First One Talking

 

 

 

 

 


I

 

Sweater weather has come. County residents are beginning to burn the usual autumn incense, oak leaves first, then dogwood, maple and birch according to their fall. Pinecones are being gathered by second-graders to be crafted into centerpieces for Thanksgiving. Halloween candy forgotten about is being thrown away. Creatures of the wood and meadow are seen less often. Nature herself has been impeached—there's a new kid in town: Old-Man Winter's kid brother. He peers into every window at townsfolk beginning new habits, folding up their summer clothes and getting down to business: the business of closing up. The rainy winter is just around the corner, but the dryness hangs on, fights the good fight, keeps the faith of generations, traditions of dry Octobers extending from the valley's pilgrims.

Good breathing weather has come, the weather before the winter when the air burns your nose and every tissue it passes toward the bottom of your gut. Good sleeping- with-the-window-open weather is here, the weather that ripens a harvest, the weather that is just cold enough to be uncomfortably pleasant just before it freezes, before it is truly painful. It is the cool before the cold that stiffens, tightens every muscle causing you to tremble, to stand still, not bending your knees to sit because your jeans are too cold. That is February coldfront weather.

Now is the time before Thanksgiving, before the frozen wetness—the time in Valencia when everything closes up, moves indoors, hibernates. Houses become spiritualized and families become reacquainted over kitchen tables. December is the time nature emigrates around the earth with some of us chasing her always a season behind, trying to keep up with her greeness, youth and vigor. In the winter you do not contemplate God's majesty in the forest. But alone in your den, you calibrate in earnest man's majesty. This is the time for sickness, solitude, fireside loneliness with giant books bought solely for the winter: the flu season, the quiet season, the season when we learn the nature of death. This is the time when all life in Valencia anticipates the afterlife, when we imagine our last handful of years closing up, fisting itself like a frozen muscle when we cramp up forever.

But for today, it is sweater weather. And if you hurry, you can catch up with mother nature rolling southward. You can keep up with her constant movement around the world, trying to stay clear of her shadow—the shadow that Valencia is now under. Or stay here in her shade and prepare for the spring, entertain your imagination in different ways, sedentary ways, lateral ways of nature at rest.

It's a great dream—the winter. It's a new dream, a Wordsworthian dream that brings to winter a taste for optimism. Wordsworth said that our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. I wonder what it is we may have forgotten; I wonder if the death that winter signifies is nothing but a sleep and a forgetting of the earth's sublimity. The death that winter brings should be a recollection of things long forgotten: of smoking chimneys, down comforters and hot cocoa; it can be the clarity of black and white, the anticipation of a good-night's sleep.

 

I took the long way home from work today. I didn't follow the creek as I usually do. Instead I walked through the schoolyard and Valencia 's center square. By the time I passed through the patico and out the side door between the principal's office and the chapel, the school playground was empty. A draft caught the door as I opened it and pulled me outside unprepared for the sudden windburst that kicked up a cyclone of leaves and dust in the playground. A candy wrapper, colored bits of construction paper and a child's crafted cornucopia was hung up against the chain link fence, pinned by the wind. The red, yellow and green painted carousel turned clockwise twice as fast as the second hand of my watch. It spun like the weathervane on a barn in Oklahoma or Missouri and squeaked like the wheel of a tricycle knocked sideways in an accident or simply left unattended, port side up in the wind.

I missed the children. I knew they'd return in the morning but the windborn violence in the playground did not resound that youthful invigorance I am accustomed to. The schoolyard looked as though it was evacuated, and I hoped for an instant against any possible emergency.

