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My village lies there in all its stony composure under the first thunderstorm of fall. It meant cold weather was coming, creeping in like a procession of ghosts under the rumbling sky. They’ve been here before, setting up their spider-web houses and devouring the crumbs of summer twilight as if it were manna. We lit a fire and sat admiring the flickers curling up like silky marigolds. The cold receded into the dark corners and we were left staring at the hearth without talking. A glass of wine stood nearby and I sipped from it now and then, enjoying the hemp-sour bouquet. The swimming pool had closed a month before, and the little epicerie at the end of the street was taking care of its last customers of the night; they darted home through the puddles with shopping bags clutched under their arms. Shutters were still ajar and small lamps glowed in the recesses of dark rooms. Night was falling with its usual stern resolve as we cleared the dishes and came back to watch the logs crumble on the grate.
The next day burnished all this gold lying in the streets and swept up the scattered diamonds from last night. Kids were hurrying off to the school below us, and mothers were walking back home to clean up the breakfast table and sit down to nibble on a heel of bread and sip cold coffee. The sky was a museum of moth-eaten clouds, the kind painters would smear onto their canvases and then paint over. It’s hard to grasp eternity when the sun is so diligent in its progress across the wall. The minutes are palpable and land on one’s wrist like an affectionate caress. Overhead, in some nearby recess of the sky, the church bell droned its melancholy statement on time. It would be nine o’clock soon, as windows were being scoured with wads of newspaper and dribbles of vinegar. Life’s quiet impulses waited at this hour when nothing important impinged on us.
The routines that we impose on ourselves prevent us from losing our way in the endless wasteland of reality. We etch the air with tiny lines to mark off the hours, to establish limits on the unbounded fields of the universe. It’s good to stand at the sink and brush our teeth, tame the wild clumps of hair from sleep, and gaze at all the wrinkles that have appeared like snail tracks around our eyes. These chores are a map of tiny roads fanning off into the foothills, leading vaguely to villages that remain Stone Henges in the morning light. I throw two slender branches of oak onto the embers of last night, but they don’t catch.
The news I read each day is a fumbling attempt to make the emptiness eventful, to keep us wondering what will happen next. But nothing happens next, or very rarely. The disasters strike at odd moments and the poor reporters paid to keep us in suspense at all hours of the day are suddenly baffled by the eeriness of a train wreck, an earthquake shaking the mundane world down to its roots. A hurricane forms out in the Atlantic and boils its way east to flood the coast and rip off roofs, tear up the trailer houses parked along the river, and to devour the monotony by which we live. Hindus believe this is the work of the elephant god, Ganesh. The virtue of his anarchy is that the village is left in ruins and must rebuild itself with new timber and tin roofs, and the soggy, lice-infested interiors of the old village are buried in the woods.
An old man comes out of the lottery store with a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. He stands in the breeze trying to light his first smoke of the day. His white hair blows in all directions as he cups his liver-spotted hands around the flame. Finally, he drags down a cotton ball of smoke and lets it wander out of his nose. He has a parcel under his arm and heads off to a cafe for a cup of coffee. The loaf of bread is for supper, and he carefully unwraps the paper and peeks in. The smell of pine nuts assails his nostrils in a good way, and he smiles to himself. He’s down to his last few euros as he sits there. He has no worries in the world. His skinny arms are draped across the backs of the nearby chairs and he looks around with a feeling of deep gratitude. He puts out the stub of his cigarette and goes off to sit in the park. There are islands of weak sun bleaching the stones and he will choose a bench that lies in the middle of one. The plane trees overhead are letting go of their big brown leaves one by one. They come down slowly, tilting back and forth before they land.
Somewhere up north a glacier is calving icebergs that sink down into the frothy surf and begin their journey south. They are glass castles gleaming in the arctic sunlight. Seagulls are perched on its turrets and gaze up into the gossamer-thin sky to watch for raptors on the hunt. I hear an old girlfriend clear her throat to speak to me. She wants to break up, but doesn’t want to lose my friendship. An icy wind blows out of her mouth, as thin as a razor blade, as she blinks and stammers and tries to find the right words. We are standing on the edge of the playground where childhood comes to an abrupt end. I walk away thinking about her blue dress, the way she danced with her loose limbs and drew close with her lilac smell and her mouth chewing peppermint gum. She was my first, and it was startling to realize I was alone. The sky was already darkening for the first thunderstorm of the fall. Raindrops were beginning to thud into the dry sand beside the sidewalk.
I must have been crying when I got home. My eyes were red and I had used up my one tissue to smear away the tears. I wanted to be alone in my room, to think about her, to look out the window at the alley below, where a dog was standing without any sense of where to go. I waved to it and it looked up with a worried expression. It headed off toward the Italian restaurant in the next street. Someone was calling for her, but she didn’t look back. A burst of yellow light, bright as a marigold, fell across the carpet of the hall outside, and I heard my mother coming up the stairs with the rattle of a teacup and a dish of cookies. She could read my mind, and I could read hers. She left the smoking teacup with me and let me sulk. I had no desire to be consoled. I was trying to feel my pain as it worked its way along my breath, down to my arms, and up again, around my heart. I was older now, with a deep scar forming over the last time I told the girl that I really cared about her. That must have frightened her. She didn’t want to grow up. She was only used to summer, not the tarnished glow of the sun in October. She was determined to believe in magic and miracles, and knew her father would lie to her about the tooth fairy. She liked that. She didn’t like me because I was beginning to pitch my tent at the border between the rose gardens and the withered shrubs of the police station.
When the priest turned around from the altar and faced the congregation, he made the sign of the cross with his fingers and came down to the railing. I had the chalice and my friend held the linen napkin to wipe it after he pulled up a wafer and placed in some beseeching mouth. They were the faces of autumn as they shivered in their overcoats under the vaults of the ceiling. The priest’s feet made a sighing noise as he stepped sideways along the altar rail. I followed in my alb and surplice, which swayed around me. I had rung the bells at the moment of transubstantiation, but this time I felt no bone-chilling thrill at the thought that a god had entered into the bread and wine. I was thinking how old I had become since the afternoon, a brittle sapling facing the winter, which lay hidden below the far hills, waiting to come into the streets to freeze our hands and warn us of our impending doom.
But right now I was holding the chalice and mumbling my Latin prayer, and stepping sideways in a somber dance with the priest. We were like parts of a timeless pendulum swinging out of the heavens and marking the rhythm of a season that had begun right there in the doorway of last summer.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the South of France.