink and swallow it.
It is sheer, fine, ethereal this name: Heather.
But what I see now is all Heatherless, and that hunger stabs worse than any blade: in my stomach, in my heart, throughout, for none of them, not one of these meaningless things contain her. And none of the things I do bring her about.
Only last week, i.e., pre-Heather, these many things of my life all held meaning, all held purpose. Were all things to look forward to, things to aspire to, to reach, attain; but today, Heatherless all, they mean nothing. And again this cold blade finds the viscera and slashes and twists very hard.
Beast hard at work.
She said she would call me. I gave her my number, and sure, yes, she would call me. We should do lunch or something.
Now, I don’t speak Los Angelese. It is a language different from English and one that I refuse to learn. Where, “Sure, yes, I’ll call” means I may call or I may not call. Where, “We should do lunch or something” means we should do lunch or something or we may never see each other again for as long as we both live or something.
Where I grew up phrases were (and still are) so much simpler, and their meanings plain. I will call means: I will call.
Not so in this town. Los Angelese.
It is late afternoon and still warm for this time of year, or is it? I can’t remember. I try to. Last September, I try to recall, was it this hot then? I’m having a reprieve: I’m thinking about the weather. Haven’t thought of her, of Heather, for oh, what? ten minutes. And there is work to do. I must function, must try to function. Then I think of something she said, something I realize I could help her with (the real Heather, not the dreamed one), and I rejoice in this my chance to do something for her. The blade twists and hurts sweetly now, for I know that as soon as she calls I can tell her how I can help.
But she doesn’t call.
And doesn’t call.
Beast has a shadowy sister. Nowhere near as substantial as Beast, but just as effective. She wears, or is, a veil. Or perhaps she is a mist. She is translucent, fine, able to pass through walls and flesh and hearts, and can suffuse you with gloom in one single sweep, with one single breath.
I think of her as Rejection. That, most likely, is her name. Or it may be What’s Wrong With Me? She’s taken to coming around now, whenever Beast takes a little breather, sharpening his blade, no doubt. And she slides in from who knows where and fills the room, me in it, and drapes her message over everything: pictures, desk, fireplace, books, lungs, heart. And the message is: Who am I kidding?
But, damn it, I protest, I am not that repulsive. To which she answers nothing, but simply and silently points to a phone that has not rung much lately: she has not called. Ergo. And rests her case.
I have to eat. I have to function physically. So, I chop vegetables, mushrooms, garlic. I fry things. Rice. And as I do I drift, dream, and it’s her voice on the phone, it’s her hair to the right of me in the car, the fragrance of it, it’s her listening to the Schumann Second Symphony with me, it’s her laughing with delight at just the right place.
But the phone does not ring and does not ring and Rejection slips back to join me in the kitchen, where she now looks at me with a sort of curious sympathy. I try to ignore her but that’s not easy. I eat and I watch a rented film I’d be hard pressed to recount.
Morning. Eyes open awake again and look out across the bleak plains of the day ahead and see nothing; nothing out there to catch my attention, nothing to stir my spirit, nothing at all out there except, of course, her face. There are no other aspects to my day than it, than the Heather that does not call, and does not call. The non-calling Heather is my day.
How can Beast, I wonder—and not for the first time—how can he effectively rob every Heatherless aspect of my life of all meaning and still be called natural? For that’s one of his names: Natural.
It’s natural to fall in love, they say—and what an amazingly appropriate verb fall turns out to be in this context. Natural to lose your appetite, natural to lose your focus, all other dreams? Natural to see nothing but the lack of her, the vast and Heatherless nothing that now spreads before me and makes up my world. Natural?
How can a novel I was reading with deep and vibrant relish not two weeks ago have simply gone flat and flavorless? It is after all the same novel, by the same author, consisting of the same words. It is still every bit as good. But as I lift it from atop the dictionary where it’s been consigned for the last week or so, and as I open it at my bookmarked page and scan the first line: the first, Heatherless, meaningless, beautyless row of letters, words, commas and periods, I see nothing there. Not in the shadow of her face.
I return the book to its place and look around the room, at the many prints that hang on my walls, souls once poured onto canvas and so given voice. They were alive, each one of them, alive with color and story only two weeks ago; but now, well, yes, there is still the color, I can tell the blue from the black, the gray from the white, but the beauty is gone, and they have all stopped speaking; they no longer contain song. There is nothing there. Not in the shadow of her face.
I live for music. I have lived for music all my life. I look for and find my favorite recording of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. Jarrett’s. I play it, hear the clear voices of many struck strings fill the air, but they are not voices, not melody, nor counterpoint. They are Heatherless noises. Nothings. They are as if nothings in the shadow of her face.
I scan my books, and I find my volume of Anna Akhmatova’s poems. I reach for it, pull it out, hold it. It is heavy. I remember, as if in a different life, how I had been deeply moved by the bravery and beauty of this woman who dared death and dared hunger and dared alienation, all for the love of her people and her country and for the sake of bearing witness to the Stalin-created hell that was soon to follow: her self-assigned mission. I open the volume at random and read:
“I haven’t been here for seven hundred years, But nothing has changed. In the same way the grace of God still pours from unassailable heights,” and I remember reading this so very long ago, in that other, pre-Heather, life so long ago. Written in the last throes of the second world war, the poem had shook me then, rent something immortal inside me and made me bleed. And now, now: now there is nothing. The lines have lost their courage, the poetess her daring. There is nothing here. Not in the shadow of her face.
And they call this natural?
I don’t know where Beast has been for the last little while, for there’s been another short reprieve. Meaning, I first read a little and on some thin, tenuous level enjoyed it; meaning, I then played one of my songs on Sara (I have two guitars: Sara and Swati, both acoustic, both muses, both wives) and for a moment lost myself in it, in the ephemeral pleasure of fingers on strings.