The streets downtown looked leaner, no longer traveled by bicyclists and pedestrians or a few old automobiles driven with the windows down brandishing naked arms and hands waving in the wind like parade flags. This afternoon was especially quiet. Shopkeepers were closing businesses for the evening. And Marian, a deli owner, greeted me by name a little more slowly and quietly than I was used to. Nonetheless, and according to her nature, she handed me a large wedge of cheese, fresh, she said from a local farm. It was hard for me not to notice her unusaully sullen mood. Marian is a loquacious middle-aged woman, divorced with a teenage son and is always more friendly to me than I am to her. Her type of enthusiasm is difficult to match let alone understand. She must pity me, think that I am terribly unhappy. By nature, I'm a brooding type, she claims. Just pensive, I argue...happily so. I delight in life's deceptive layering but I do not understand my perceived indifference, so often unfounded or downright contradictory.

The fountain in the square was dry, not even a burble. A thin, dark ring testified of water's presence, and sediment and fresh sludge laid drying over the drain. The fountain's wall is a good place to sit. I'll bring a sandwich and rest there for lunch in the summer, watching the tourists crowd the small shops, buying up our T-shirts, caps and coffee mugs attesting to Valencia 's legitimacy and the buyers' validity as well. It is nice in the autumn when we get our town back. Tourists don't generally bother me at work. But the area's history and architecture draws them to the mission library, looking for a bathroom or a gift shop. I'll give them a list of community events; they'll find the bathroom and relieve what they came to relieve; and I'll never see them again. The entire experience is over within two minutes. It is like visiting a foreign country for 90 seconds to urinate and ask directions. When they leave, I always feel extraordinarily peculiar, upset at the intrusion but impressed by a touch of their exotic immediacy. I suppose it's like being a cactus along the pony express, experiencing a brief rush of energy and excitement.

Valencia isn't know for its night life, especially in the late autumn. Now and then something will come together in the square: a solo violinist playing �tudes or polkas, kids tossing frisbees, elderly folks sitting on a bench, looking unpleasantly at their feet. Cherry trees line the sidewalk. In the spring, their flowers change them into different trees altogether, or so it seems. Today, they are red and orange, but soon they'll become as bare and unbecoming as all the other deciduous trees in the valley—a change expressing an entirely different beauty and personality.

I walked home along the side of the road. Without taking my hands from my pockets, I returned friendly nods to a pair of bingo enthusiasts walking to the VFW, three young boys on mountain bikes and a couple of cars I recognized less by name than description. The chinkapin tree over the front porch didn't trouble me as I walked up the porch steps. Only in the fall does it fit in, does it blend with the other naked trees in the neighborhood. I failed to check the mail since I didn't feel like reading it and went straight into the house where Mangan's Sister rose from her nap, stretched and greeted me properly. I told her my walk was exquisite and gave her the cheese I didn't finish. We both knew that the summer was over. With the chinkapin tree and the rest of Valencia ready for the winter, the upstairs room I admitted was the only place left to prepare for the new season.

 

The mimosa dropped all its fringes several weeks ago. It was one of the first trees to dry up, a few days after Labor Day. Not until I stopped hearing it tap against the upstairs window did I realize how much of the summer truly remained. The wildflowers of course have long been dried up leaving only yellowing stems and stalks of pale grass and hay. The implications of these changes didn't occur to me until I followed Sister upstairs to see if she had dragged in a dead mouse or an insect large enough to take over the house. But the room was as it always has been. Any presence or form in the room was purely inanimate or surreal; but I guess I'll never know for certain of the latter.

Within the studio the seasons never noticeably pass. And the artist's mystery is no less problematic than ever. I can never leave her room without saying her name, talking to her instead of myself. But mostly, it is just an awareness of her still living there that I want to understand and attempt to communicate—talking no more phonetically than a new cologne, an old book or a revealing expression. Knowing her name, reading her mail, discovering her favorite places in old notes and letters makes living here alone nearly impossible.

