A monk's tale – a prose poem
I live on an island at the end of a nearly mile long sandbar. Some people say it is not a "real island" but it is to me. When waves and time cover this stretch of sand, I am living on an island.
I am a monk and tend to prayers, a garden and a cat named YES. The wind carries my calling her far out to sea "Come Yes, come Yes, Come Now Yes" and she comes from her perch in the tallest pine tree. Sometimes she catches mice and in the shallow pools that gather between the rocks, minnows.
When I pull weeds from the garden I am praying. When I feed "Yes" I am praying. When I tend to the little stove in my hut I am praying. When it is summer and I grow carrots, potatoes and beans, and cook them, or roast corn, I am praying.
Praying isn't as difficult as many people think. Some prayers have special words to learn in different languages. I know some word prayers but mine are prayers of attention. I am all in the tending I am doing – weeding, gathering firewood, washing my cup, my dish, my fork, spoon and knife, my pot, my robe, my face, my hands, my body. I am paying attention to what I am doing.
When I drift away from attention I might be thinking, dreaming, or worrying. When I pay attention there is nothing else, only what is before me. Attention is gratitude. Work can be prayer. Everything can be prayer. I still say word prayers. There is a place for words, though silence carries intention clearer at times, but not always.
There are days I wait for tide and time to uncover the sandbar and then I walk a few miles into the small village. There I sweep the store, dance in the schoolyard with burbling children, sit quietly beside an old man and a weeping young woman. I am tending to the villagers. I am praying them and they are gracing me.
Later, watching tide and time, I step quickly and arrive at the sandbar before my island is unreachable. I see "Yes" far in the distance, waiting for my return.
I had a friend once named Lonesome Man who lived on the edge of things. It was where he was comfortable. From the edge he could see into the middle of things, the life of things, and, at the same time, have emptiness at his back. He sat at the end of the table, never in the middle, the aisle seat at the movies or the theatre, the seat nearest to the door of the subway, bus, train or plane. It gave him pleasure to walk with enough space behind him – to be at a distance from nearly everything. He could see better there he told me; things were clearer at the edge and quieter. As much as he needed space, he needed quiet, too. He lived on the edge of love, the edge of happiness, the edge of safety and the edge of sadness.
One day I opened the door and Lonesome Man was slouching against the doorframe. He was back again. He was a drifter, a man who filtered through life, who smudged some days with his quiet, other days he carved each hour separate from the next. He was still handsome. I've always been a sucker for his driftwood grey eyes, his high cheekbones and that cleft in his chin. His hair had a wild look about it. He'd taken to letting it grow and it was more white now than salt and pepper. A 2-day growth of stubble nearly hid the cleft. He wore a brown corduroy jacket, a blue denim work shirt, corduroy pants and hiking boots. I saw the snow falling just behind him. In his gloved hand, with the finger tips cut off, he held out a bottle of wine. "I remembered," he said, with a smile full of good memories. I must have had a quizzical look on my face as he continued, "I remembered today is your birthday."
I shook myself as though I'd been dreaming or lost in some thought. I'd forgotten it was my birthday. How is that possible? Well, I live alone and stay somewhat isolated from people who might remind me. Lonesome gave me a look with those eyes that made me surrender to this gesture of remembrance.
"May I come in?" he asked in a tone of voice almost too polite for old lovers. He was still standing; bottle in hand, snow falling on his shoulders, waiting for some kind of response from me.
"Oh, of course. Come on in. You caught me by surprise "I said as I took the wine from him. "Thank you." I looked at the label. It was a Pommard one of my favorites. Lonesome just smiled. I reached over and brushed the snow from his shoulders, and motioned for him to sit by the fire. He hung his jacket over the back of my desk chair, leaving his red scarf on. His eyes were piercing and more like a wolf or a malamute with the fire reflecting in them. I had two wing chairs one on either side of the fireplace and he chose one and I sat in the other across. I picked up a corkscrew which was always there on my desk and extended the bottle for him to open. He still hadn't anything since "May I come in."
"How are you? It's good to see you," I said as he filled our glasses and smiling we raised them, clicked gently, and made a wordless toast. "Were you just passing by?" I asked with a smile. It was unlikely since I lived on a dirt road off of a dirt road. He responded with a silent laugh I could see in his eyes and spreading across his face.
