I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Toward the end of the fifth day I paused for breath at the head of a slope of shingle slate. Thousands of tiny slat-like fragments had been coming loose in miniature landslides every step of the way up. Now I walked out onto a field of boulders. On the other side of a big one that blocked my view of the snowfields still pink with sunset, I saw a very large, unfinished cement building constructed along fascist architectural lines, with a sweeping façade, designed, like that of the Potala in Lhasa, to give it an appearance of jutting up in interstellar blackness.
I smelled smoke. On the far side of a front courtyard, a small fire was burning on the stone porch in front of a looming cavity where the building’s main entrance would have been. The yard was full of sheep, baaing, milling, filling the air with a smell of mountain meadow shit. The noise alone made for an astonishing uproar. I marched in, as matter-of-factly as I dared, grasping my stick. The dog, busy with the sheep, merely glanced my way and took no more notice.
At the fire, wrapped in a gray woolen cloak like a horseblanket, was the first human being I had seen in a week. My initial impression was of her sun-blackened face and hands, her hair sandy blond, her eyes sea-green, a rarity in Andalusia; at least, I had never encountered that reseda verging on turquoise in a southern Spanish eye. To my greeting she gave no answer. I nevertheless got the feeling it would be all right to set my pack down near the fire.
She continued to ignore me.
After a second attempt to communicate, it crossed my mind that she might not be all there. I rolled a couple of smokes, using the crumbly French military-issue tobacco still in my gear. The operation took half a minute, but she didn’t seem to be watching. I noticed the construction of her face; there was nothing moronic in that wide forehead, those high cheekbones, full lips, alert eyes. It was a beautiful face.
I offered the cigarette. She accepted it without acknowledging my presence, the way somebody one is on close terms with may take a cigarette out of one’s hand as though plucking it from thin air.
She seemed to enjoy it. After a while she began putting supper together. I offered ham, bread, and cheese from my pack, which she accepted impassively, as though we were a couple of workers in a short-order kitchen, instead of a shepherd and a student, a fact of which I was being insistently reminded by the sheep’s baaing as we squatted on the stoop, and by the shit smell in my nostrils, even as I inhaled the dizzyingly powerful Army smoke.
We ate in silence. She never met my glances. There was no sign of another person’s things. No man. I broke out the last of my wine. We shared it without a word. I began talking to her in my mind, addressing her in the style of Theocritus or Virgil.
The upshot of this mental serenade was zero. Not a move, not a glance in my direction. She looked thoughtful. What was she thinking? At the same time, I asked myself if it was all that aberrant or criminally out of line that when I look at the lineaments—mouth, jaw, nose, above all, eyes—of someone I could desire, I am reminded of a thing that tells me I have the right to speak and tell you you are beautiful, what I mean is, you look like me.
Her eyes seemed to widen. I moved over next to her and touched her back, then her knees. There was a sound. I couldn’t hear but only felt it at first. It was like a purr. She purred and I stroked. It became a very loud purr. It turned into a growl. Then a spitting roar. Lickety-split she was all over me and I was rolling ass-over-backwards on the cement floor, fighting for my life, no, we were just wrestling now, just fooling. She relaxed her grip and threw her head back laughing, several teeth missing and others half rotted out. Her laughter echoed in the bare halls behind us. The wind had gone down, the sheep more or less subsided. The dog crouched at the foot of the stoop, looking at us, whining. We started making faces at each other, hooting, squawking, screeching. She kicked me, aiming at my balls. I rolled and took the point of her hard rubber sandal in the thigh. She had nothing on underneath her skirt. I tackled her and started licking the inside of one of her legs. She yanked me off by the hair, scrambled to her feet, and led me by the wrist into a room deep inside the building, where she pulled me down with her on top of a pile of rags and we fucked.
Shivering from the cold, we went back out to the fire. She kicked it up a bit. I reached into my pack, rummaging for the blue ballpoint and notebook. Tant pis, an event like what had just happened would never fit the narrow-gauge type of note-taking that was the best I knew how to do.