Several seasons ago I found a large box of decorations for nearly every holiday. The artist kept it on a shelf in the studio closet. I suspect it was her way of telling me to celebrate; so I did. Christmas was her favorite time of year; this is where we differed. Surely, Halloween is the most awesome holiday, but her box was filled mostly with Christmas and Easter stuff. Somehow her oversight obligated me to decorate the house for Halloween as extravagantly as she would have done for Christmas and Easter. The house has subsequently celebrated Halloween more devoutly than any other holiday. I almost had a party last October. I almost dressed up the library as a mausoleum with the corpses of America 's most famous artists and writers laying about the place in various states of decay as if they were all riding the same train when it tripped over a penny and rolled into a ditch and exploded. But I imagined the artist's objections so I never bothered.

 

Mystery has a funny way of approaching you, a psionic way of positioning itself in your train of thought. Its results can be either maddening or inspiring. It may all be a matter of perspective or tolerance to one's own inebriated imagination and sense of reality. But if the artist doesn't exist for me in some form or another, I wonder how real I am or how abstract or definitive Valencia is, or isn't. I suppose it depends on what voice you hear, what voice you listen to when you don't hear your own.

 

 

II

 

Mangan's Sister spends the hour balled up under a blanket in a waning streak of light, sucking from it every joule of warmth she could before the short-lived sun fell behind the point. In the summer, stretching paws extend against a window, awaiting that sensuous burn healthy summers exude even after dusk. But today her paws stretched, touched the glass and promptly retreated beneath her, folding up within her fur, the only natural heat exuding around her favorite window. Her curiosity is more pronounced in the winter. I can see in her routines an alarmed intuition telling her to stalk around the house, to search the residence as though she had just moved in, as though something close to her had wandered off into the cold while she slept. Her intuition tells her that the sun absconded with a part of her southward and by searching the small house she will find herself come the first day of spring.

In its treatment of our routines, the approaching winter threatens, in its dark but cozy vernacular, an aspect of despair that attitude and fortune can easily discern. The winter rearranges the valley and makes it responsible for the season's drossness, sagacity and neutrality of color. Sister and I occasionally search the house and the upstairs room for this optimistic attitude, hoping to bring back the sun. And if we cannot attain it, we may blame ourselves for its loss until the springtime when Sister's favorite window gets warm again and I can see from the stairway the studio's lightshow or sit outside in the yard again beneath the cool ivy and the shade of the old cypress.

We are a placid community in the winter. Nature stays where she belongs, outside, subjugated by our removal from her within the house. Our activities are subjugated by that same removal. Recess is for a while indoors. Breezes come from electric heaters and the bellows above the fireplace. Light as well as heat is also artificial. Aside from a few dull candles, fluorescent bulbs burn throughout Valencia not even trying to imitate the sun. In the winter, we do not care about sunlight, natural light, as much as we care about seeing. But seeing without strain requires synthetic light, and that is our only contraceptive against absolute darkness. Mangan's Sister and I accept light and heat in whatever manifestation we find them. But it is man's light, not darkness, that is sunlight's antithesis. Sunlight, true light, is rolling southward today and Sister and I will wait for its return with all the alacrity of a schoolgirl heading for the swingset at recess.

In the night, a reading lamp in the den stays lit until morning. Its rays can be seen throughout the house but in different patterns depending on your position to the lamp, depending on what corner you are nearest and the room you are composed in. I'll rarely light a candle, but I like to believe that one is glowing somewhere, that I have it burning for its fragrance and particular lemon-like light that moves, stands erect and then drowns in its own wax depending on the room's independent weather. Before long, the drowning wick resembles the amber tip of a penlight when the battery is weak. The light hangs on forever it seems before dying out, the energy of the heat consumes all of its air and a plume of smoke rises and dissipates within seconds. The heat dies along with the light. But the heat is always deceptively strong. Regardless of the candles virility, the atoms within the fire never slow down. Racing molecules, regardless of their numbers, burn at the same degree, discovering the same exponent of humanity's sensitivity to pain, its passion for acceptance and understanding.

