Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Strings of Bertie

From the moment she was finished, shoved in a box, and buried under a shower of styrofoam peanuts, Bertie Rathbun understood that through some accident of God she had been given a soul. As she had been dangled in the air at the inspection station, and as her strings were jerked each in turn, jiggling Bertie’s head, hands, arms, legs, and feet against her will, she had caught a glimpse of herself reflected in the eyeglasses of the woman who would initial the packing slip signaling her completion.

Bertie was alarmed not only by what she had seen reflected in the woman’s glasses, but also by the fact that she could see anything at all.

Something had happened, and though she was not quite sure what had happened, Bertie thought that whatever it was had occurred earlier in the afternoon when one of the detailers in finishing –a small, stooped, and melancholy Japanese man who was nearing retirement– had bent over her, puffed his warm breath three times directly into her face, and then buffed her painted features with a soft rag.

The little man had then held Bertie Rathbun before him in his outstretched arms, and with an expression of great sadness on his face addressed her in a quiet voice. What the man said to Bertie, before he carried her into the next room and hung her on a metal rack alongside dozens of other puppets, was this: “Such a pity, little one.”

And in that man’s warm breath, and in his strange, inscrutable statement –somewhere in that series of moments– Bertie’s soul had entered her body.

Perhaps, even, it was not Bertie Rathbun’s soul at all, but the soul of the old man, or a seed from his soul that he planted in her empty chest or head. Bertie didn’t know a thing about souls; she didn’t even know anything about knowing, but it would later occur to her that somehow she’d been given that old man’s broad ignorance and disappointments, his longings and desires and badly faded dreams, dreams that would appear to Bertie as dim and fleeting images on an almost translucent screen.

No sooner was Bertie Rathbun folded up in the darkness of her box and she began to feel the first fierce stirrings of resentment at her fate. She hated the very idea that she was a puppet; even worse was the realization that she was being sent out into the world as the most hopeless and hackneyed of all-purpose metaphors.

Bertie also recalled with horror that glimpse of her own reflection: she had absolutely no idea what sort of puppet she was supposed to be. Was she a mouse? A little boy bear? A kitten? Perhaps, even, a wingless bat?

Like all puppets that have been cursed with consciousness from time immemorial, Bertie Rathbun dreamed of autonomy, of free will, of a life unfettered by her cursed strings and her dependence on the hands and whims and attention spans of complete strangers. Bertie wanted to play the bongo drums and dance of her own volition and, regardless of what sort of creature she was supposed to be, she wanted to live in a hole in a river bank, ride about in boats, and sleep in a luxurious four-poster bed.

All of these thoughts went through Bertie Rathbun’s head during the many days she spent smothered in the darkness of her box and being jostled about and then, eventually, dangled and jerked around in a store full of other bright and noisy toys.

A fat and smiling woman finally purchased Bertie Rathbun one day and took her home and hung her from a fireplace mantle alongside a glowering nun and a stern gladiator, both of which were clearly as devoid of feeling and soul as the leering nutcracker displayed on the ledge above them.

The next morning a little boy came down the stairs and squealed with delight when he saw the puppets hanging above the fireplace. Bertie watched as the boy first took down the gladiator and swung him around the room gracelessly, tangling his strings and then letting him drop in a heap to the floor. She saw the boy crouch to remove the giant sword from the gladiator’s fist, and Bertie felt a spasm of hope and excitement jigging in her chest.

With her eyes Bertie Rathbun tried to implore the boy to cut her strings and set her free. And then she watched with horror as the little boy took the gladiator’s sword and, rather than cutting Bertie’s strings, plunged it directly into, and through, the neck of the nun.

The nun did not make a sound or shed a single tear, but slowly at first, and then in a bright torrent, blood began to stream from the wound in her neck and started to drip, drip, drip down to the fireplace hearth, entirely unnoticed by the little boy, who had moved on to play with the other toys that were splayed beneath the Christmas tree.

And at that moment Bertie Rathbun watched as the translucent screen on which the old man’s dim dreams were displayed in her head went entirely blank, and she felt her soul leave her body.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Any Old Business? Ere Mine Errs Wer E'en O'er...

Good lord, it seems another month is now stretching before me like the long mirage scene in Lawrence of Arabia, a scene I recently spent some time fantasizing about recreating in the windy sand dunes of the Florida Panhandle, with my dog playing the Omar Sharif role. It turned out, however, that try as I might I could not get my trusty dog to move slowly enough. I could not get him to trudge. He is a Chilean Dasher, a very rare specimen, a representative of one of only two dog breeds ever to appear on the endangered species list, and such beasts are simply not built for plodding.

