Lost and found.
On the one hand, he was an irrepressible voyager. The world's map was a Baedeker -- no, a very bible. He opened the map, it was transformed before his eyes. it was as though the creative Hand wielded a paintbrush delicate, dipped in the hues of a rainbow. Vermilion and ivory and cobalt and scarlet and verdigris and --.
He knew it, he must walk into and become those hues, must take to himself like a chameleon, successive teguments begotten of sunset and desire!
So be it.
So it would not be. When he put foot to road, everything went awry. He got nowhere. Or rather and so to speak, he got somewhere called Wrongwhere.
Jet planes, taxis, buses, ferries, subways, helicopters even -- the world had wheels and wings, they purred at his door, they beat archangelically above his roof. Come with us, ride with us, fly away with us!
He went, he flew, he exulted. For awhile.
Picture him on arrival. Like the needle in the hay, his quest came down to a small matter indeed; a matter of this corner turn left and that corner turn right, of street names and numbers -- and the place he sought must, dammit, must be at hand....
Alas, everything that seemed to work for everyone else, landing them exactly as a grain of wheat in its furrow, or a raindrop in the heart of a flower-hopeless!
It went like this, inevitably. He would arrive in some distant part. In a generic sense, he was There.
Ah, but the Particular, that was the rub!
A merciful native, seeing him ogling and fretting over a map of the city, would pause and trace a circle on the map (this is where you are); then another circle, near or far from the first, maybe overlapping (this is where you want to go). Courteously, exactly, the distance, here to there, a sound straight line. The directive angel would then wave good luck, and be off.
Things were indeed looking up.
Our man started out confidently, buoyed by simple kindness and a well marked map.
He breathed easy, he felt like a balloon filled with preternatural gases, lighter than air, bound to earth by only the slightest of gravities. He would float unerringly, from precise hither to exact yon.
Alas, the spirit is thin-skinned indeed; the most pneumatic mood invariably thumps down and down to earth.
In his own city, on a given summer day, the heavens were filled to capacity with enormous sleek flying machines, shying from one another adroitly as a school of silvery sharks.
And in their midst one afternoon, a great gas-bloated blimp was blinking its neon orbs, serving notice from on high as to the advantages of some indispensable amenity or other. It hovered there, to the wonderment of the earthbound. But not for long.
Toward evening the pneumatic being inexplicably shuddered stem to stern, turned nose up precipitously. Down and down it fell, graceless as a deflated blowfish, to a tarred rooftop in our traveler's neighborhood.
There was a moral here, he sensed, obscure but pointed.
Only give him and his quest a half hour Then -- he begins to doubt. He turns the map about in his hand, trying to reproduce from where he stands, from where he faces, its mysterious legend; N, E, S, W.
Try as he might to correspond to these euclidean points, from which (as he knows) radiates outward a rightly ordered universe; N, E, S, W....
Everything goes awry.
One wrong turn begets another.
Yet another, and he is lost
His feet become mired in the complexities of space. The streets are no longer peaceable or welcoming; they stand up, reactive as trodden harpies, mocking him.
And as his mood darkens, so, it seems, does the mood of the citizens about him.
To him (as perhaps to them) dawn had graced the earth with a kind of baptism. Time was redeemed from waste and bombast, from charlatanry and stacked cards. People wakened and walked abroad as though under a dewy waterfall, emerging white-robed into a new lease.
The sun? it was kind as a newly risen ancestor.
But in mounting it turned cruel; toward noon it was a furious laborer stoking a furnace. Humans, treading those fires, bowed low and were bound over, slaves of a slave.
Furnace, indentured slave, godling -- the sun knew much, and refused all succor. It could point where east is, where west; it had been going and coming for a million years. O excellent ancestor, speak!
What human skin, filled with whatever lightsome element, will mount and float and voyage for long, in face of his angry flares? Pooouuuff! We are Icarus, we are downed.
After many days and years, after multitudinous suns had risen and set and risen again, after expending like a Croesus of time, most of the days and nights granted a sojourner, after fretting and moiling and losing his way and his temper (and now and again as it seemed, his soul) -- at long last our peregrine did a simple thing -- a thing that might have occurred to a wiser one, as the first thing of all to be done. He stopped in his tracks. To take stock.
