I’m carrying a sick vulture in a box. It weighs almost nothing. I’m worried it might vomit — what unspeakable things might come up? — but I tell myself that vomiting is something turkey vultures only do when they’re well, to cool down their legs in the summer. I stroke its black feathers, tell it everything’s all right, even though we both know that isn’t true.
I carry it into a natural history museum and it comes alive, half-opening its wings and trying to climb out of the box at the sight of so many dead stuffed animals. But the PA system comes on to announce they’re closing soon and I push the vulture back down, folding its wings like an origami crane.
Outside, we run into a two-headed mob shouting at itself. The only thing they all seem to agree on is that Trump is due to make an appearance at any moment. But he doesn’t. I sit down on the steps, unable to join the protestors in their hey-hoing at the supporters because of the vulture, who looks bored at this demonstration of health and vitality in the body politic. We hunker down.
Hours pass, and the crowd’s chanting comes and goes like surf. The vulture closes its eyes in two stages: first the nictitating membranes like fogged-up windows, then the eyelids proper like shutters. I try not to think of the lice that co-evolved with its species, its body their whole planet. Parasites! The only creatures more ignoble than eaters of carrion. If only we hadn’t evolved as scavengers ourselves. If only we could have a true predator’s implacable heart.
Having taken our leaves of Sir W. Batten and my Lady, who are gone this morning to keep their Whitsuntide, Sir W. Pen and I and Mr. Gauden by water to Woolwich, and there went from ship to ship to give order for and take notice of their forwardness to go forth, and then to Deptford and did the like, having dined at Woolwich with Captain Poole at the tavern there. From Deptford we walked to Redriffe, calling at the half-way house, and there come into a room where there was infinite of new cakes placed that are made against Whitsuntide, and there we were very merry. By water home, and there did businesses of the office. Among others got my Lord’s imprest of 1000l. and Mr. Creed’s of 10,000l. against this voyage their bills signed. Having wrote letters into the country and read some things I went to bed.
The tide went from ship to ship
like a captain at the tavern
calling at a room
where there was infinite cake—
water in the reeds,
a voyage into some bed.
As hard as I pluck the strings, they will not sound. I add a capo, but it only produces a higher-pitched silence. The neighbor’s dog begins to howl. It’s broken, I think. The tree it was made from has taken back its birds. But then I remember the blues, and fetch an empty beer bottle from the recycling bin. As soon as the bottle’s neck hits the strings, they begin to wail. I slide it around, searching for the right three frets. But now I am overcome with a craving for pickles. I don’t even care what vegetables they come from, only that they are pale, crisp and briny and go well with rice. I want to taste the ocean. The bottle, I notice, has a message inside, the size and shape of a fortune cookie fortune. You may already be a winner, it says.
A black dog wanders into the woods at dusk and comes back with a flashlight sideways between her teeth, its halogen bulb casting a bleary beam. What a good dog, I say. Who lost a flashlight? Nobody, says our host, rattling the ice cubes in his drink. The forest is full of lights this time of year. We go back to talking about the situation in the Middle East.
I’ve lost my bus ticket home along with my billfold, which I suspect a pickpocket of having lifted. Nevertheless, I try to retrace my steps — a daunting task. How long have I been here? There’s hardly a house or shop that doesn’t seem familiar inside. I remember even the houses that are no longer there, their contents removed for resale in a junk shop that occupies several floors of a crumbling old hotel. We wander from room to room. Chairs hang high on the wall; a group of antique gramophones are gathered in a corner like musicians practicing their silence.
Back out on the street, I find an old roommate leaning against a car. I had heard he over-dosed in his bathtub after three tours of duty in Iraq. Can I get a ride, I ask. Of course, he says. We’re leaving in half an hour. I notice my wallet on the roof of his car, where I suddenly recall having set it down that morning. It’s been flipped open by the wind or some other thief. All my money and the ticket are still there. But it has other pockets I’ve never known about, like a book with pages omitted from an initial printing. It opens and opens. The thief has been thorough, but what exactly he took, I cannot say. I have a lucid moment and think: this dream is not about me. Mine is only a supporting role. Soon the stars will arrive, flashing their immaculate teeth.
At the center of an unnamed European city, a large park doesn’t open its gates until noon. People line up to get in and sit at round tables drinking wine, eating small cakes or playing accordions. Our friend who lives in the city says if they would only open at a reasonable hour — 7:00 or 8:00 — hikers could start their journeys there, setting off on one of ten long-distance trails, which were once the routes that pilgrims took to visit all the lost fingers of the national saint. It’s crucial, he says, to begin at the right place, like a ball that must be thrown from behind the head. I go in search of a conference dedicated to a book they claim I wrote, though I have no memory of it. By the time I find the venue at the far end of the park, the last paper has been delivered and they are pushing the tables back to dance. A tall, thin woman insists on showing me the steps, walking behind me, raising my arms as high as they’ll go. Slower, she says, slower! Let the steps find you. Eventually we are almost motionless except for a slight twitching of the hands. I turn around to face her and find she’s somehow slipped away, leaving in her place an elm tree full of sparrows.
Putting hands together in supplication — that unfamiliar gesture from the feudal era — it feels as if I am holding myself to account. Should the fingers interlace? It’s only me and me, baby! But now I am with Muslims who instruct me in their art of prayer: palms open, facing forward on either side of my head. God is greater. Body orienting to the Kaaba like a plant seeking the shade. They speak to God in a holy language, which doesn’t happen to be English. I move my dry lips, go down on my knees when they do, touch my nose and forehead to the ground. I feel small. The ground is almost without limit, and yet we dare to stand on it! This is nothing like therapy. Breathe in: There is no God. Breathe out: But God. I realize that I have never worn more comfortable clothes.