Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning
larger solid looming walls or
trunks or rocks or rubble, and strange shapes
moving through the mist, silent or
howling, scuffling through the uneven dirt or
dropping from the blotchy sky like
thicker clouds, so close sometimes I ducked in
fright so that they never quite touched me.
Someone I had trusted had led me there.
Perhaps it was persons, I could not remember,
only how their words and gestures, once so
sensible and clear, gradually grew
obscure, how their features, once so individual
and expressive – this lifted tuft of
eyebrow, that kindly smile, that belly laugh –
smoothed to nothing in the murk,
and how at last they turned away, gibbering,
gone. Without them was no path
that I could see. A bit ahead to the right the
curtain seemed lighter, its patterns more
distinct and loosely entwined and permeable,
so I stepped over that way, stumbling
on the occasional root or protuberance,
until I splashed ankle deep
into a pool of sucking mud that spread
among the blackened boles and mounds its
unforgiving mirror far as could be
seen, and I could go no farther.
Perhaps, I thought, what I had followed, moth-like,
was just the sky’s dim luminescence
the marsh cast back, and then I knew despair,
and pulled my sodden shoe back out, and
turned, and a cry swelled in my throat. But just
before I let it loose, another
shimmer caught my eye. Perhaps, I thought,
I’d wandered off my course through tending
to my feet and not to where they were going;
and holding my gaze level, and gingerly
feeling the way with toes that slid forward and sometimes
up and around or suddenly down (so
my attention was sharply bifurcated
while a third, unattended
part of me coordinated) towards that
distant barely backlit scrim, while
yet a fourth part of my poor divided
self was straining not to feel a
thing at all. Of all four tasks, this last was
hardest. Hope and fear impelled me
“Run!” but who could run on that turf, rough and
sharp as a grater? And vehement voices
muttering a flow of words so soft they’d
lost their forms now clogged my hearing,
aural mush, except that here and there, as
clear and hard as pebbles, numbers
struck me; and unseen hands behind me plucked my
clothing, grabbed my shoulders, stroked my
hair. My knees gave way. I huddled there, in
sudden lonely silence, long.
Then slowly, like a fern uncurling, I rose,
not recalling having fallen
asleep or having passed the border into
awareness of this dismal dawn.
Before me, jarringly stood the only straight
and undistorted object in my
view: a man, tall and thin, head topped by
what I took to be a red fleece
ski hat, barefoot, robed in simple brown he’d
cinched about the waist with a cord.
His skinny neck, that sprouted from an itchy
looking undergarment, upheld
a long and narrow face. A long and narrow
nose, sharply hooked, ran like a
ridge between the hills of his high cheekbones,
and the basins of his cheeks
converged upon a small and beautiful mouth.
The upper lip was thin and long,
the lower shorter, plusher, so the top one
drooped a little at the corners,
and they made an arc much like a bow
whose arrows aim to pierce the clouds,
not quite primly frowning, more the meeting of
strength and sensitivity. But his
great, sad, brown eyes! There’s a
distant gaze that looks within,
and a regard like a net we cast upon the
outer world, that in his eyes were
combined: alertly pensive, missing nothing.
They were what held me. I stepped forward.
Glancing at my squelching shoes, “O voi che
siete in piccioletta barca, ”
he said, “Oh you who follow me in
little boats.” His voice was sweet and
soft, and the phrase was one of the few I knew in
Italian. Odder to meet an Italian who
can’t quote Dante than one who can. Well!
Humor was the last thing I’d
expected in that desolation. Taken
quite aback, I paused, and at that
instant, growls, a vicious snarl, a rumble
low and ominous, all issued
from behind the stumps of a shattered pylon
thirty feet away. His robe
flaring, he whirled and faced the hidden beasts.
“Whatever you were seeking, you won’t
find it here,” he said, glancing back.
(Oddest: how I did not find it
odd to understand him.) “If you don’t lose your
way yourself, those three will lose it
for you. Come, and I will show you the path
out of here.” And backing slowly
towards me over shards and ankle-busting
holes as if his feet had eyes,
he glided, holding all the while the animal
danger at bay by looking at it with
fiercer focus than any predator, then
guided me some yards away
behind a ragged rubbish berm. I thought he’d
stop to talk, then. Instead, assured
I was still with him and unharmed, he whirled so his
garment flared like a tulip again, and
strode away, impatiently gesturing at me
to follow. Not that I had much choice,
but still I hesitated. Then I gathered
in my hope and hurried after,
catching up with him a while before I
caught my breath enough to ask him,
“Who are you? And what do you want with me?”
