First I come upon The Hall of Mirrors. I am able to go wandering among the mirrors, the walls the the ticket-taker’s kiosk and the doors all collapsed, shattered, only the mirrors in tact. Animals have been here, and vandals. I smell their urine. I see their graffiti.
I wander among more abandoned seaside pavilions past pools of dark black water, some like mirrors. It might rain again.
What is this place? Where am I?
Then, before long, I am walking with the famous eternally itinerant Hunter Gracchus who has come ashore again, this time to this strange place where I find myself….I was delighted to meet him as I rounded a corner near a rusting, broken carrousel, its colorful horses long ago ripped off their pedestals and carried off. Those who had borne Gracchus ashore wait by his bark near the water. He had obviously risen up and decided to walk in this strange, disturbingly anonymous place where I find myself. He wishes to explore it a little. I guess it’s his kind of place.
But then, his fate and direction in this life is — rudderless. I know that from my previous encounter with him. He goes where he goes. Simple as that. Simple and strange.
I recall reading of his previous landing in a seaside place called Riva, an unknown place in an unknown time, but long ago. The account of that episode begins:
Two boys were sitting on the harbor wall playing dice. A man was reading a newspaper on the steps of the monument, resting in the shadow of a hero who was flourishing his sward on high. A girl was filling her bucket at the fountain….A bark was making silently for the harbor as if borne by invisible means over the water….
That was old Gracchus’s bark. The Hunter Gracchus came ashore to that place not unlike this place, though there are no monuments here, none that I’ve encountered yet, anyway. He obviously had been hoisted off his bark by two men bearing a bier on which he had rested, as if dead– the same men who wait for him now like pallbearers; tall and sturdy fellow, and patient, for they do not know how long they must wait for their charge. They sit on the edge of the bark. ( Do I see one of them smoking? Can’t blame him. It’s been a long, tedious — and endless — voyage.) And Gracchus, seemingly dead, is walking, as if somnambulant. We’ve got to talk.
Now, please, do not see him as a zombie, not the walking dead of b-movie legend. He is walking as you or I might slowly, inquisitively walk, eyes brightly, but serenely open, if we were on such a mystical journey. Yes, it might seem like sleepwalking. But it is wide awake-walking. That’s what I’ll call it. His demeanor, his stride, commands attention among the few who might witness it. He brings peace by his demeanor, but mystery as well. He IS mystery itself. Walking mystery.
The town’s burgomaster in that former long-ago place of debarkation named Riva, upon meeting Gracchus, asked:
Is it true, Hunter Gracchus, that you have been cruising about in this old boat for hundreds of years?
And I ask, this century or more later, the same question. I get a simple nod of affirmation.
I speak, seeking help with memories:
“Gracchus,” I say, getting his attention as we walk in a light breeze in which he regards all the ruins before him but most impassively as if nothing interests him or perhaps everything interests him. It is hard to tell. “I have found a cyber memory that enfolds a paper memory,” I tell him. “And it has sent me into an infinite, mirrored regression of memories of lost correspondences, flimsier than paper, and it has introduced me to even more lost memories — all on this twenty-fourth day of this sixth month two days after the longest day of the year, in this twenty-first years into this twenty-first century in which I am making new memories all the time; thin and soiled like candy wrapper litter discarded by the former merrymakers in this once-cheery abandoned venue we are exploring, collecting at my feet and about my head, as if blown about in a gale.
“Some are pleasant, many are disturbing or unwanted. But I want time to stop much as it seems to have stopped for you — only can we, you and I, cease to wander? For though you endure your fate without agitation, I, among the living and hungry for more life, wish otherwise for myself. I want time past and time present to all be present in time future. Help me with this. Will these memories keep surfacing, blowing and circling about in a vortex, only to be lost, found, then blown about, lost again, then carried off in a sea breeze such as buffets us now? Then lost forever? Or must I always be proceeding backwards in search of them, like a man running across that vast, cracked and empty parking lot over there, chasing scraps of memory? Won’t those memories ultimately be blown out across some nameless sea such as the one we see here from this unknown seaside place of lost diversions? And without memories, be they pleasant or unpleasant, what are we, any of us?
“But we all long for what seems to elude both of us at this moment, the trumpet sounding as the great happy choruses of joyous trumpets and hurdy-gurdies and children’s laughter and squeals of joy and celebration once rose up from this place, only we seek, indeed, we long for the the dead to rise incorruptible, all those who are now only memories that once joined us in this life, and for us to be changed, no longer in need of memories, eternally situated in God’s presence, the God Who loves us….”