No, I’m not sure where he’s been precisely, recharging perhaps; for now he’s back stronger and more painful than ever. Blade after blade after blade. Holding her face before me, filling the room, the building, the world with it; twisting, blade after blade with it.
I plant my feet on firmish ground to make a stand, to try to fight him, stare him down logically; like the mystics did. It’s just sex, I tell myself. That’s his real name: Sex. Surely. Beast busy compelling the future of the race. Carrot, whip, blade. Anything to procreate. And, damn it, I wish that were true, that there were no other aspect to him, for if that were so, I think I could fight him, and win.
But Beast is not one-faceted, he is not that shallow. Sure, sure, sex is part of his makeup, most likely the largest part: sex lingers in his red eyes, pierces with his glances. Sure, much of the stabbing and twisting is, I don’t know what, glandular? hormonal? deeply physical?—something like that. But that’s only one of his many dimensions, and, come to find out, a shallow one at that. For below that boiling stratum of sex, layers and layers of him sing differently with voices just as strong. Of loves known and lost. Of dreams pursued but never fulfilled. Of understandings (now so within reach, if she’d only call) hoped and prayed for but never attained. Of that very special someone, that soul mate someone you are oh, so certain you left behind somewhere, sometime long, long ago, the one meant for you, your other half, without whom you are, indeed, incomplete, unfulfilled, half empty, half person.
Beast is, if nothing else, an animal of conviction, and he knows beyond any shadow of any doubt (for doubt does not exist on this plane—other planes consist of nothing but) that Heather is this someone, is the everything I’ve lost, is the everyone I’ve dreamed, is my last chance at happiness, and thinks, believes, is in fact wholly certain, that if I lose her early dying will surely set in.
Yes, he’s blindly and absolutely certain of all of this and he finds the pit of my stomach again and nudges it with another stab wound or two, just to make his point.
Were his name simply Sex, I believe I could deal with him.
Conquer. Overcome. Survive.
Speaking of which: Sexually, I was a late bloomer.
When one day I heard—it was late summer and I must have been thirteen at the time, an age where most boys have already begun experimenting not only with themselves, but with girls—when I heard from an experimenting friend that yes, you actually insert your penis into the girl’s vagina, I was nothing short of amazed: why on earth, I asked myself (though not him), why on earth would you want to pee into someone?
Luckily, I did not voice this question or I would probably still be hearing about it. Still, the question remained unanswered for weeks, months. Very curious. Why on earth would you?
A mystery, indeed. My parents were no help; they refused (apparently) to broach the subject, and I wasn’t about to bring it up. So much for father-and-son heart-to-hearts.
A conundrum indeed. Deep and unsolved until that one morning the following June, or was it July, when the itch down below had grown so unbearable that I touched myself a little too enthusiastically, and my world exploded—literally, if messily—and for an intense few heartbeats I knew I had gone completely mad. Utterly and inconceivably and wonderfully mad. So mad, in fact, that I was expecting death at any moment (there was something heavenly about it). Or let me put it this way: death’s arrival would not have come as a surprise. This sensation, this completely out of nowhere phenomenon was as unreal, as unearthly, as heavenly implausible as an alien visitation, and I just knew I was about to be brought back to the mother ship, something like that. Profound to say the least.
Two hours later, when it turned out I had not died from my experience slash visitation, nor been carted off starward, I tried it again, with similar result, and Oh My God, realized that this had come to stay. Should I let the world in on this? I seriously wondered whether people were aware of this. Was this commonly available? If not, the world would certainly need to know. Should I inform it, enlighten it?
Part of me, though, figured—and correctly, of course—that it already knew. Still, wonder of wonders: what a treasure.
It became my favorite hobby, this enthusiastic touching.
I then hit my stride with the opposite sex a few years later, and we had a field day, Beast and I. Sex was great and plentiful and AIDS was still off in the future a ways.
True, I’d do the most idiotic, and sometimes cruel and hurtful things at the leash of my pal, but (so the computation went) it was all worth it, if only for a few hectic moments of enigmatic bliss. See you later, I’ll call.
But his name is also Love.
As for love.
It may sound strange, but I believe I discovered love long before I discovered sex, although that may not be entirely true, chronologically speaking. Still, it would be true to say that I loved long before I slept with anyone, and looking back now, I believe I knew—already then, already before I had consummated that kittenly urge with the blond, lively girl who went by the same name as my sister (which struck me as pleasantly weird at the time)—that they were of two quite different breeds those two: love and sex.
I can still recall, vividly and as if it were just last night, as if it were just a minute ago, lying in my bed late one light summer’s night at fourteen unable to sleep, making out the pattern of my wallpaper—quite visible in the Northern Swedish midnight—and literally humming with love. With love. Yes, everything was calm below, no arousal. It was love. Of no one in particular, I was just filled with loving. Suffused with tenderness, with the wish to stroke hair, to touch cheek, to lightly touch lip with lip, to kiss eyelids and brush strands of hair out of her eyes. Just plainly, deeply, and utterly loving no one in particular. And it felt so familiar. So beautifully familiar. And so much part of me.
Luckily, she did not have a face, or Beast would surely have noticed and stirred. But there was nothing for him to sink his teeth into.
Not so long thereafter:
My first kiss. I sang about it later.
How can you forget a kiss like this? I certainly have not. There are probably a thousand ways in which a kiss, especially a first kiss, can go wrong, and probably only one way in which it can go right, and this first kiss, the one in a thousand, went right. From the closing of the door behind us, from the draping of arms around each other, from the brief touch of glances as if to acknowledge what was about to happen, to the slow approach of faces, to the attraction of mouths, to the gingerly collision and soft landing of lips made to fuse, to the gentle meeting of tongues that, I swear, simply melted into each other. It was a long kiss, minutes, hours, who knows. It was the first, and as yet, I really think so, unsurpassed.
