The light, they said, the light. Don’t laugh! Someone one must bear witness to the play of things we have no words for: the way the memory flutters her figure. It has gone to my head, the flattery of aspen leaves.
In a dream we steered a car gingerly though a cobblestoned labyrinth in the transplanted medieval heart of a Middle American hometown. I was eluding our sinister pursuers, I was teaching silence to the night birds and the Lord’s Prayer to the crickets, who played everything backwards with their feet. It was nice to be able to hear where we’d been, not as if in a soundtrack to a near-death showing of the movie of our lives, but as an ascent to some snow-lined cirque in the French Pyrenees. They had a sign advising all park visitors to turn off their radios and “listen to the music of the mountains”–a sentiment we heartily endorsed, primarily because the rental car’s stereo didn’t work. We hiked for a while through the alpine meadows and watched through binoculars as the chamois clambered on the cliffs.
This was a long time ago, a one-day diversion from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and Cabo Finisterre, the Cape of the End of the Earth, which was covered with blooming wildflowers when we finally got there one day in May. Franco had only recently passed; the streets of every Spanish town still belonged to the Guardia Civil in their sinister black capes. We chanced on a saint’s day celebration in one small town where the men were put in charge of peeling and chopping onions, piles and piles of large, sweet onions with the dirt still clinging to their roots. This was a task well suited for a family of pilgrims, they thought, handing my father a knife. Come weep with us, even if we share no more than fourteen words in common. Weep and be glad, since no one can ever recall anything by its proper name.
Ah, father onion! We strip off all your masks–for what? To give the stew its fundamental tone. And in my dream the car shrank and shrank until it was small enough to fold up and stick in a back pocket. We came out onto the square and strolled nonchalantly in a counterclockwise direction so we could look directly into the damp faces of all the town’s inhabitants one by one. (Remember, there was nothing on TV in those days.) “The eye doesn’t shine,” says Levinas. “It speaks.”
But I prefer the mysterious pronouncement of Vladamir Khlebnikov, who said, “Words are the living eyes of secrecy.” Sometimes even my own words strike me that way. Like right now, for instance. What am I trying to hide? Behind all masks of the onion, what remains? Nothing but the good soil it grew in–and the rain, and the medieval sun that still drops off the end of the earth and swims back each night through the labyrinths where hell used to be. Nowadays, with Franco long gone, who needs all those subterranean prisons, those sadistic inquisitors?
And Cabo Finisterre? The land has almost reached its limit, yes–and the Spanish, at least, seem well aware of the fact. They have said no to the sorcery of the backwards prayer and the blind mask, to words with their eyes put out. Last year an oil spill blackened Finisterre and much of the rest of Galicia’s verdant shoreline. This year the blood of soldiers and their victims seeps into the uranium-enriched soil of a battlefield that used to be a country. We will visit cemeteries on hills in our own country where the groundskeepers permit no real flowers, only plastic, and where the older coffins leak poisons into the groundwater. Death like an old whore must be covered in thick makeup. I will remember those who died young in the service of their country, like my friend Ben, who was born on July 4th, 1976, believe it or not, and died 20 years later from an overdose of artificial stimulation, having found nothing else worth dying for. And the teenaged alcoholic who used to pass out on my bed and piss all over the sheets–such a sweet girl, really, too much in love with life. She died looking for a bathroom, fell down a steep set of stairs in a strange house and broke her neck.
Today we will be overcome with nothing more than shouts and laughter, the high-strung preparations for a potluck supper and the giddy feeling that comes from dipping into and out of two many different conversations in too short a space. There will be no alcohol and no wallowing in maudlin sentimentality, beyond a simple mealtime invocation that we may or may not remember to have somebody say. I don’t know if we’ll visit the cemetery or not, but if we do, I am thinking that on my grandfather’s grave I’ll leave a subversive peony or two. It’s funny the things we do for the departed, the way we honor our imaginations–“s/he would have liked that,” we say, not even thinking about the literal realities of possible afterlife destinations. It’s important somehow, for a moment at least, to turn off our radios and TVs and just listen to the music that the hills are supposed to be alive with, and then to look–really look–into each others’ damp faces. Those dark tunnels, those valleys of the shadow, and the stage lights that beckon from beyond.