Years ago he had taken a vow of silence. He did this he said because he wanted to listen better to what the world was saying. I remember him telling me about the black Beat poet, Bob Kaufman, who took a vow of silence for the seven years during the Viet Nam War. Lonesome was here, drinking wine, smiling, listening and waiting for something that I didn't think I could or would give him again. Tears fell from my eyes, released. I had chosen to live alone as he had chosen not to talk. We would finish our wine, it was my birthday, and he would leave and I would remember and then I'd continue to watch the snowfall and the fire blaze.
The Paper Fan and the Red Silk Scarf
She met him one day when there was still innocence in the morning markets of Les Halles in Paris and mystery in the stars. It was at a bookstore, one late afternoon in June. She was a cellist and was standing in the music section looking at a biography of Pablo Casals. It was humid and perspiration was collecting at her neck - black jet hair was in a chignon and she wore a traditional Chinese teal blue silk dress. She was fanning herself with a paper fan her mother had sent her from home. There were two pheasants, one blue and one orange painted on the fan. There was also a poem written in Chinese that translated:
beside the bamboo trees
two birds drink the moonlight
falling in love
Standing next to her was a gentleman in a black turtleneck, black trousers and a red silk scarf. He was rustling through some sheet music. He was quite tall, broad shouldered and his hair was in a black afro. They were edging towards each other slowly - without being aware of it, edging with a kind of honesty that only their bodies know and there was about her the scent of gardenia. In her handbag was a bar of soap elegantly wrapped, embossed with a delicate lace pattern. It was a gift from the first violinist this morning after rehearsal. She was surprised - astonished even. She blushed when he gave it to her - saying that the scent was delicate and strong like her playing the cello. There was never anything tentative about her playing and nothing tentative about her beauty.
The black man with the red silk scarf regarded her fanning. A strong scent of sandalwood permeated from him. Gardenia and sandalwood - together an aura of lust or something like lust, perhaps something more like desire and desire isn't lust at all…desire has a depth beyond the wanting of skin....desire wants touch, wants deeper, wants longer than a moment.
As the man was studying the sheet music, one of Chopin's Etudes slipped from his hands, floating to the floor, floating past her thigh, down the length of her blue silk sheath, his eyes seeing the paper floating past the hem of her dress, down past the line of her calves and slim ankles, landing near the heel of her elegant black shoes. Bending over to pick up the sheet of music, his red silk scarf snagged the corner of her fan.
"Forgive me mademoiselle. I am so clumsy," he said in a husky voice excited by the closeness of his eyes to her breast where the fan had stopped moving the scent of gardenia. She looked down at this rich head of hair, brushing against her arm as he tried to detach his scarf from her fan. The scent of sandalwood and gardenia, his red silk scarf, caught on her paper fan, her silk dress, his full black afro, the slender ebony fingers of a pianist picking up the single white sheet of one of Chopin Etudes, her ankles, his lips close to her breast, the closeness of Parisian summer air in Sylvia Beaches' "Shakespeare and Company" bookstore, the worn oak floors, the place where Zelda and Scott, and James and Nora and Alice and Gertrude and Caresse and Harry, passioned. It was all of a moment, was of a time within a moment, time outside of any boundaries, time in the scent of Paris and desire and the meeting of paper fan and a red silk scarf, of a yearning without completion, a moment of a meeting…just a moment…or a beginning…
Years later when life had filled the spaces between them with births and deaths and celebrations and funerals, with regrets and requests, when the big booming voice of what had been wished for was left empty, the whole, the hole full of emptiness scorched both their hearts and taught them bitter lessons that became more bitter as they refused to see what they had done and hadn't done. To look into the eye of one's own blindness and not see.....how much time with its translucent begging is left waiting, if time can wait anywhere for anyone at all. The sense of their lives lived dauntingly, carelessly as though there would be enough time for it all...to learn what had to be learned, see what had to be seen, love the way love should love...all nearly wasted or drained or gone....How much happens in those first seconds of a meeting, how much is begun, a weaving of kind, habit and desire, desire still cloaked in a glance or a brush against a sleeve...the red silk scarf and the paper fan...the scent of things, the sense of things not revealed, still hidden beneath skins, secreted in blood and memory and wanting. And the end of things lies waiting patiently for its time.