Sometimes at home the thermostat is set unreasonably high to suck out the moisture, or so I reason. Now and then I will find Mangan's Sister in places she does not normally go in the warmer, brighter months. While getting ready for work in the morning, after I've roused her from my bed, she moves to the walk-in closet where the iron heats up a small space to a normal subalpine temperature. She lies like the sphinx upon a pile of laundry and watches me press a shirt and maybe a pair of slacks that has slid off its hanger. She expects me to iron my clothes, she expects me to heat up the closet, she expects me to observe this ritual. I am Sister's morning entertainment.

I don't see the sense in dressing up for work, although it may, in the winter, appear that I do. When it is cold and damp, I don an extra layer, pressed not for the look, but for the warmth. I'll sometimes wear a sweater, a heavier shirt or a light topcoat. I do it of course to stay warm, and in part, because Sister expects me to. It is all part of her show.

Windows throughout the valley will soon be spotted with rain drops. Steam from longer and hotter showers and fuller tea and coffee cups will raise the dew point inside where the temperature also rises. Seldom does it snow here. It's too wet. Snowflakes melt and drown themselves like the candle wicks. Grass is greener than ever and growing in spite of the cold. Evergreens among the bare trees stick out like gray hairs on a teenager. But it is the prettiest contrast Valencia ever sees. The discrimination among the flora is undeniable. But it is a good kind of inequality, if you are a pine tree; it takes the guesswork out of appreciation.

The rain is steady from November to April sometime around Good Friday. Tulips and daffodils and wild daisies will rise by Easter: the resurrection day. But until then there is the crucifixion—the dry autumn, the golden part of the year when everything looks dead but smells gloriously crisp as though you could shatter the atmosphere by sneezing. Winter is our Golgotha. Sister and I anticipate the drizzle, praying for a change of scenery. She takes her watch at the bay window in the living room, pressing her face against the glass, fogging little circles around her nose when she breathes. I suspect she watches the dry remains of cattails by the creek or the browned ivy or the pale, bent meadow. She watches for clues as to what will be the first to rise up, to flower, to green and turn glossy, to speak the first words of April.

 

 

III

 

D�rer must have painted Valencia 's February: Death and the Apocalypse rode through main street one gray evening. But he missed, I think, another part of winter, the secret part that lies low in the hazy town and countryside west of the mountains. Last winter's sabbatical took me there to the slopes always gray and dark and mossy. Humpback whales seemed to rise into clouds from a horizon not clearly seen. A wash of gray and pasty green, the color of my father's eyes, pursued me into the woods, followed me on my neighbor's bicycle with a book and a jacket strapped to the seat. I rode standing on the pedals to an old cemetery to record the names of the ancient ones who died before Valencia was born.

It was a deserted place: the path to the graveyard, D�rer's study. Still a mile from the wood, I remember pushing on the pedals clicking against the kickstand like a giant clock or sticks and branches tapping together where there are no trees. They were drums thumping a pitch apart, playing like a stampede of ponies far away. Sensuous and angry drums less threatening than a fly became more frightening the faster I pedaled, the more I imagined the ghosts I had come to find. Thin rumblings more like a thousand throats swallowing in succession chased me into the wood. A hypnotic pulsing like a thousand tennis balls rolling down the stairs or a thousand brushes basting the buckskin bass pursued me into the moors. And yet I grew anxious for something to touch me, another living person, an exciting stranger—a messenger coming to find me. I could still hear the drumming against the rocks and soft soil while the ponies tamped upon the misty fjords where they were left to graze years ago on lichen, botts and saltweed. My secret place was too obscure to bear, to tolerate without giving in to my imaginary messenger wandering through the moors with her eyes closed, chasing after the pulse, my pulse, while a thousand throats swallowed and I pedaled faster away from the beating hearts, wondering which was hers and which was mine.

The wintry valley was an aphrodisiac, a penicillin or whatever relieves me. Rushing through the trees and grass, through deserted, stone buildings and gullies, I found the secret plots: the gravestones lost within the brush one hundred and sixty years ago, honored by a passing beetle or fox or woodwren landing for a rest upon a twig. Not even the ghosts will find me here, I thought; I will lie in D�rer's deserted study, the hazy valley, waiting for the messenger to find me, for that new voice to say my name.

