Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Hill Pilgrims

Many years ago, shortly after my arrival in this place, I discovered a hill in the middle of the city. This hill had long been a sanctuary for moonstruck teenagers, and the rocks and trees were painted and carved with the optimistic and elementary arithmetic of young love; there were charming addition equations to be found up and down the hill.

An old man who'd allegedly once traveled the world would ride his bicycle each evening to the park at the foot of the hill. The old man was in search of aluminum cans, and he would gradually make his way to a swinging bridge that hung above the stream that wound its way through the park at the bottom of a bluff. From this bridge he would sing Schubert's lieder in a striking baritone.

At dusk a procession of local teenagers would climb through the brush to make clumsy love to the old man's songs. This ritual had been a local tradition for two generations, dating back to the first days when the old man --then, of course, a much younger man-- had returned to the town from many years of traveling and hardship. The truth, though, was that no one really knew anything about the hill singer, or understood a word of his songs.

Over the years the town changed a great deal from those early days. It had grown much larger, and was now a place of immense loneliness and institutionalized trepidation. People came to the town from all over the world to suffer; the place had become an international capital of anxiety, of waiting and fretting and fear that was mulled over and expressed in myriad languages. All of this suffering, anxiety, waiting, fretting, and fear was related to the mysteries of the human body and its frequently malign secrets.

These pilgrims brought with them dark and troubling questions, and were entered into a vast lottery for answers, for which they might wait weeks, months, or years, often with little or no satisfaction. The Agency that administered the lottery had become a gargantuan bureaucracy that was plagued by inefficiency and indifference. The Agency was also alleged to be as corrupt as it was massive. The pilgrims often paid exorbitant sums simply to enter their names in the lottery, this despite the fact that it had now been many years since anyone could recall the Agency handing down anything even remotely resembling a satisfactory answer.

The squalid rooming houses and motels that had sprung up around the Agency's vast headquarters were overcrowded with desperate souls. This desperation in time led some of the pilgrims --many of them quite aged-- to venture to the hill in the middle of the town, where they, like the legion of local teenagers, would crawl through the brush and make love to the old man's songs.

Word quickly spread that these passionate excursions had an oddly consoling and salubrious effect, and soon more and more of the lottery entrants began to make the trek up the hill, and the woods and bushes were crowded each night with trysting pilgrims, their cries of equal parts anguish and passion rising like an animal chorus that lent additional poignancy to the old man's songs.

The old man, however, could not live forever, and one evening the procession of pilgrims and teenagers arrived to find only silence on the hill. For weeks a gradually diminishing number of the amorous and desperate continued to make the hopeful journey, but the old man did not return.

Whether or not it was a coincidence remains a matter of conjecture around town (many of the older residents never heard the hill singer, and to them he remains more myth than reality), but shortly after the old man's disappearance the exodus of pilgrims began, a trickle at first, and then a massive retreat. If there were to be no answers, then at least there should have been the comfort of music and unexpected passion. The rooming houses and motels were largely shuttered, and the town fell on hard times. And then, less than a year later, the Agency headquarters were destroyed in a massive fire of suspicious origin.

Those of us who remain --and there are fewer of us by the month-- find ourselves living in a city of ghosts and ruins and, everywhere, aimless processions of shuffling invalids and zombies. The hill in the middle of town is now a neglected and seldom visited reminder of our shameful past, littered with aluminum cans, moldering condoms, hastily discarded items of clothing, and rocks painted with the most abject obscenities.

I recently noticed this bit of graffiti scrawled on one of the sheets of desecrated plywood that has been nailed over the old Agency entrance: “Here even the butterflies walk with a limp, and are going nowhere.”

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