I glanced at my hand. The left, the one I used for sex. The Arabs consider it unclean. One isn’t supposed to eat or offer things with a hand used for ass-wiping and touching genitals. I stared at it. Mano sinistra, hand of desire and of the hellfire of lust, also of strength, justice, the knife. Focusing on the part between forefinger and thumb—the part that can bulge like a little egg—I began drawing a tattoolike figure.
I started the figure with a plus sign superimposed upon an x. Within each of the wedges formed by the four lines round their common intersection I placed a dot, making a circle of eight dots in all. Atop the centerline, surmounting the figure as a whole, I drew an inverted heart-shaped leaf.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see her at my elbow almost touching me …
I pointed to the two uppermost dots: nostrils. The next: eyes. Then, hands. And at the bottom, feet. At the center the spine and the leaf it impales—heart, genital, tongue. Not only could the figure be either male or female, I remarked over my shoulder, it was both at once, fucking.
I began going over the figure with the ballpoint, thickening the lines, and as I worked, a crystalline voice became audible from very near, whether singing or speaking I knew not, not daring to turn, although it felt as if she had been smiling all along, to herself, as it were, and then had looked up at me with the same smile overspreading her whole face, as our eyes now for the first time actually met. Yet this was only a feeling, because she was behind me. I found myself incapable of turning around to face her. My eyes remained fixed on the blue lines I was continuing to dig into the back of my hand. The voice sang on, like a bright, possibly poisonous fluid entering my ear:
The make-believe tattoo represents the planets and the sun, including Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto. The heavenly bodies are principles of nature. The nature of each living being is that of a sembrador, or seeding machine. It has nothing to do with sperm, or the erroneous theory of a split in the universe somehow joined by an infinitely repeated confluence of male and female fluids, as though the polarity were only sexual. The seed-engine is your skin stretched drumlike over the frame of a lifetime. The seed is an invisible pollen emitted through your pores, each of which represents one minute, propagating something that has no name, although there are glib words such as joy. As each pore opens, eternity rushes through. Heaven, like the sky over your head, consists of thin air, which, if you take a closer look, is only transparent nothingness, yet at a distance it is the unmoving blue ether, the source and destination of everything that moves. Get out.
I shut my eyes, then, after a while, stood up in front of the near-dead embers. She was gone, and with her, the animals.
That afternoon, stripped to the waist in bright sunlight a long scramble further up, I stopped at one of many brooks on the way and had a chunk of nearly petrified cheese and some chocolate.
Sitting there, I noticed something strange coming my way from a ¼-mile off, round the next bend in the trail. The slope of the land was steep, with no trees, just a few bushes here and there. Six black bulls were running toward me. From their frolicsome way of bounding up the slope and back onto the path, I judged they must be young. Back at the village I had been told that choice novillos destined for the ring were pastured in the high mountains. Suddenly I was terrified. This was like the silent-movie situation, tied to the rails in front of a rapidly advancing train. I could see horns gleaming in the sun. I recalled a passage from a Norse saga: “The closer the army came, the greater it grew, and their glittering weapons sparkled like a field of broken ice … ”
The two lead bulls kept leaping off the trail, scrambling to and fro on the slope. What was I going to do? Creep into a bush? There was no boulder I could scale that one of them couldn’t leap onto. I pictured myself being gored. I got up on a rock and sat very still. Images of Minoan Crete crossed my mind. The palace of the bulls. The bare-breasted goddess. The teenagers with big eyes on the sides of their faces doing somersaults between the bulls’ sharpened, flower-wreathed horns, the mosaics of undersea life, porpoises, seasnakes, octopi, and, in the basements underneath all this, the Labyrinth, the waiting Minotaur.
They rushed by. I never felt so much live force, such almost-winged brawn, pass so near. I watched till they reached the next downtrail bend, vanishing as suddenly as they materialized.
At sundown I reached the jumping-off place for my final climb. Next to the trail was a cave, marked on the map as a “refugio natural.” The opening was just big enough to wiggle through.
Inside was a space sufficient to hold a dozen people. Straw was laid down a foot thick at one end. I set out three candles. I only had four left. I chewed on a piece of the ham I’d bought in Trevélez, washing it down with cold water and the last of the brandy. I recalled a couple of lesbians I was friends with in Paris. One night we were drinking in their room at Saint Germain des Prés. They had a tiny record player. Despite bitter cold, they stripped to the waist and danced an acrobatic dance like that of the adolescent gymnasts at Knossos. They kept grabbing each other’s tits and wanted me to join in but I refused.
