Once ashore my priorities shift and I am standing at the window wondering how long it will be before I embark again, knowing full well, however, that those day are over. They have been discarded in favor of days that aren’t really days at all anymore if by days you mean the passage of a certain number of hours and the events and tribulations that fill up those hours, and of course the longing that is as palpable as another arm. Our memories are more than just coverings with which we keep off the cold and the dark and the insects that would otherwise feast on our flesh because it is unprotected and it gives off a beacon of some sort, an aura and trail of carbon dioxide the color of magenta in their compound eyes, I imagine. Glinting and bouncing up and down in mid-air as if hung from a string and manipulated by someone in the rafters. One island looked pretty much like the next, except for the one with a summit in the middle, a dormant volcano on which skilled artisans had carved the likeness of a horse’s skull sometime in the distant past. Their purpose was the same apparently as was ours when we ate without our knives and spoons, when we grunted a great deal while speaking and it often made me wonder why the clouds kept so aloof there and far away when it was obvious their assistance was desperately needed closer to the ground. The people spoke a dialect inaccessible to their neighbors not five miles away across the straight and when we attempted to pry its flesh apart, to get at the heart of it by assigning an alphabet, they pulled out one of their own which had been scribbled on the back of a stray piece of Styrofoam and locked away in the cellar where they kept other objects they considered of only passing interest. A couple bottles of their indigenous wine and some of their ancestors’ bones in faded burlap sacks that had once contained rice, I suppose, or millet.
A set of turrets speaks to me from across the skyline, beckons and pleads until I am all but determined to head in that direction. The only thing stopping me, of course, is the sense that I have been there before, that I have wandered all around the perimeter of that cathedral without being able to gain access and the men in the shadows plucking their guitars composed a dirge for me extemporaneously. It was in B flat and the sound of it sent the birds scurrying for the adjacent rooftops and brought the saliva to my lips where it settled and cooled and turned a pasty white guaranteed to turn my stomach should I get a glimpse of my reflection in a window as I passed. On the island of flying men we lost our way in the caverns underneath the main village, passages painted with complicated images of bulls and viola players and women with eyes the color of pomegranates. Certainly there was a system to it all and some of us wished to get to the bottom of it, spent days and weeks in contemplation, with our sketch pads at the ready and our fingers stained irrevocably by the charcoal we used to render what we’d seen. It turns out no one on the island of flying men could actually fly, but every now and then you’d see one of them hurl himself into the air from a nearby cliff and there was great deal of shouting and consequent merry-making among a population who believed they had yet again witnessed the miracle of someone’s escaping once and for all the unholy constraints of gravity. I spend my days now within reach of the radio, tuning to stations that specialize in the mandolin. It makes a sound like that you get when you rub your fingernails across the scales on the back of a lizard and reminds me of a childhood that didn’t actually belong to me, that I appropriated for myself at the precise moment when I realized the other one, the earlier and more accurate one, was going to dissolve minute by minute, was going to turn into a soup of little more than enzymes and innuendo, a milky white substance with nothing underneath. The process that causes this to happen is of great interest to those who it never happens to, but for the rest of us, the victims and the orphaned, the dead-eyed and somnolent, knowledge is no more beneficial in itself than is the shape of a carrot or the lesions that are said to break out on your skin when you are battling meningitis.
The telephone rings and I jump up from where I have been sitting but I can’t locate the device, I have trouble even remembering exactly what it looks like and pretty soon there is silence but for my breathing which is labored and shallow as if someone else were suddenly entrusted with doing it for me. Someone with no real credentials other than the fact that he has been born on this planet the same as you or I and has managed thus far to remain here through a certain ingenuity and know-how in the construction of miniature magnet-driven motors and the marketing of the same, if not the actual sales. I examine the wall closest to my head very closely, the divots and the patterns in the plaster like numbered thoroughfares passing through desert scrub-land when viewed from above, and begin the usual round of unanswerable questions – how can we be sure what appears to the senses, particularly of the auditory variety, originated in this room and not the one separated from it by a common wall? And how do we define objects like walls without first defining the substance of which the wall is but a mere attribute, a way of experiencing it? Before we could regroup and set sail yet again, there was the interlude on the other side of the island where a handful of engineers and seers and the like were busy competing with one another in the construction of mock-ups, of facsimile versions of the world at its most fundamental, as it appeared in the tales they told themselves when they could be bothered to tell tales rather than spending the day netting the fish in the harbor or cleaning them with rusty blades. I spent what seemed at the time like entire weeks wandering through the version made of ice, every room carved by hand from a block of ice blue as the deepest curve of the atmosphere and possessing a solidity such as I had heard rumors of in other places, in flimsy places that altered their appearances simply as a result of one’s looking directly at them, or stifling a cough.
My favorite recipe involved the grouse that scattered from the newly-tilled fields when you walked them, when you followed the elders to their altars at the edges of the fields and you listened to them speak a language that relied on brimstone, on the noxious properties of sulfur to get its message across. For days and weeks afterward, as we plied the waves, as I would lie awake at night on my hammock staring at the violently mobile heavens overhead, I would conjure the flavor of that flesh on my tongue and begin to weep until the others threatened to toss me overboard, a threat I took seriously because they had done it to at least one other of our party before. The effect of the metronome, its sawing back and forth between two equidistant points and two ontological states as yet to be fully identified, explains a great deal in terms of who is likely to become enamored of electrical storms and who is likely to survive a coma and inform us of what exactly lies on the other side (before, of course, the informant can abjure all responsibility for what has been said to that point and pursue instead an exciting career in finance). Eulalie explains the physics of it, the mathematics wedded to everyday observation, in terms I can understand and so my debt to her is increased to the point where it is not really a debt any more in the strictest sense of the term. It is an obligation, a terror such as descends upon us at night when we are walking along a precipice, say, and we can’t see where we are placing our feet. But we have to place them somewhere because it is irresponsible to stand still. It gets you, among other things, a reputation for daydreaming that is almost impossible to shake. Eulalie knocks at the front window at all hours of the night trying, I suppose, to lure me outside where the crickets grow to the size of small dogs and where the rain beats on the pavement in a staccato that reminds one of piano lessons taken at a time when the hands were yet to fully develop, when they were as pliable as saplings. I know she wants nothing in particular, we both know whatever she wants she can secure for herself by opening the front door and presenting me with a bit of cactus in a miniature plastic pot, or a hand-drawn likeness of the Golden Gate bridge. But there are principles involved and some day I hope to master them, I hope to be able to recite them just as you might the words to the national anthem to a country you visited only once, and that in a dream. A place with boulevards as wide as man-made lakes and a representative dish composed almost entirely of raisins and beets.