To consult his soul.
How this or that renowned place, this enchanting vista, that lost city, or for that matter, this or that new film or newly minted book, the rage of the elite, the indispensable loot of all who breathed, the delicious jolt of those who require periodic infusion of spices, drugs, uppers or downers, whose quiescent lust seeks a sting, whose blood requires periodic service of leeches and lettings --
-- He had walked the world, N, E, S, W, surveyed, weighed its wares and wonders. To a farthing, a pennyweight. Weighed them in a scale against the featherweight of his own heart.
Which pan arose, lighter than what other? He thought to himself, possibly they are of vast import, these vistas, objects, beauties, uglies, artifacts, solaces. Possibly I should slacken a little the leash placed on appetite and its voracious maw.
Should I not leap to the teeming dug of the world? Should I not, like the vast majority of humans, be occupied in making time, making hay, making --
Perhaps. But a difficulty persists.
In all these enterprises, efforts, obsessions, I find something strangely at odds, awry. I have never discovered, never once, in the faces of hucksters and hawkers and possessors -- never discovered the least joy, not the least evidence of joy.
Or if so, if now and again in the obscene millennial auctioning of creation, there appeared a standout winner, a wild card -- the smile, the spoor, as he trundled off bearing his sack of piracies, seemed the stench of a shroud, the painted grin on a corpse.
Such were the reflections of our gyrovague, as he stood before a museum in a city far distant from his own.
The rose-red city of his desire! Half as old as time, painted on the aforesaid map by the aforesaid Hand. He had arrived with the velocity and baffling accuracy of a bullet.
Nonetheless his old nemesis shadowed him. The closer he came to the quest standing serene and noble in his mind, the more it took on the airy semblance of a mirage.
A wretched prelude. For hours he had plodded along and missed his way and sought what help he could hail to his side. And ever so slowly the city of light darkened. It grew positively stygian, it became in his mind a pit of vagrants and distempered snarlers.
It seemed as though his geographic ineptitude had become pandemic; a series of locals responded to his inquiries with diabolic inaccuracy.
Calm down, calm down.
Success being as inexplicable as catastrophe, the long trek finally shortened, he trod at long last the street of his dream. The great museum stood before him, storehouse and restorer, a shrine and its healing unguents.
With a pang, he entered the noble premise.
After many hours of peering, wandering, note taking, his eyeballs seared with the radiant plunder of the dead, he paused in a shadowy corner to reflect
Here, he said to himself, privileged I stand among the kings, robed in linen and crowned with purest gold. Kings who subdued their enemies like a flail from Gehenna, then handed the flail on, so that imperial sons of sons would scatter the enemy like chaff to the winds. Winnowing the wheat of the world, they gathered such plunder as is piled here.
And then? These mandarins, one after another, generation upon generation -- to the vanity and despair and mournful flutes of their votaries -- went down to the grave.
And behold. In this vast condominium of death I have peered into every face. And each, whether crowned with gold or molded in clay, is scarred with a look of cruelty, vexation, cynicism, greed.
Where in this theophany, this vaulting lust for immortality, will a seeker such as I come on a face, like a torch beating its way through darkness, wearing a smile of joy?
And what am I to conclude? That their main and passionate urge (for immortality, for gold, for slaves, for a fond blessing, for mercy in a time of judgment), that such desires seduced them from the true way.)
THEN AND THERE, OUR TRAVELER TOOK RESOLVE.
He would rejoice in his own fate, chancy and absurd as it was, the buffoonery of a blindfolded child spun about in the world, N, E, S, W.
He would refuse to let go his game.
A way bereft, beyond doubt, of good sense and logic.
A way now lost in a thicket, now heavily trodden, rarely straight as a plumb line, often tangled beyond recognition.
HE NEVER FORGOT THE JOY OF THAT MOMENT.
He had looked the great kings in eye; they were hooded and blind as wayside stones.
Burdened with his undoubted mortality, its panic and ineptitude and choler, nonetheless he saw them, through and through. And they saw nothing.
He breathed deep. And spoke, whether to them or his own soul, in mockery or benediction, who could know?
Said. I travel beneath a banner. Painted and lettered by no mortal Hand.
Its legend: Already Arrived.
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1997|
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