The next thing I knew, there was daylight at the cave entrance. Getting up to heat water for tea, I found a couple of the small black beetles local people call curas (priests). The school teacher exiled in Trevélez had told my why: Like priests, he explained, their habit is black, they breed without fucking, and they are useless.
I put on woolen socks inside my sandals, because the snow began only a couple of hundred feet above the cave. In the cave entrance I noticed a couple of alpine flowers, pink and blue. The weather was perfect, sunny with no wind. I stowed as much of my gear as I dared in a corner of the cave and covered it with straw, then shoved my knapsack through the opening and squirmed out after it, hitching along so as not to crush the flowers. For a second, as I emerged, my eye lit on the mark I had made on my hand, with its eight dotted segments and tonguelike spade licking out of the wrist end of the heart vein like an extra finger.
Glimpsed from above ten minutes later, the boulder next to the cave looked tiny, as though seen from an airplane. I was already climbing across snow, punctuated here and there by a stretch of bare rock. I paused for breath. The air was clear and still as the inside of a bell jar. It had taken forever to boil water. My breath seemed to be coming shorter, too. In the mountains one is always being deceived by appearances. The higher I went, the simpler the view. Mountain people, having seen it, never pause to look. For the first time now, the sea was visible. Far in the distance was the port of Málaga, with tiny ships going in and out, the coastal plain extending north and south, and to my left, smoke rising from the factory town of Mortil, and on the other side of it, the plain where the sheep I had seen wintered. Most of the shepherds were on a never-ending round trip between here and there, following the seasons and the depletion of the pastures. “Hardly any own their own flocks, or eat meat, or sleep in a bed, even for a week out of the year,” one that I met had told me. “Talk about the wretched of the earth,” he said, hawking up a gob of yellow spit which he wiped from his bearded lips with the back of a tanned, scrawny wrist.
I looked out over the water, straining my eyes for the promised sight, “Africa visible on clear days.” I was suddenly inside a swirl of fog which passed as quickly as it had enveloped me, and sailed on, a solitary cloud in a warm blue sky.
As I continued I realized climbing was getting tougher by the minute. My heart pounding, I had to stop. I heard an airplane engine. I turned. Several hundred feet to the southeast, at about my altitude and so on a level with me, moving so slowly it seemed suspended in midair like a dragonfly hovering above a pool, was a Stuka divebomber with Spanish airforce markings. I have always admired the Stuka’s lines. This airplane, only yesterday the terror of Europe, looked absolutely harmless. I stared as it floated past, a rakish dream, its hull and wings covered with an olive-green skin, its huge transparent cockpit like an aquarium in which the pilot and observer were bathed in light and noise, I could even make out their flying suits and goggles. The plane banked slowly and headed toward Málaga, diminishing to a speck in the sky over the sea, and then was gone.
I had reached the summit. I stood on a crust of snow. There was no wind. The air felt cold but the sun warm. I could see Africa, a wiggly line silhouetting mountains in Morocco, just inside the blue bowl of the sky. I fished out a crumpled cigarette, the last in a pack of Ideales purchased a week earlier.
Glancing down, I noticed a fat black and yellow bee climbing across the top of my knapsack, which I had set down atop a snow-powdered cairn. It had probably ridden up with me from the cave. The life of the bee, according to Maeterlinck, represents a mysterious spiral of light in overwhelming darkness. Like my own self-illumined trajectory, the bee’s seems to have been kindled to no purpose save that of perhaps entertaining darkness. A shadow crossed the sunlit canvas where the solitary hymenopteran sat trembling as though poised for flight.
“Look up,” a voice commanded.
Hovering directly overhead was a 30-foot-long cigar-shaped balloon, with an open-frame nacelle of bamboo, mahogany and woven basketwork in which sat the speaker, an olive-skinned fellow in his forties with a salt-and-pepper beard, a bowler hat, and a faded white lab smock. A rain of pearl-gray ash from a wet cheroot alighted on the snow at my feet. It was Santos-Dumont, the South American aviation pioneer, inventor of the dirigible balloon, a boyhood admiration. He had cut the engine and glided in over the mountaintop in perfect silence.