And so, in that moment, a first face had been put to the hunger of my heart. And, by the rules of love, my heart could not, would not let go.
And would not let go. Oh, I can still see her face quite clearly, and of course I remember her name: it was Barbro. A brown-haired, brown-eyed, tall sliver of a girl. I ask old schoolmates about her on rare visits to my old hometown. Twice married, I’m informed, and twice divorced. Available then, whispers Beast from below, but more as a joke, for he doesn’t grow as he says so, no fangs showing, and his whip remains on the floor beside him.
And by the rules of love, my heart could not, would not let go. I awoke the morning following this first kiss to a brand new world, one where (to beat clichés to death, I know, and I’m sorry, but they just happen to be so damn true, no matter how overused) the grass was a little greener and the sky a little bluer, where the coffee tasted a little better and the milk a little sweeter. For I awoke to a world in which she lived, to one where she was the world, to one in which she and I had indeed—yes, we had, hadn’t we?—and so beautifully, kissed.
And then, as now, I found that all other things—all things but her—had, overnight, turned both purpose- and meaningless.
It was spring, and I had promised to help my dad get his boat ready for water that morning. That meant a lot of stripping, scraping, priming, painting; that meant pretty much the whole day.
Yes, I had promised to help him, and he took promises pretty seriously, did my dad. But I’m sorry, this morning I could not care less, and for the first time—I believe, ever—I went back on such a promise and excused myself.
Let me amplify:
My father was not a loving man; a little on the stern side. And for him a promise was a promise, a date was a date, a plan a plan. You, and especially yours truly, did not go back on these promises, change these dates, abandon these plans with impunity. And I knew that going in, I knew what I was in for when I told him, sorry, I could not help him like I’d promised, something’s come up, other plans now, sorry.
But what choice did I have? What else could I possibly have done when Barbro was the air I breathed, the very ground I walked on? So instead of performing my filial duty, I took off on my bike, to find her, leaving my father fuming, quite literally, sailor’s pipe in his mouth, staring after me, too upset with me to scold with any accuracy.
Well, I didn’t find her that day, she wasn’t around any of the usual places. Out of town, perhaps? No one I asked had seen her or was really sure where she might be.
Nor the next day, nor the next, and then—amazingly, in retrospect—Beast, in a fortunate case of off-the-hook-letting, lost interest and nestled down in his cage again, yawned and went to sleep. Off the hook. Dad still mad at me though, for weeks, months. I can count myself lucky that I got to go with him on the boat at all that summer.
Beast. Just about any face can prod him, especially if framed in long, dark hair, and many of those will proceed to stir him, even rouse him into one of his brief momentary surface frenzies, but few faces find his deeper, multi-layered, true hunger. Looking back over my life, I see only five such true hungers:
Barbro, my first amazing kiss, for those few days following when nothing but needing her mattered.
My first real girlfriend, also named Barbro incidentally. Pleasantly plump, long red hair (though not her natural color). She was a bit older than I was and not a little more experienced. She lost me about six months’ worth of sleep.
Marie. She was the beauty of her town (to which I had just moved) and we were engaged to be married (quite a feather in my cap, I came to find out: guys would stop me on the street, strangers, to congratulate me on a job well done), only she had to leave for England: just for the summer, Honey, already planned, can’t go back on the arrangements, and for a June, July and August I knew nothing but missing her, love and jealousy.
Susanne. The red of her hair was natural. Childishly amazing but unapproachably young. There was no way. But Beast would not let go. And would not let go. For years he would not let go. In the end I had to move away to still him.
And now, here is Heather, and Heather makes five. Out of I’ve lost count how many faces. Five true hungers.
And in light of this, I have come to conclude that sex is the lesser of his appetites, the one more easily stilled; auto-stillable even.
His true hunger does not still; because it sees so much more, it needs so much more. The true hunger seeks the completion of the person, the fulfillment of his dreams, the finding his other half, the making him whole, at long last. Whole.
And Beast will not let up.
I muster some logic to prove to him how different we are, Heather and I, how unsuitable for each other—for, thinking back, I know from the two conversations we did have:
She doesn’t like sailing, I say. Gets seasick at the thought of boats. And I want to sail the world. Well, he’s deaf to that.
She doesn’t like the movie Brazil. I love it. He’s deaf to that.
She fell asleep during Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? for heaven’s sake. Asleep. He’s deaf to that.
She is not a writer, I say. In fact, she doesn’t even like to write, finds it too hard. I have always seen my true companion as a writer. Or at least an avid reader, which I am no longer sure she is, that might just have been my dreamed Heather. He’s deaf to that.
No matter how much I might tell myself that we do, we may not even like the same music. In fact, taking a forthright look, I don’t think we do. He’s deaf to that.
And clothes. She’s a dresser, I certainly am not. I make no fashion statements. He’s deaf to that.
Bottom line, I explain to him, or try to: Listen to me, it may just be, it may actually be, that we are about as incompatible as a couple as it is possible to be.
Deaf as a rock. Resolutely unhearing. Sees only dream, does Beast, what he makes her out to be, the understanding completion of self. Cares nothing about the actual, cares not to look and see what is there. Beast cares only about what could be, should be there. What he sees.
And with one brief lash of tail he dissipates what faint logic I have managed to erect, and again I see only what he sees, as he sees, hunger firmly and fully restored. And so I too see a loving face, warmly understanding, tender. And again I feel the blade, entering, twisting, turning, burning, life-threatening. Nothing else matters. For nothing else matters.
It dawns on me—involuntarily, and not in so many words (if any), but nonetheless:
I cannot live without her. In truth, this insight so startles me that for a moment I slip the leash, I’m out of his grasp. I cannot live without her. I find this surfacing notion plainly incredible. But, and I marvel even more at this subsequent certainty, it is true. That is the sentiment, the feeling exactly, of being half, of being incomplete, short fifty percent. And half and incomplete is not much better (if indeed at all) than empty, and nonexistent. And there—I shudder a little with the revelation—you have it. Why so many suicides, why so many hearts bled dry, desperate for love, sick from lack thereof. People do indeed go so far as to kill themselves, don’t they? In an effort to kill Beast, I wonder? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Mostly, I think, they die because they cannot live without. They cannot endure as half a person, incomplete. Sentenced to fifty percent. I know the pain they wish to still. Anything to escape it. It’s a pretty bleak notion.
My momentary escape, this shocked, exterior view of things, saves me. I am still alive.
Beast woke me up again last night. It was two in the morning, or just past; her face, vivid and clear, in the room. There was no going back to sleep, and I made it through the next day on about three hours’ worth.
Heather is not calling, and is not calling, and I don’t have her number. Even if I did, would I call her? I doubt it. This is not a situation where I can press for I’m not what you’d call all that attractive nowadays. Never was, really. Not ugly, exactly, no, but never good looking. No litter of swooners in my wake. But I’ve never repelled anyone either. Not until—and this is sister Rejection’s big contribution to this little drama: until now? Is that why she does not call? Am I that repelling? Have I a body odor I cannot myself detect? Is my breath unbearable for anyone within a three–foot radius? Is my face revolting? Are my ears those of a dwarfish troll, hairy and long? Is my body that of a middle-aged degenerate? Rejection keeps nodding, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, that’s it, that just about sums it up, but I don’t believe her, if for no other reason than that nothing—or nobody—could possibly be that bad.
So, what then?
I don’t know, but whatever the reason:
She does not call, and I know I cannot force this issue; I cannot cling, claw, impose. I must wait. Wait in this damn vacuum where someone who I recognize as not me, as different from me, runs the show.
Something hard to describe happens to time when you wait for days for an unringing telephone to ring. Every minute not rung is an hour not rung. It is the perfect opposite of life flashing by at the moment of death. This is slow to the point of seeing the electrons lazily gliding around their nuclei. Minute, minute, minute. And finally an hour. Increasing, logically, the likelihood of a call during this coming hour. Minute, minute, minute, and finally that ringless hour is gone too, increasing, logically, the likelihood of a call during this coming hour. Well, try that for a week. Plus. And nerves start to fray. Patience scatters. A wreck in progress.
And still no call.
I’ve slipped the leash. I find myself away from Beast.
I don’t know how it happened, or how I managed. Perhaps the third, or fourth, or fifth night of disrupted sleep in a row had primed me through sheer exhaustion, or perhaps some deeply buried self-preservative impulse finally gathered enough strength to stand up and push back.
I don’t know, but when on the eighth, ninth, tenth, or whichever day of this lovelorn hell I found myself lost in, staggering about the misty nowhere of unyielding milky air hiding bleak infinity in every direction, I did discover that I could fill my lungs with the stuff and let it out again at the top of my voice: Enough!
The shout bought me some distance. A few yards, perhaps ten. For the first time since, since it started I guess, I can see Beast for what he is: very much other than me. I’m no longer convulsing in his belly, blind to all but his hunger. I’m outside, clearly. For there he is, black against the forever nowhere, over there. Crouched, shaggy, gray, the size of, oh, a tiger still. Red eyes. Close to the ground. Hugging it. He’s being seen again, and he is not too happy about it. He much prefers the devoured to stay devoured.
His irritated tail lashes again, but it is his tail now, not mine. I am whole again. And I know what I must do. It’s an either/or:
Either I slay Beast or Beast slays me.
How did the mystics do it?
Beast is nothing if not perceptive and he reads my intentions well. His red eyes are like antennae, receptive to my thoughts. He sees what I mean to do and grasping my intent he grows. A larger tiger now, still crouched, tail lashing, hackles stiffening, and growing still, eyeing me across a still unsafe distance, eyes smoldering. That I should dare, even think.
Setting out, disturbing gravel, one step, then another, approaching slowly now, as I turn and make a run for it. Through the panicking milk I flee and up the stairs and into my heart. Through the marble halls I flee and through the galleries. A flat-out run. I hear him gather speed somewhere behind me, still outside, like an old steam locomotive, slowly at first, spraying pebbles and dirt, then faster, then faster, then faster, then unstoppably fast. I know I can’t outrun him, he’s capable of ten times my speed. Fact. But perhaps outmaneuver?
So I dive in under one of my favorite draperies (depicting an old battle that could have been but is not Waterloo, lots of gold and blue and oxblood thread), up and onto my feet again on the other side of it and into a small anteroom. I look down a narrow hallway, doors to both sides. I scramble for the first one on my right, reach it, open it, and slip through, pulling it shut behind me with a soft click. Someone’s keeping these hinges, these locks, well oiled, I notice.
Though I can’t tell for sure in this as-good-as-black, I feel I’m in something not much larger than a closet. I am behind a well-closed door, however, and I’m very glad to be out of sight. And here I stop thinking. I dare not think, for Beast, tiger, locomotive, hunting me now, can see my thoughts, this I know. So I don’t think. I don’t breathe. I don’t, period.
I hear the commotion of the large animal turning abruptly, of drapery ripping, falling to the floor. I hear muscular legs with clawed feet entering the narrow hallway. He must have shrunk some to fit.
I hear the still-plenty-big-enough of him though pant from the recent acceleration, and I can picture his tongue, long and black like some mammoth dog’s. Eyes darting this way and that, wondering perhaps behind which door am I hiding, and I wonder—thoughtlessly, I hope—whether clawed paws are any good at turning door knobs (perhaps a futile wonder since they for sure know how to break one down, to shred one, should it come to that).
The claws in question now approach my door, one step at a time; probably scarring the marble. I can hear the scratching, can imagine the grooves. Closer. And I breathe no more. Am no more. He cannot smell me, I realize, or this door would be torn off its hinges by now. He stands immediately outside. I can feel his eyes on the wooden door. I can hear his breathing. I can sense the rumbling of his thoughts, and then, with the next scratchy step, he moves on to the next door, and to the next, crouching his way down the hall, head turning this way and that, sniffing, listening, seeing, wondering.