I can trudge and plod enough for both of us, though. That's something I try to remind him of on a daily basis, perhaps as a way of trying to get him to slow down.

Another National Poetry Month, as you may or may not know (or care), has recently come and gone, and though I tried to spend some time each evening properly observing the holiday in my own fashion, I should confess that the last poem I read before the month's expiration left a very bad taste in my mouth. I will not name the poet (he is, so far as I can tell, nothing if not insignificant), but I cannot get these lines from one of his poems --which pretty much exemplify everything I hate about so much poetry-- out of my head: "the sun dies once more in the west/the blush and bruise of vanquished light/ creeps slowly across the/troubled American is/children are anesthetized by television before sleep/in the gloaming along the river/the great heron kneels."

That sort of thing isn't deserving of a month, let alone a moment of silence, let alone a moment of silent contemplation. Yet here I am, sharing it with you, for which I beg your pardon. I was going to try to tell you the story of a boy who was turned into a fox by his father for cheating at bridge, but it's a long story I haven't quite worked out in my head. Suffice it to say that in the end the boy --who hated bridge yet was forced to play it each night with his parents-- discovers that he rather enjoys being a fox, and eventually --quite soon, in fact-- recognizes that his father has done him an unintended kindness, which inspires the only actual feeling of affection he will ever feel for his father, the great project of whose life was building a pyramid out of garbage deep in the woods. The garbage, as I imagined it in contemplating the writing of the story, was gathered each day by the mother, who would leave the family's modest cabin each morning at the first light of dawn, outfitted in an orange jumpsuit and toting an armful of burlap bags, and return, exhausted, after darkness had fallen --having traveled great distances and filled as many bags as she could carry with garbage-- just in time to eat an uninspired dinner and play bridge with her husband and son.

There's really no reason now that I'll ever have to tell that story. It's likely no reason ever existed, but I nonetheless have time on my hands and feel compelled to think of something.

Tonight, earlier, I was thinking of some kind of great river metaphor --lame, I know, but I'll generally spend at least a little time mulling whatever comes to me, if anything comes to me at all, and I'm sometimes grateful when something does. Sometimes not so grateful, of course, particularly when I'm feeling all mulled out, which is often.

Anyway, I was thinking of this river, which in my imagination is too big and moves too swiftly, and this size and ferocity combined with the sense I almost always have that the ground is moving beneath my feet, makes it impossible to accurately ascertain what exactly the river is and contains, other than everything. Even so, I like to at least try to discern the constituent parts of things I'm looking at, even imaginary things, and I was --and am-- bothered by my inability to see all the things that are moving --or not moving, either temporarily (because they are stuck), or permanently (also because they are stuck, but in a different way)-- beneath the surface of the river, which I became more and more convinced was everything. Perhaps this business was prompted by the enigmatic phrase uttered to me by a hermit who lived at the edge of a swamp on the Florida Panhandle. In answer to my request for directions to the Apalachicola River he had replied, without a moment of hesitation, "Hell, son, it's all the river."

I should say, regarding part of the above (the phrase "beneath the surface"), that I mean supposing there is a surface and we can agree what it is. Does the notion of a bottom necessitate a surface? Is the surface a starting point, or a sort of platform, the place from which one's fall commences, or commenced?

By this point I'm just going to assume that you have no idea what I'm talking about. Which is fine, but consider this: What is Ike Quebec, whose music is on the stereo as I type, doing right this moment, a moment that has sustained itself and been replaying over and over (if only hypothetically, but, make no mistake, I am hearing a dead man breathing) for fifty years now? What is he doing if not going down a river?

The wonders of recorded sound and all art, all preservation that, in one way or another, moves: You can just keep sending these boats down the river --the same river, yet, in both Heraclitian and literal terms, a different river-- again and again and again. And fifty years from now some poor fool, similarly addled as myself, will still be able to put Ike Quebec's boat in the water and listen to it go. The same fool could also launch any one of the boats from the foxed fleets of, say, Henry James or Henry Adams, William Trevor or William James, and every one of them would still float and still take the fool somewhere else.

And now I'm thinking of all the ghost boats on my shelves, continually going down the river, or waiting to go back down the river. The ghosts don't even have to paddle anymore; long, long ago (or maybe not that long ago) they built their boats out of words and sound, put them in the water, and the river carries them still.

The thing is, I guess, is that I always wanted to build boats that would still be going down that river when I'm gone, even if they spend the rest of forever traveling exclusively under the cover of darkness. Even if they're just docked on some lonely stretch of backwater, a lone lamp burning in the cabin into the wee hours, waiting for one more launch, one more trip back into the dreaming world that is the river.