 

I imagine that the gargoyles on the balcony would love the old graveyard. Maybe they go there at night I pretend to investigate the stone markers they so closely resemble. They want to contact the dead perhaps. They want to know how close they are to death, how much longer they must live like vampires feeding on nothing but darkness and freezing solid in the sunlight. Composed of granite, covered in mold, moss and dirt, the gravestones were readable only after I rubbed the faces with shave cream so the white foam could seep into the etching. Once I wiped off the remaining foam I could read the epitaphs of Narcissa Holmgreen: b1799 - d1850, Nathaniel Angus Bosney: b ? - d1849 and Jessie Colton who died at age 4 in 1849.

The graveyard had 11 markers that I could find. Most were still standing upright but a few were broken or lying flat and overcome with blackberry bushes and the natural litter of the earth that I could not read anything but a few letters. There may have been more stones but I could not guess where since the blackberry bushes kept me from certain parts of the grove's center.

The diameter of the graveyard was about 400 feet, the only tree-covered land for six or seven miles. If the sun ever shines there, I bet it is a spectacular sight, filtering through the cottonwoods adding layers of texture to the circle of graves. I wonder how the people died there. From the dates on the stones it seemed that they had perished in some unrecorded massacre or a sudden outbreak of cholera and were buried here in the only shady spot within seeing distance. The trees in 1840 were only saplings, like Jessie Colton. But somehow the trees survived. God only knows how the blackberries came. Maybe little Darius Bowers: b1841 - d1849 had some seeds in his shirt pocket. Maybe they were buried with him still at the bottom of his pocket since the day he had gathered them along the trailside. Within his coffin they must have found some special mineral that gave them life in the small boy's heart and rise into the prickly bush bearing his favorite treat.

Maybe the gargoyles come to contemplate the same mysteries as I do about the dead community. Maybe they hear the same seductive drumming. But maybe it was their wings that I heard beating around me: the stranger coming to uncover their names, to identify them for their forebears living in Valencia but lost without heritage or memory, without a history of themselves or their children still living or hiding in the neighboring valley.

 

 

IV

 

Sweater weather has come. The days are getting shorter. Even the gargoyles on the parapet can feel it. They stay out longer at night. They fly higher, always higher, never going near the sea, always flying above the mission and the center square where people are always present. They need people for some reason. They need to know that Valencia is still alive, that it hasn't changed since the previous night. Every night is as blue as the next, until the rains start. In between cold fronts, cirrus clouds stretch like thin muscles in front of the moon never completely obscuring it, never leaving the strange beasts alone in the utter blackness. The moon, clouds and sky preserve the night's color and the mysteries that lie within it.

The nights in Valencia take on the illuminate features of a theatre when the house lights dim. And the air is just as cool as the balcony. A gobo of the moon shines onto the scrim; a blue and purple backwash spotted with clouds blows past the projected moon. The entire theatre possesses that same phosphorous glow of the Melissa Blue and the bay at Tower Hill. The stage reveals what the mission and the center square so freely offer: the blue light district—cozy pubs, restaurants, coffee houses and the two-plex cinema, all entertaining Valencia 's sparse population.

At one time or another everyone here is a night person. The nights are too commanding to stay indoors. Moonflowers and other nocturnal plant life opens up to us here on the way to the box office or along Dakota Creek where a musician plays an acoustic guitar, oboe or viola for couples passing by. I can hear him playing from the library balcony on Friday nights before walking home. By the time I reach my neighbor's hayfield his music has been redubbed by spotted frogs and crickets: nature's bass and snare. But soon they will stop and the winter will come. Sweater weather will end, and I will only hear the wind: nature's whole rest. We will all wait attentively for the first one talking, the first thoughts passed between species or dimensions. I dream about the gargoyles coming home early and their visits to the secret graveyard that end just a few hours sooner and a thousand hours short of Spring.