I don’t breathe for so long that I make a little sound finally filling my lungs again. But he’s no longer in the corridor, no longer within earshot, so the door does not implode from his weight. I take a second breath, and a third.
I must slay him. This is clear to me now. I don’t have a choice. Feeling lucid again for the first time in I don’t know how long it’s been—time has been more like a quality than a quantity lately—I cannot see myself swallowed again. His belly is sweet, and warm, and it does hum, but aside from that, it is very confining, and I realize how much I prefer this clear, humless air.
After many more silent and listening breaths (no sounds of Beast) I find the handle and gently open the door: I venture out into the Beastless hallway.
How did the mystics do it?
It’s a good question; and one not very answered.
I find books. Seems they didn’t really cover that point, or if they did nobody seems to know exactly where or in what language. There is plenty written about him, there is a lot of speculation about him, but nothing about the act of actually slaying, specifically: evaporating him, causing his death. Nothing. Those who apparently succeeded appear uncommunicative: hermits, saints, far away mountain dwellers, gods: none of them given to narrative.
And so the question remains. I look elsewhere. I find other books. There are many, and they read mostly like obituaries of men who have tried. Sad men, drowned men, by love. Baudelaire. Dante. Coleridge. Stendhal. Lord Byron. Henry Miller, Oscar Wilde. All knew him. Gave him various names. Wrestled him. Occasionally gained a brief upper hand. But none tamed him. Much less slew him. No help there either.
Other books. Flaubert. The boy who never turned man, except by letters, and so left Beast asleep, sedating him, as needed, by boredom. For Beast needs a face, a real face, a real someone to latch on to, and Flaubert, by instinct or luck, forwent that face.
Isherwood. I read him with interest. He did find a way to insert distance, but often as not it was soon bridged again, and he was again swallowed. Others. Speculators some, reporters others. Each seeing, knowing, riding, fleeing, his own Beast. And none tamed him, much less slew him.
And so I came upon Yeats. No, he did not slay Beast—and he is the first to admit it—but here I found a man who had carved out for himself a more than fleeting distance, and who had if not tamed him at least come to some sort of a workable arrangement—and this is what Yeats said to do:
You approach him, he said, not with animosity but with curiosity, not with fear but with wonder. You view him, not with revulsion but with astonishment. That such a thing can be. You marvel. You admire.
But always, he adds—and he stresses this point, and more than once—from a little ways off. Beast may promise you anything, and he will, to get you within reach, to inch you a little closer to the cage. Just one more step, please, the better to hear you. Just one more step, please, the better to see you. Just one more step, please, the better to. Don’t you believe a word of it. For once you’re within his grasp, he has no option but to seize and devour. He does not have the power not to. It is what he is made of. It is what he lives for. It is who he is.
So far so good. We’re still on the same page, Yeats and I.
“But,” I told him, “I don’t want to marvel at him, or admire him, I want to slay him.” Then I went on to explain that I was all astonished out at the moment, and did he not by chance know how to cease him?
“He is a fine animal,” he replied. “A fine animal. He is very ancient, you know. He is made not only of physical needs, but from spiritual needs as well.”
“I have noticed that,” I answered. “But what I want to know is, how do you slay him?”
Would not listen. I might as well not have spoken. Instead, he went on explaining: “Beast is part love, part lust; and in his rage—you’ve seen it, the crouching, clawing, red-eyed rage—he is, and you may find this hard to believe, he is more love than lust.”
I had seen that, yes, but, “How to slay him,” I said, “that’s the thing I’m after.”
“I made for him a bed of rhyme. True enough to soothe him, false enough to save him.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
To which he repeated, “True enough to soothe him, false enough to save him.”
“To keep him alive,” he explained.
“Keep him alive?” I didn’t get it. “I don’t want to keep him alive.”
“Yes, keep him alive,” he answered. “It won’t do to kill a fine animal like that.”
“But I do not want him alive,” I almost whimpered by now. “I want him dead.”
He looked at me long and hard, assessing: “Are you absolutely sure about that,” he said, finally getting around to my original question. “Do you really want to rid yourself of a force as pure, as ancient as Beast?”
“I don’t know about pure, and I don’t care about ancient,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Yeats really wanted to know.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am sure, ” remembering my un-ringing Heather-less telephone.
“Fair enough. Then I will tell you,” said Yeats. “The way to slay him, vanish him might be the better verb, is to capture him, not physically—for that cannot be done—but as poem.”
“And this means what, precisely?”
“It means that you must stand up to him and look. Really look. It means that you must see him, as he is, through and through.”
“And that means?”
“It means that you must cast the light of your imagination upon his every hair, his every tooth, upon his every lash of tail, every flash of eye. You must see what is really there, what he really consists of. Then you must wrestle this vision into honest verse. When the poem you have written is him, truly him, when Beast can see himself in your words, like you can see yourself in a mirror, he will, like an epiphany, burst into beautiful nothing.”
“Did you?” I wondered.
“No,” he said. “No. I hadn’t the heart to.”
“So, well. If you hadn’t the heart to, how do you know? What I mean is…”
Yeats fixed me with a stare every bit as palpable as Beast’s. Knew exactly what I meant. A much offended poet.
“I know,” he said, and I knew better than to question him again.
“Will you help me?” I asked.
“To slay him?” he said. “Or to still him?”
“To slay him,” I said.
“And you are sure?”
“It’s your Beast,” he said.
“Yes, it is.” Then, to confirm, “So, you’ll help?”
“Yes,” he replied.
And so it was that the poet Yeats and I went Beast hunting.
“He went thataway,” I said, pointing down the clawed marble floor (yes, his claws had in fact scarred the marble).