So I spoke to Gracchus. I should tell you, as I told Gracchus, that my multilayered, conch-shell-like memory — that being memory wrapped within a memory within a memory — was a paltry thing evoking memories of people far from those central to my life over many decades. Not my father, mother, sister — no, just average but fond acquaintances in average times. But isn’t memory like that? We are pleased to recall those we’ve known in this life, then, suddenly, our memories are primed and the water flow and we go on thinking, as in a reverie, about those we could never have lived without. Was there not once a story of a man who bit into a madeleine cake and, under the spell of the memories that then flowed forth, written three long volumes in search of lost time?
Here is what primed my memories pump, Gracchus. A letter from a specific, not long-ago time….
July 29, 2012
Dr. Clark(former college professor),
From out of the musty, depressingly cluttered depths of my basement comes a yellowing sheet of memory — Oct. 22, 1969 edition, Suffolk Journal( a student newspaper).
You’re there. Who’s the blond? I recognize the beguiling Harriet Allebach(another professor) .
It was all about war, those old newspapers. Everything seemed to be about war in those days. I’d already graduated and had driven to California the month before. I would be inducted into the Army in Boston on Oct. 29, so I might have returned to Boston by this time. Don’t know how I happened to have this edition of the paper. Not at all sure why I saved it and am convinced I must slay the packrat in me. But I’m sadly incapable of simply hoisting and tossing wads of probably useless paper — for fear it might have something like this in it, for whatever it is worth.
I specifically recall how, in 1969, the FUTURE was this dark road ahead. Now, it’s the dark road behind. I went swimming on a secluded rocky beach in Rhode Island today and, up to my neck in the ocean under gray skies — I swear my mind was doing a “Dover Beach” number. I was melancholy. As usual.
Back to the basement — I found a few old editions of the Journal from ‘69 and discarded them after being depressed by the puerile writing, the callow preoccupations of that moment, such as a new Beatles album, Abbey Road, reviewed in this edition by my late friend and Suffolk ( and Woodstock) alumnus Bob Jahn who deemed it to be so good as to “staggers the imagination”. Oh, my!
Troving about, sorting and digging through papery mounds, I felt the need somehow to find and embrace permanent, enduring things.…
“That is how it ends, Gracchus. It trails off. Can you believe that I don’t know that I ever even mailed this? That no one but I and now you ever knew of it? Doctor Clark is dead these three years. Bob Jahn, an old friend, ( the newspaper reviewer) is dead these twelve years. Beguiling Harriet Allebach, who knows where she is, dead or alive? The house with that basement, is long gone to other owners, occupied by them now with their memories. Those old newspapers? Buried again somewhere. So fragile.
“And just today, while I’m thinking about things lost or surrendered, I let a table and some chairs go to strangers for forty dollars from this place where I live now. They had carried with them, memories, however recent and brief. The room where they stood is horribly empty. But there are memories in it. Don’t we, as we vacate a place we live, wander through the empty rooms recovering — memories? And I so regret leaving the last place I abandoned on a street named for a blue heron. What is it, what restlessness, drives us forth from places where we ought to stay and find our peace; find, as Pascal suggested, the strength and wisdom that comes from staying in once place in our one little room?
“But we mortals are known to let things go for various reasons, wise or unwise, of space and time — and money. But then, that emptiness….
“So, I am sharing this with you, Gracchus. I’ll walk you to your bark, for you seem anxious to depart again. Take this compound memory of mine with you, please.
“Will I see you again? If I can get back there, might I see you off the coast from that Rhode Island rocky beach on your bier aboard this barque? Or might I see you out on the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico where it approaches land near where I am writing now?
“I don’t know the name of this place where we are walking, or how I got here, but — can you reconsider and stay? Help me get oriented? Or perhaps I might come aboard your bark with you in the hope that it might help me get back to where I came from?
“Can we have coffee somewhere, search for another soul with whom to share — our memories?
But he answered….
I think not. I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death.
“Well, that’s pretty heavy. But do as you must. “
So, reader, I’ll just see him off, then search alone for that coffee in these “regions of death.” There must be a place here, a pleasant cafe with pleasant faces. A Burger King, a Seven/Eleven with coffee, good or bad, and maybe those little pods of International Creamers, though I like my coffee — black.
There must be Regions of Life, however tawdry, but might they all, at their hearts, like this squalid, broken, abandoned once-happy place, be empty? Perhaps a friendly clerk might alter my mood of forlorn disorientation. Perhaps there are the beginnings of memories here, wherever I am, if I can hold on to them….if they are worth anything.
Gracchus, for his part, insisted he was going. He lay back down on his bier, the bark drew away, the two silent men with him, clearly not any kind of company for either of us, casting off in that rudderless vessel, being borne far, far off toward the horizon until I could see that old boat no more.
I waved. What else could I do?