He answered: “Last things first. You are
the one whose fifteenth year blossomed in the
city by the Arno, where they were
drying the pages of books the river had drenched
two years before?” My face froze. He nodded.
“And of course you’ve not forgotten her
you stood with by the river wall,
your arms around each other’s waists, not holding,
sweetly ratifying the seal your
bodies made from ankle to shoulder?” I could not
move. He halted with me. “And how
you stood there, watched the brown-green flood,
minute by minute on the brink of a kiss
that never came because you were afraid?
Well, it was she who visited me
from one of those bright circles you cannot
quite bring yourself to believe in, glowing
and slender and blonde and passionate, and she asked me
to help you find your way. She called you
My Seth, whom I knew as a poet and one of love’s authors.
She knew how to ask so her will would be mine.”
With finely calculated disregard
for how much shock I could absorb,
he added, “As for who I am: that year
you met and said good-bye to her
not knowing how long, you lived in my home town,
the place they kicked me out of and
set death at the gate to keep me away. You lived
in a small hotel off Via Fiume
named for her whose hand reached down for me
as your Victoria reaches for you.”
At his order, fifty yards back there I’d
fallen belly down on the rock
behind the crest between the trenches, and wriggled
up the shale to here, “Head down, no
peeking over until I give the word.
The other side’s the swale of thieves.
You don’t want them to know you’re here too soon.”
Awaiting commands, then, I remembered:
The dust my rusty light blue Saab 96
kicked up from Addison County’s dry
dirt roads hung back of me so dense I checked
it now and then in my rear view mirror,
just to see the trail I made, dun billows
bright in the treeless stretches; fields of
corn and cows, the Adirondacks blue and
distant, the Greens, well…midsummer green, the
empty seat beside me weighted with sun in the
treeless stretches, full of dancing
shadows when there were leaves to cast them, and all
along the drainage ditches barbed wire
made good neighbors. I had been sent on a mission.
Adrift a year out of college, I’d beached
on that dryest of strands, a lawyer’s office, hired
at poverty wages in lieu of the budget
for a professional to investigate the
stories our indigent clients told us,
routinely lying. Just as routinely, despite
our advice to take advantage of
the humane fiction whereby innocence
persists until it’s otherwise proved -
that is, clam up - they spilled the beans to the cops,
confessions they confided from a
lack of confidence as many-layered and
deep as the Appalachian rocks whose
spurs, petering northwards to the plains of
Quebec, they poorly dwelt among.
What vision of beauty guided this tenant was not
apparent from the patch of dirt,
an outgrown shoulder, I pulled to off the road
and sat upon, my engine idling,
half a minute while taking in the weathered
clapboards, formerly painted red, and
broken plastic children’s toys, doorless
refrigerator lying face up,
coils of chicken wire, a dark green bag of
styrofoam chunks, a stainy mattress,
his life’s random etcetera that littered the
weeds and grass his stoop, a sagging
board on cinder blocks, descended to.
I called through his screen door, and he came.
But not until the stoop creaks and we’re almost
nose to nose across the screen does
unease vent its weary, suspicious “Yeah?”
“I’m from your lawyer, about the case.
I’ve got some papers for you to sign.” Flattened
against the screen, the bona fides.
We’re team mates, like in gym in high school, chosen
to sweat through a game we have to play
together although you’d rather hang out in
the boys’ room, smoke and talk about girls.
Me, I’d do this even if they didn’t
pay me, almost, which they almost
don’t. Unlatched, the screen door slowly sighs
towards me. I back two steps down,
step three steps up, and reach behind to shut it.
A few steps in, he waits for me,
stoop-shouldered like some tall men, crew cut, silent,
by the cluttered kitchen table –
breakfast dishes, cereal box, a cup half
filled with coffee and a butt.
“I thought you were a girl,” he says, but mildly;
almost intimate, this moment.