“I can tell,” said the poet.
We tracked his progress to the far end of the narrow hall, then via a sharp left up a short flight of stairs, through a heavy oak door—open still, partly torn off its hinges by my irritated pursuer; his claws had left long grooves in the old wood—and back out into one of the many large halls leading to the entrance. Once here, he had grown again for the marble scars were deeper here and farther apart.
Anxious now, fearing he has lost me, running. Locomotive again. Marble dust by the grooves of his leaps. Muscles exploding in pursuit. Straight for the entrance and back out into the sunshine. Here the furrows grew deeper still, and forming anxious hieroglyphs, spinning around, where has he gone to? Down the front steps and into the garden. No sign of me there.
Out onto the lawns, small craters and scattered tufts of wounded grass. No me there either.
He returned. Back up the broad steps, sniffing, listening. Still no me, apparently. Back into the galleries, heading again for my innermost heart: he must be in here somewhere. Down a different hall, a little smaller now by his tracks, hesitant, a little unsure. And down, down, down, for the very core of my heart.
Yeats, a step or two ahead of me down the narrowing stairs, rounded the final corner first, spotted the critter and nudged me with his elbow as I caught up with him. Right in the ribs, it hurt. Hush, he said, and pointed.
The size of a lynx now, a little larger perhaps, but not much. Borderline cuddly, to be honest. Still looking around this way and that as if I had just been there and he had somehow misplaced me. Had me here just a minute ago. Now where did I put him?
Then he heard, or smelled, or by some other sense perceived us, and stiffened, turned his head and caught sight of me. Yellow eyes turned red, and I could see he was about to assume dimension again, when his eyes fell on Yeats. Then back to me. Then back to Yeats. It was not a look of recognition, it was more a look of apprehension. Yes, I realized, he was afraid of Yeats. Or had respect for. Yeats knew about him, and Yeats was not his friend necessarily.
Then—and it was as if of a sudden our presence were the furthest thing from his mind—he calmly lifted his left paw and began licking it, transforming in one surprising movement from threatening Beast into relaxed cat. But he didn’t fool me. He struck me more like a bird preening himself in the face of death. If I’m going to be eaten, seems the bird to say, I’ll at least look my best going down. Well, perhaps it was not quite as marked, but the paw licking was an odd and out of place reflex. Not in keeping with the hunter. More in keeping with the hunted.
He finished the left paw, replaced it claw- and soundlessly on the marble floor, and set out again, licking, preening, his right. Looked up at me midpaw, from under thick lids. The look was one of disdain. How unfair, it said, what a poor show, enlisting help. And from him.
Well, sure, I looked back at him, I want to live.
Even so, you’re not playing fair.
Well, neither was he.
One on one is fair, the glance.
Not one of you against one of me, it isn’t, my glance.
Tongue and paw ignored that.
“Now what?” I asked Yeats.
“Now you watch,” he answered.
“He’s preening his paws,” I observed.
“You watch, like I told you, until you see him through and through, until you have cast the light of your imagination upon every hair, upon every tooth, upon every flash of his eyes, every lash of his tail, and have wrestled him into verse. When he can see himself in your poem, like you can see yourself in a mirror, he will, like an epiphany, burst into beautiful nothing.”
“But, this,” I said, looking at the cat, “is not Beast as I know him.”
“Oh, but it is,” said Yeats, and made to leave. A move not lost on relaxed cat who stopped preening and perked up markedly in an instant, interested.
“Where are you going?” I asked, not politely.
“I’m leaving you to it,” he said.
“But,” I just about stammered, “he will, surely.”
“Not if you do what I told you,” he said, and then he was gone in fact. Vanished.
Relaxed cat and I looked at each other long and searchingly. Inspected.
The strange tendency of his dimensions:
If my gaze flagged or wandered, even in the slightest, they grew. On resuming vigilance, they retreated again. It was as if he could not grow if closely observed. Once that was clear to me, and that took a while, I lost my fear of being consumed.
As I looked, I thought about what Yeats had told me. To see him through and through. That would mean observing, really observing. To cast the light of my imagination upon his every tooth, he’d said. Upon every hair, upon every lash of his tail (quite still now, by the way), every flash of his eyes, and wrestle it into verse. That would mean seeing Beast in depth and detail, seeing everything about him, and understanding it. Understanding him.
Then into poetry.
Those were my marching orders. That would—what was the word?—vanish him.
Part of me believed the poet, part of me marveled at the part that did.
Slowly, without taking my eyes off of him, I sat down on the third marble step. He was already sitting on his haunches, not taking his eyes off of me one bit either. No normal cat this, they’re supposed to avert their eyes after a while, cats are, but not this one. Straight back at you, as if fearing I might grow.
To describe him now:
A large lynx. Best shorthand I can think of. Down to the tufted ears and broad paws. Not friendly though, more like a mother with a fresh litter nearby. Alert. Ready for anything, especially you. But he stayed put. As long as I looked, really looked, he neither grew nor approached. Just right back at me, looked, for chinks in my armor, I had the feeling.
So he’s a lynx. Through and through? Not so sure about that. And what kind of a poem would that make: “He’s a lynx.” Surely not one good enough to vanish anything. And, to be honest, I could not see him through and through, just long brownish grayish fur, spotted here and there. Long whiskers, and a broad, resentful nose. Lighted yellow eyes, no red in them at the moment. Glistening, and very alert. That wouldn’t make much of a poem, either.
He shifted slightly, as if reallocating some of his weight from one now-a-little-tired front leg to the other more rested one, and then the light.
What light? I wondered. Where had it come from? Though not so hard that I flagged in my vigilance.
The light was mine. It was the light of my imagination playing upon his fur, upon every strand of it, curiously. Whereupon it began to ripple, as if a barely breezed surface of a still lake, as if there were depth beneath, as if he were part ocean, and damned if I wasn’t back in my own room just before that wonderful first kiss, when the door had just shut behind us.