It was white, the room they made love in - or was it sex - they made sex in the white room in the bed with white linen sheets and six pillows and the constancy of lilacs sweeping white and purple across the windows that had snowed silence during that long winter. Purple lilacs, royal deep purple, sat on the dresser in the blue blown glass bowl. The mirror reflected their bodies moving across the late afternoon into early evening - under the eaves of the late morning afternoon, stolen from the week. The room whispered dancing shadows by candlelight. The night tables were filled with different size candles - burning lower into evening as glasses were emptied and refilled, emptied and refilled with more red wine. After making love or sex - with words and without words in a language more trusting than vocabulary - in a language of tongues and tasting - in a language of skin and touch, in a language of clear desire long into evening, something took over the room. It was more than the candles burning low, the ones they had placed along the windowsill and the French doors that opened out onto the harbor. There was something so powerful it had climbed into their very cells. It was as though a force had entered their pores, maybe even their souls.
Then there was a reprieve for dinner of pistachio crusted salmon and an endive, goat cheese and walnut salad and a baguette and more wine and the fireplace lighting the robed bodies while they were eating. Later moving back into the white room - candles now lighting the windowsills - the scent of lilacs and sex steaming - streaming up to the ceiling, bathing in sex and bathing in the heat of the evening, the scent of sex and lilacs while they shared a large snifter of cognac.
In the white room the bodies filling and emptying and through the screens the scent of lilacs holy with desire in the white room night thundering as the rain hushed their tired bodies into something like sleep - but not really sleep - something like exhaustion but not exhaustion - something like love or something like sex or simply something like the constancy of the scent of lilacs.
"the woman with the only hand sits with passion and grief"
She said the words softly to herself. The line had stayed in her head all day – actually she woke up early that morning - it was still dark - a few lights were on in the boats in the harbor, readying for a day of fishing. She looked at the body lying next to her. She didn't want to leave the bed. She longed to arouse the body lying in sleep beside her. Somehow she knew she'd be rebuked - or thought she would- might be - no, she was certain of it.
"the woman with the only hand is empty of love"
came into her thoughts- that line - that exact line -all at once - all together - a complete thought and with that she knew she should get out of bed - go into the next room and write it down - but she stayed there, in bed, for a while - just lay there - the words kept filling her up - over and over - those words.
Finally, she pulled the covers back - looked over her shoulder after getting out of bed, replaced the covers gently. She went into the next room, closing the door behind her - it was a small bedroom - a chair, a window, a single iron bed, a night table and a lamp. The view from the window was a longer line of darkness - no lights from here - just the sound of the waves hitting the pilings of the wharf below. Something was breaking, something was emptying, something foreign and full of sorrow, something so full of nothing, something so rough and dangerous. It moved like a snake. It slithered this something, moving with purpose and direction, moving and gnawing up what was in front of it. Somewhere deep inside her she knew they'd never sleep together again - there was something so cold in the words "woman only grief passion empty love." She felt the chill of them - she shivered. It was as though this was where it all ended - the years of peaks and valleys, gorges and precipices, passion and grief.
And there on the small cherry table beside the white iron bed lay the fan her mother had sent her years ago, the fan that had caught on his red silk scarf. It was a paper fan and the moisture of the sea air had altered it. It wasn't the same as that day in the bookstore in Paris when they met. Beneath the fan was the red silk scarf folded carefully. It had faded over the years. Why had they put them there on the table, and when had they done that? Why had he stopped wearing it and when? Why had she stopped using the fan?
beside the bamboo trees
two birds drink the moonlight
falling in love
The poem was meant for the present. Perhaps that was it. It moved the air then and had a purpose, a life then and there. Maybe she knew that and put it away, nearby, not in a drawer but on the table he had built one summer for her.
Sometimes, she'd learned, you knew more than your thinking mind knows. Objects know things, sense the dust that collects on them, know when they are no longer seen by the eyes that once cherished them, know when they have become invisible.
She removed a box of matches from the drawer of the night table and struck one hard. Then she picked up the fan and held it to the match as she leaned into the fireplace. She watched it burn, still holding it till she could no longer. Then she took the red scarf and laid it across the bed, unfolding it so the sun faded parts stood out sharply. Turning back and looking into the fireplace the only word left from the burned fan was "falling." It was the end - not just an ending again - it was the stillness of the room as though love had gotten up and left the room - a room empty of love. The end and the beginning of what the end is - always before there was the idea that there would be another time, another chance.
There was a moving off in the other room. It was as though it was yesterday's room. And in that small room she was left with only a line, the darkness, and a chill.
"the bird of desire flies wounded."
Who knows what happens to love or lovers.
Sometimes who one chooses to love is not the best person to love.
Love has a beginning and sometimes an ending...
Sometimes a moving off or moving on.....
Leaving is not forgetting