Mildly he moves the dishes to the sink
with hardly any clatter,
mildly draws a chair back – tube frame, torn
nylon upholstery – sits and
mildly gazes at me, eye to eye
almost. My gosh, he’s big. I fumble
papers, stoop to pick them off the floor,
give them to him to read, and ask him
while he’s reading can I look out back?
Portentous unfamiliar words
engross him. “Sure,” he mildly says. Back out, then,
clumsily dropping to the plank and
stumbling off it, screen door slamming shut,
I pick my way through the junk, around
the house’s side into a maple’s shade
that hasn’t helped the scraggly rose bush
someone planted under the dryer vent,
emerging again into unveiled sunlight
that falls directly down upon an emerald
patch of grass so very gently
sloping to the water where the creek
extends an elbow at the house
no bank or muddy shore line intervening.
It’s at its very fullest flood.
The ground is hard right down to where there’s liquid
gleaming among the blades of grass.
A sheet the color of Sicilian olives
mirrors sun, the skinny birches
clumped inside the horseshoe curve a hundred
fifty feet away from me,
the long thick swath of graceful, unbroken stems
that bows above the almost
stagnant flow they stand within, the brilliant
damsel flies and drabber dragon
flies that flit and rest among them. Going
back inside, I saw he’d read the
papers, signed where he should sign. I thanked him,
gathered them, made for the door,
left him hunched at the table. I was halfway
to my car when his chair scraped the
linoleum, then slow footsteps, then, sadly,
“Whaddaya think my chances are?”
Unviolated reeds and tranquil waters
made it unlikely the boat they’d accused him of
stealing had floated innocently to his
backyard, as he’d claimed it did.
Turning to face him, I cheerily replied,
“Oh, that’s for the lawyers to decide.”
Our eyes met, his within the screened shade, mine
all drenched with light, but for one second
I felt the punch of a common understanding.
The shale had just about warmed to me.
So close and quiet my ear felt his words
as much as it heard them, my guide whispered,
“Follow me when I run. I won’t fool them for
long, so follow close. Keep running
straight ahead, whatever happens. Never
mind the boat, it has no bottom.
Run as fast as you can, and don’t slow down.”
As quick as smoke, he rose to his feet,
and waving his arms and yelling went over the top.
I lost a beat to surprise, then scrambled
to my knees, into a sprinter’s crouch and
launched myself after. Like a snapshot,
what I saw is fixed in memory: a
lawn the length of a soccer field,
tilted gently downwards to a wetland
twice that width again, its slate-grey
surface sharply etched by cat-tails, grasses, and
drawn up on the shore, a wooden
dinghy’s bottomless hull through which ferns grew.
Dante was about halfway there.
In northern Maine and Minnesota, I’ve seen
golden-brownish halos veil the
rumps and flanks of moose. Just so Dante,
and he matched the ruminants’ stately
unconcern. The winged scourge swarmed off him and
hovered in my path – no time to
swerve – I hit them and was encircled – from then,
visual memories are disjointed:
Dante, running knee-deep without splashing;
the nauseous bubbles that bellied my pant-leg
when the muck sucked the shoe off my right foot,
then my left; the black dots swarming.
They went for my eyes, invaded my nostrils and ears.
Their buzzing and humming drowned out my splashing.
Wherever my skin was exposed, they landed and bit,
crawling through my tangled hair to
welt my scalp, and penetrating to my
back and shoulders, chest and stomach
through my shirt, its rents and holes, and
thick on neck and face and arms,
injecting with each bite a bit of their substance to
thin out mine, and with this awful
addition I was forced to carry their stories –
I had no choice: their tiny itching
voices were under my skin, imperious selves,
inflammatory, in every tongue.
In all their multiplicity of mood
and personality, like the huge
and overwhelming drone their wings made,
so dense and intricate, but mindless,
so their voices obsessively converged
upon one common theme: their theft
of someone’s labor, freedom, sexual being.
Under my skin, the mindless song of
slavers – hunters, traders, masters, drivers,
black, white, red, and yellow.
It maddened me. And when I’d sloshed across,
and firm ground met my feet, and the water
inch by inch unveiled my legs to the onslaught of
unslaked swarms, I flailed my arms
against my body, bruising myself as I ran
and smashed the greedy swollen bodies
that covered me like teeth on a rasp, laughing
with rage to feel them crush and pop,
until a hot breeze drove away my pursuers
and I was coated in my own blood.