It’s late, well, by the clock, not by the day—which does not know “late” this far north. The sun is still up and I see the slantingly lit fields stretch away from my window off into the eastern distance while Barbro stands very still in the middle of the floor. Looking at me, saying nothing. Like a patient, two-legged, lynx.
The room is bigger now than then, holding more.
I can hear through the closed door—and I’m sure she can too, my two-legged lynx—I can hear music. It comes from the living room and travels through this closed door. Is it the Beatles? The Searchers? No, it’s the Hollies. And yes, of course, we’re having a party of sorts. Not a very big one. Ten, maybe twelve people all told, lynx and me included. Friends and their friends. Mostly sitting around not ignoring each other, listening, not much dancing. We are the first pair to attract, form and disappear. We are most likely being commented upon right now, snickeringly (elbows into ribs) by the boys, wonderingly by the girls.
Now, here’s a curious thing:
I’m not thinking this as it happened, I’m thinking this it re-happens, for I am there now, in my room; Barbro, thin but as tall as I am, is looking at me with lynx eyes, a little amused, a little demure, brilliant.
I’m sure there are many a clever thing that can be said at a moment like this; none of them should be said, but I’m sure could be said, and I’m positive have been said. But I, lucky for me, can’t unearth a single one of them, and I soon give up looking. That leaves only the impulse and it is pure and mutual. And encompassing: we simply glide into arms, and lips softly collide. And the fit is perfect. A soft mesh of mouths and the honey of tongues. I vanish.
He scares me half to death. A cold nose sniffing mine. I open my blue eyes right into his yellow, an inch away and with matching span. He’s bigger, but not by much. I’m about to let out a little yelp, when he sneezes and steps back and down two steps, eyes still on mine. Curiously. And a glint of Barbro within, lingering: an echo. The still evening, the sun playing on treetops and barn roofs in the distance, and lit sky. I still taste her. Ours were not two separate tongues. Once they met, they fused by love.
Somebody speaks. It is me. No, it is him. No, it is me.
Gingerly the lips collide
the honey of the tongue
I said that. And then I said this:
melts to form a glow
a rush, a river
She smiles at that, Barbro does. “Not bad,” she says. “Not bad at all.”
“What? Which? The kiss? The lines?”
“Both,” she says. “We should have married, you know. I would have liked being married to a poet.”
“But you vanished,” I say, “I looked for you. Everywhere. I couldn’t find you.”
“I know,” she says. “I had to go somewhere.”
“With your parents?” The only explanation.
“I looked for you, all day.”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“And the next.”
“But you didn’t call. You could have called.”
“I know. Stupid of me,” I said.
“Why?” she wants to know.
“Didn’t I call?”
And I have no answer for that.
And then I have an answer for that. “I was afraid,” I said.
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid that perhaps it hadn’t happened. That it wasn’t true, after all. That perfect kiss.”
She didn’t answer.
“It was as if it were too perfect,” I said. “Almost. I was afraid that calling, you know, talking on the phone rather than in person, would ruin it. Weird, I know.”
“Maybe it was for the best,” she says after a short silence. “To let us keep this perfect kiss, untainted. Our entire lives. Maybe that’s why you didn’t call.”
And, damned if she wasn’t right.
“So, how come you’re back?” she wants to know.
“It’s this cat,” I explain. “Lynx really. Looks a bit like you.”
She just laughs at that, and sneezes again, startling her whiskers into echo.
Beast shifted again, and the light fell differently, and with more depth. All lynx again. All eyes. Very nice light, though.
Did you see that? No one to ask. I wished Yeats were still there.
Through and through is what he had said.
Beast had grown near tiger-sized before I caught my attention drifting. Ears still tufted though, eyes still yellow (which was a good sign, I was plenty aware of that by now), nose still broad. Still as cold? I wondered driftingly, and I could feel his size shift again, if only a fraction.
But he kept his distance, two steps down and a few feet beyond that. Back on his haunches. Waiting for me to drift again, no doubt.
His fur was actually beautiful. Now that he had grown, I could almost make out, no I could make out, individual strands, long and shiny. Often licked, I decided. Well preened. A shimmering pelt of a spotted, ear-tufted tiger.
He shifted again, and the light played differently and into still deeper depth. But not back into my old summer night’s room, not into anything quite as specific as that, though the feeling was specific enough. But into:
Love’s forever rising tide
now innocent and young
surging in a slowly mounting
Not bad, said Tiger, or Barbro, or whoever did the listening.
Surging in a slowly mounting quiver, I repeated to myself, and I could feel the flooding. The rising tide. One of the dimensions of love. And yes, that was true, through and through.
Tiger nodded his approval, which made me relax a little, and he grew by exactly that much. I’m all vigilance again.
Those lines, I said, or thought, are true. They’re true.
I didn’t say they weren’t, said either Barbro or Tiger.
I am living his fur again, from a distance. There is the distinct shimmering of surface all about him now, any part of him has depth, is falling-through-able. I have to watch it here.
There are other loves, I said, or thought. Do they all belong here? Are they all yours?
There is the love I actually feel for Baudelaire, I said. For his bravery, his genius, and for his suffering.
Immortal images in truthful grace
leave his battered shell
forever stunning those he has to face
in his daytime hell
But there was no reflection of such love in his glimmering pelt. He was no lover of poets. He was the kissing, touching, dreaming kind.
More love than sex, though, Yeats had said. And yes, I could see that. That first kiss, sex didn’t even enter the picture, nowhere around. True love then. All lynx.
Then he shifted so my light found his chest, dark with depth. I could see the beginning of a path in it, and I knew it led to his heart. As I looked, his eyes darkened toward the promise of red, and I sat up and took sharper notice. I was slipping, and he was not getting any smaller. Still, I could sense his heart, roaming those depths, churning the waters, frightening the fish. I could feel it, for mine responded in kind, and then I had to look very hard and very straight at him to keep him put. His tail, longer now, was not still and Heather sat down on the step beside me.