“I’m heading for a location in the high Atlas,” he told me. “Throw in your knapsack, give that propeller a yank, jump clear, and when I nose her in, just grab this rail and swing aboard alongside me.”
“Mighty strange, meeting you here,” I exclaimed, as we soared up and away. “I’d thought you died in 1914.”
“Wrong again, my friend,” the aeronaut replied. “I went back to South America and spent 15 years tinkering with heavier-than-air, but nobody understood my concept of vertical lift, so I disappeared in 1932.”
“Whereas,” I interrupted, “books say that you were ordered to develop a dive bomber by the French War Department, and took an overdose of sleeping pills rather than comply. You even left a note (I read it) stating your unwillingness to dishonor Aviation by turning it into an unsporting means of killing other human beings.”
“I’d heard you were saying that,” the old inventor groaned, “and even, I am embarrassed to say, with tears in your eyes. You misread your sources. You got me mixed up with someone else, a fellow I never liked, whose reasons for killing himself were anything but noble.” He cocked an eye at me: What does one discuss, being an older and a younger person, while perched side by side in the hand of the wind?
Neither of us spoke.
At last I ventured:
“Surely there’s something important to say. Most likely it would have to do with thinking.”
“Thinking,” he echoed.
“If you understand how a word breaks and vibrates—and each word does break and vibrate like the lights of a great city seen by night from high above—then you know that thinking progresses stepwise from the firefly-like impulses that can be pinpointed and tracked to the more subtle layers that elude all possibility of observation: and the well-formed strings never cease generating, no matter how far back, or deep, you go. Keep going, you still capture those rising and falling thirds, the wave-motion of speech. You heard it long ago in Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. It’s the core of the Gloria tibi Trinitas cantus firmus on which your life has turned for tire past half-dozen years. It’s the wave shape of language, and that is why this stepwise progression of thought, deeper and deeper into the abyss, is accomplished solely by knowers of language.”
“And yet,” (I put in), “the essence on the other side of all this is no doubt the causal one, ultimately.”
“Wait a minute!” he said. “Don’t you think we might come down a peg? You’re not the 22-year-old who only a week ago started up that mole-hill we just left behind us. You’re a middle-aged man with grey hair, cropped like a convict in my day. And there’s an odd line there on your skull that looks as though they’d trepanned you in some Andean cave a thousand years ago.”
“Whereas you … ” I cried.
“Never mind me! By this time you must have noticed that you don’t see me. I don’t see you either. Why should I? We’re not blind, none of us are, you know, but we don’t need to see. We hear everything.”
At that instant, out of nowhere, words formed: We can hear. We hear a diamond weep inside your skin: Breath, enter immortal wind …
I whispered: “We heard that.”
He went on:
“Your wife’s father on Staten Island in the ’40s had a faded jersey he played ball in, in the park Sundays, same color as a lime lollypop. A gentle, agile man. The jersey had lettering in white, with a white cow: WEISSGLAS. The Weissglas Dairy had a team that he was on. You met her 30 years ago, always her dad’s favorite girl. Listen. She’s reading:
Yesterday he and I cut a huge thistle in the field below. Every year it appears, and every year I cut it down before it seeds itself into the hillside. Wearing heavy gloves, we put it in a gray stoneware jug on the kitchen table. It has four heads, one already opened into the vase or thistle shape, the other three still closed.
Its leaves were a luminous silvery green, with stickers also reflecting light. The vase-shaped flower of long mauve quills showed at its center a white section like the stopper on a thermos bottle, or a rose shape of the type called a gül in Central Asian weaving.
By positioning ourselves directly above, we succeeded in inhaling a very faint fresh scent, without getting stuck, or stung.
This morning, as we watched, the whole flower became a ball of quills, at the same time releasing a fine white powder of pollen all the way around.
This evening we watched as a second bud opened, but only just sufficiently to disclose a minute portion of the whiteness.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee