Facing the music

I haven’t posted any fiction here in quite a while. There might be a good reason for that, I’m thinking…

Out for a walk one night, my foot bumps against something in the middle of the road. I feel it move just a little. I tap it cautiously with the toe of my boot; it seems pretty solid. It’s light enough to push without a whole lot of effort and makes only the slightest scraping sound, like cloth or fur rubbing against the asphalt.

I can’t see anything in the pitch darkness; it’s the last night before the new moon, I believe. I bend down and listen, cupping my hands to my ears. It’s hard to tell for sure, but I think I can just make out a quiet breathing. Whatever it is, it must be in trouble – a normal, healthy animal would have run away.

I should explain that I often go out for walks after dark, largely to enjoy the darkness. My wife finds this deeply weird – but then, she finds almost everything about me a little hard to fathom, I’m afraid. “Are you sure you don’t want to at least carry a flashlight in your pocket?” she asks. “What if you run into a skunk, or a rabid raccoon? What about snakes?” I shake my head, unable to explain the attraction of venturing out into an unlit world.

One of my main criteria in selecting the house we live in now was that it be as far as possible from any streetlights. Sure, the house needed a lot of work, but we can afford to pay other people to do it, I said, and she agreed. She was sold on the huge vegetable garden, where she spends every spare moment pulling weeds or mixing up biodynamic preparations to dribble onto the beds. All the while I sit inside, bent over my drafting board. So many kinds of paper, and almost all of them are some shade of white. It makes my eyes ache after a while.

Is this really breathing I’m hearing, or the quiet throbbing of my own pulse? A jet goes over, and for a couple minutes I can’t hear anything else. I am about to give the whatever-it-is another nudge with my toe, but stop short. If it is a living creature – especially one in great pain – the last thing it needs is to have some terrifying giant pushing and prodding it when all it wants, perhaps, is to die out under the stars. I step to the side and resume my slow progress.

But the damage has been done: now I have Johnny Cash running through my head, his tremorous but still strong, old man’s voice singing “Oh bury me not on the lone prairie…”

It’s funny – I go for months without listening to recorded music, putting in earplugs whenever I’m in the vicinity of a radio, and I still can’t banish other people’s songs from my head. I wonder if my ears will ever be sensitive enough to discern what so many pre-modern writers attested to: the so-called music of the spheres, harmonies that seemed to emanate from the center of a clear night sky. The 14th-century English mystic Walter Hilton wrote matter-of-factly to a friend about hearing “‘the song of angels,’ or divine harmony.”

Just as a soul can sometimes be helped to understand spiritual matters by the spirit working through human imagination, so the spirit can help a soul caught up in the love of God to escape from all material and bodily sensations to a heavenly joy, in which it can hear a divine harmony, the angels’ song of love, provided it has attained a high enough degree of love.

But simply being “perfect in love,” Hilton added, might not be sufficient.

The soul has to be so consumed in the crucible of love that all physical elements have been burned out of it, and anything that can come between this soul and the purity of the angels has been removed and taken away from it. Then indeed can this soul ‘sing a new song to the Lord;’ then it can really hear the blessed harmony of heaven, the angels’ chorus of praise, without pretending or being deceived.

It’s strange, isn’t it, the alchemical imagery, the focus on the heart and mind of the experimenter rather than on the results of the experiment. This Augustinian language of the soul was as technical and precise as the jargon of any modern scientific discipline, though. I fully admit the shallowness of my attraction to it: it’s as exotic, as unreachably distant from my experience as the stars themselves.

We are not used to denying ourselves the pleasures of light, color and music, and the notion that some forms of knowledge might be accessible only to a carefully prepared mind seems heretical in an Information Age. I have a decidedly different take on carnal love from the 14th-century mystics. But the memories of my youthful “experiments” with mind-altering chemicals have stuck with me. When Hilton talks about the soul being “lifted, seized up, out of its senses, and beyond consciousness of physical things” until it can “hear and feel the divine harmony,” I know better than to dismiss him out-of-hand. I remember my friend who died of an overdose describing the effect of heroin the first time he tried it: not only was it far better than sex, he said, it made him realize that the mundane experiences of the body were only a kind of shadow-play. If he ended up choosing what most of us would consider darkness, perhaps it was because our own version of the light seemed so dim, so deficient.

I think about people like him whenever I’m out walking – people who, in essence, stimulate themselves to death. I have yet to find the right words to convince anyone that self-denial – “charity,” in Hilton’s archaic terminology – can also be a source of great pleasure.

As I stand there thinking in the middle of the deserted road, a sudden light rakes the branches above me and disappears. A few seconds later it reappears, illuminating the bushes to the other side before vanishing once more: headlights. I can’t hear any engine yet, but it will be here in less than a minute, I think. Whatever is lying in the road will be illuminated – and possibly crushed. Skunk? Squirrel? Raccoon? I turn and start jogging back, berating myself for not being more inquisitive, more solicitous.

I can hear the car’s engine, now, and the low heartbeat thumping of its stereo. I reach what I guess to be the right spot and start feeling wildly around with my feet and hands, all caution thrown to the wind. Nothing.

The headlights reach the last bend before the straightaway and I step to the shoulder, right hand shielding my eyes against the glare. They’re traveling too fast, whoever they are, for me to want to risk flagging them down.

A hundred feet away in their direction, a small, dark shape appears in the road, silhouetted for a few seconds in the high beams. It looks like nothing so much as an old leather boot. Then the car is hurtling past me, a convertible with its top down and music blaring, trailing an indecipherable string of shouted words.

My wife is right, I decide as I trudge back down the road. It wouldn’t kill me to at least carry a flashlight.

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