She was all Heather, or part Heather part lynx part tiger. Hard to tell.
“You haven’t called,” I said. A little peevishly.
“Sorry,” she said. “Lot on my mind. Lots to do. Never the right time.”
A matter of priorities, thought I.
“I know,” she said, “but I don’t have as much time on my hands as you do.”
“You mean,” I ask, turning to face her, “that you plan to call me when the time is right?” And I find myself meaning that question, precisely.
“Yes,” she replies without hesitation, and with similar precision.
Tiger is watching this exchange with eyes that only hold memory of yellow and I should be afraid, but Heather puts her beautiful hand on my forearm. The touch is electric, but dry and cool. She means to tell me something, but Tiger has all my attention now, crouching, and with eyes turning flame. It takes all the looking I can muster to still the rippling in his hind legs.
His eyes lighten a shade.
“Heather,” I say, while my eyes rest firmly on Tiger’s.
“It’s all I can do to keep myself from falling apart. I see your face in a thousand different places.”
She thinks about that for a little while, then says, “That’s beautiful. It sounds like a poem, almost.”
Yes, I think.
“I didn’t want any flowers,” she says, “I only wanted to lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.”
That gets my attention, and I turn to her again, knowing full well the danger I run by taking my eyes off of Tiger. “Tulips.”
“Yes,” she says. “Tulips.”
I look back at Tiger, who has not moved, nor does he ripple. Tail kind of waiting to see what happens next before deciding on a course of action.
Then I look back at Heather, more Barbro now than Heather, more dream than presence, more memory than apparition. “I don’t know what it is,” I begin. “I don’t know whether it’s my imagination, or whether there are roots deep, deep down that draw on truth, but I feel I’ve known you for a long time.”
She doesn’t answer.
“A long, long time,” I add for emphasis.
“How long?” she wonders, looking at me looking at Tiger rising.
“Oh, eons.” Then, “Though I know it was long ago, this dream refuses to part.”
“Same poem?” she asks.
“I’m not sure.”
Tiger sits back down on his haunches, he and tail waiting for the next stanza.
“What’s next?” she asks.
“And I still look for the faintest trace to blaze the way and to lead me back to the long lost light of my heart,” I say.
“It is a poem,” she shrills, or giggles, delightedly.
“Apart, part, heart,” she says.
“Apart, part, heart?”
And my deep, deep roots touch on more than just truth, they touch on her, and as they do, something shimmers in Tiger’s pelt, or beneath Tiger’s pelt, as the light shifts again.
“In my sky you laugh and twinkle bright in every star. Yet so far. Yet so far.”
Her grip on my arm both softens and hardens, if that makes sense. She says nothing, so I repeat the opening of Tiger’s poem:
It’s all I can do
to keep myself
from falling apart
I see your face
in a thousand different places
Though I know it was
this dream refuses to part
And I still look
for the faintest trace
to blaze the way and to
lead me back to the
long lost light of my heart
She asks, “Does it have a melody?”
“No,” I say. “No. Only words.”
“It should have a melody,” she suggests. “It’s a lyric, don’t you think?”
Yes, I think. I think it’s a lyric.
Then, as if just noticing him, she wants to know, “What’s with the tiger?”
“His name is Hunger,” I say.
“So, he does have a name?”
“Yes, that’s it.” Then I say,
In my sky you laugh
and twinkle bright
in every star
yet so far
yet so far
The light shifts again, and I see myself in the stream of his hair. It’s a still night, far, far north. It is late. There is a full moon. The lake is frozen solid, and covered with snow which is blown clear in places revealing black patches of clear ice, windows on the dark water below.
The stars are, well, you can touch them with your eyes. There is a rustle in the air though there is no wind, as if the Northern Lights were clearing its throat, making ready. But none of them yet, just the stars and the still lake and not a person, other than me, for miles around.
I look up into this starry ocean, and I say,
It’s a one way
a little strange I know
and in a voice
unsuitable to hoisting
We didn’t mean to
but when we had to let go
it didn’t leave
a choice for me
but trace the light of a
wind you sighed in a
sky you knew I would know
I am speaking to her, Heather, though no longer Heather, and she is there, somewhere among the glitter above me. I know that now, for a fact. For one of those facts you’ll consider yourself crazy for having believed come daylight, but this is not daylight, this is night light, and I know that this certainty will survive the sun. And I am singing to her, begging her to still see me, to still hear me, to still remember me, as you have seen and heard and remembered me for so long, though I cannot remember your true name.
In my thoughts you see
and soothe me
sensitive and true
Tiger sits very still now, holding my lake and the snow in the depth of his pelt. Nameless Heather has not let go of my arm, but is looking down, perhaps at the marble step, perhaps down from the stars at a frozen lake, me pleading by its snowy shore.
I turn to her and I whisper,
Down my darkened aeon
I have loved
none other than you
It’s been your eyes
that have shown me all my guises
that’s why I keep
on trying all
these words to help let me through
and as they rise
I imagine they will
find their wings and will
find your wind and will
find a harboring view
She leans her head against my shoulder and reaches for my hand. Her deep, black hair falls down my arm and scatters the stars. She makes no sound, but I know she cries, or at least sheds tears—I can feel the warmth of the one reaching the skin of my shoulder.
In my dream you care
and comfort me
and what I knew
to be true
to be true
In my sky you laugh
and twinkle bright
in every star
yet so far
yet so far
Which is when Tiger evaporates epiphanously.
The nature of my longing has found the true nature of its longing and needs hunger no more, says Tiger in a ripple then shimmer then light then nothing but happy air.
“Did you see that?” I ask softly.
“Yes,” she says.
As we evaporate too, into song.