Monday, September 13, 2010

The Magi Of Soho

David Rathman, "Always That Old Fear."

I drop things. I lose things. I leave things behind. Some of these things I'd like to pick up, find, or go back and retrieve. Some I'd like to remember. Others I can't forget.

For instance: what happened to the three Magi I encountered all those years ago in Soho, unfolding themselves, one strange apparition after another, from the inside of a cab driven by a man of my casual acquaintance who happened to be a chess master from Algeria?

They looked like a billowy dream on that windy night in September, outfitted in their sacerdotal vestments --flowing white robes with ornate brocade-- and towering felt hats.

They moved into the building next to mine, and I saw them around pretty much every day and gradually got to know them a little bit and become familiar with their habits and routines. They were exiles from Persia, where they were descendants of the tribes of Medea. At night they prowled the streets and alleys of the neighborhood killing rats, and they built a primitive temple on their rooftop where they kept a clandestine fire burning 24 hours a day.

They were very old men, handsomely bearded, but no matter the weather one of them was always making the long, slow climb up to the roof to tend the fire.

They worshiped the elements --all of them, but fire most of all. Because of this they had determined that the dead could not be buried, incinerated, disposed of in water, or permanently interred above ground. To do any of these things would represent a defilement of one of the sacred elements. And so, when Melchior, the King of Light, was the first to die, they erected a Tower of Silence on the rooftop, where Melchior's body was laid out to be devoured by crows.

I remember standing at my window and watching hundreds of crows massing from every direction, black, moving clouds swirling above Soho and descending in a loud frenzy on that rooftop, where the birds spent days battling for a position on the transverse beams that supported the final resting place of the fallen king.

Eventually --it didn't take long-- the crows once again dissipated, and I recall seeing Gaspar up there in the middle of a snow squall, tending to the fire and dismantling the Tower of Silence.

On the day I moved and left New York behind forever, as I was hauling the last of my possessions out to the rental truck, I saw Gaspar and Balthazar going off down the sidewalk with their tackle boxes and fishing poles, headed for the Hudson River. I remember that they were walking right into one of the most beautiful and blinding sunsets I had ever seen, and I stood there for a moment and watched them until they were entirely swallowed up by the light.

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