The Songe of If (The Gift) – Excerpts

“In the pathway’s seasonally changing breeze this knowing gladsomeness, whose mien often seems melancholy, thrives. This gladsomeness knowing is [a serene melancholy which says what it knows with veiled expressions]. No one wins it who does not have it. Those who have it, have it from the pathway. Along its trail winter’s storm encounters harvest’s day, the agile excitation of Spring and the serene dying of Autumn meet, the child’s game and the elder’s wisdom gaze at each other. And in a unique harmony, whose echo the pathway carries with it silently here and there, everything is made gladsome.”

Martin Heidegger

* * *

Chapter 1

Morning Shadows and Dawning Sun

 

S olitary was the moment. There was no breeze. There was no movement. The air was musty and thick as it absorbed the yellow light that snuck around the thin wooden slats of the ramshackle wall. There was only calm and peace, tranquility itself distilled to a substance that overwhelmed and protected. Marie was, she supposed, the only one to feel it. She was, to be sure, alone there to know it.

Lying still, Marie heard a grasshopper move. She recognized the clumsy, yet gentle, movements down below. The sound was delicate, not a rustle precisely, more like a finger ticking, pricking, clicking the bristles of a broom, a gentle snapping of straw, a scratch of pebbles shifting. Birds called from outside. The farmer’s door opened. Water dripped gently from the wall of the barn. Two cows lowed. A child was calling from somewhere far off. The sounds added to her calm and completed the sensation of place. They were familiar, comfortable, confirming. She did not know if other movements came from inside or outside; she only cared that she felt safe and hidden as if her head was loosely swaddled within a blanket of feathers. Her breath, in smooth rhythm, spread the cloak of warmth that came from her body and with each shallow exhale, the dampness and sweetness built, then dissipated, around her.

The sensation at that moment was not the absence of something; there was indeed an unexpected presence of nothing. It was tangible and oppressive but like an unwanted friend, it was somehow welcomed as a surprise companion. And still the warm solitude hung, hung there inside her, and as she reached to hold tight, it lasted no longer than that ungrabbable instant when the cushion of sleep yields silently to the yawning weight of awake. She focused to grab hold, yet it slipped and withdrew as all dreams will, faster than her thoughts could race, farther than her wings could reach. Indeed, as we all know too well, the more insistent our attempt, the more urgent do dreams seem to strive to depart.

Except for the faint sound of bells from the small village church, there was no rhythm to be marked on this early spring day, no succession of minutes to be counted out like the rows in a field of well-sown wheat. In southwestern France, on this farm, on this morning, it was but two stretches of arms and one blurry blink after an uninterrupted sleep. It was that extended span of time between the lowing of cows and a begrudged ruffle of feathers. It was, more precisely, that moment when the sun begins renewing the soft dry warmth of the rock-speckled earth.

Marie tried not to move. Enrapt and alone, in her solitude she was then the whole world. She was everyone and the only one. She was in the single place that existed. And she loved this feeling. She curled in her bed, pulled her feet in more firmly, and turned her head gently to rest her neck. Aware of her body, she ignored it, focusing instead on the pictures that remained in her head. Although her dreams were now gone, random impressions remained, echoes of lost sounds, floating memories of friends, swaths of vague colors, undulations of clouds, affirming smiles of loved family, chirpy shrieks of quick laughter – each warm image overlapping the next, yet set on an undrawn backdrop of a melancholy darkness that permeated all. Without consciousness’ grasp, these emotions and sights flowed not in a line but wildly mingled into a swirling knot that twisted and reshaped themselves by tumbling about and melding together.

But it did not last long. It never lasted long.

Is it fair to curse interruption when it shatters our solitude from the world outside? When it rudely intrudes on the stillness? When it sends our calm world to flee? Or does solitude surrender when the mind wanders too far and the outside world is beckoned to enter? Whether it was the soft movements of creatures awakening, or the snaps and popping of wooden slats expanding in the light and the warmth of a rising new sun, Marie’s meandering journey abruptly reached an end, her distant thoughts broken as she was returned to the present. Why, she wondered, couldn’t she make these moments last longer? Why, she lamented, must they end always too soon? Yes, that’s the sneaky thing about interruptions, she concluded. They never exist until we notice them.

With eyes still ablurry and a mind still awander, Marie saw a distorted, faint shadow across the far wall suddenly move. It caught her, startled. She stared at it. She lifted her head. “Oh,” she thought and she shrank deeper in her nest. Somehow the light grey form seemed more real than the body lying with her. She raised her head slightly and saw the patch of blocked light move. “I’m over there,” she reflected. “Yet, here I am still.” . . .

Chapter 13

The Old Farmer and the Tree

With a sudden fierce chill, the farmer awoke. And as often happens, a beautiful warm dream transforms to a beautiful cold nightmare when the images found have no place in the sun. His visions lingered a moment and began to subside. The farmer opened his eyes. They were damp. He was alone. He wiped at his cheeks. It was going on dusk, a day sinking to night. The stones of the house, now a dark yellow grey, loomed to his left, rising straight up, immovable, insistent, as if planted in the ground. Sounds again filled the air. The farmer twisted in his seat, felt his heart pound from inside, and the tree slide roughly against his stiff back. It felt odd, the contrast of the trunk to its softness in the dream. “The tree,” he thought, still in half-awake thinking. “This tree is not as hard as it looks.”

He put his hands on the ground and shifted forward to stand up. As he leaned to his left, he felt something drop on his shoulder. A small wet spot appeared at the top of his sleeve. He looked at the sky. There were thin white clouds now, wispy, not moving. There was no sign of rain. He studied the drop. It was not from a bird. Too clear, too small, like a raindrop but firm.

He raised his right hand to the spot on his shirt and brushed it lightly with his fingers. It was thick and the stickiness pulled at his sleeve. Puzzled, the old farmer sat forward to remove his back from the tree. He looked straight up. There, where the shortest of limbs protruded from the trunk, was a glistening patch where liquid gathered slowly and formed a small drop at the edge of a ridge. The farmer continued to stare as the viscous substance imperceptibly grew to a dangling ball which again was readying to drop.

“That’s strange,” the farmer thought.

And as he sat there thinking, searching for an answer, another drop fell and landed on his knee. He stood up. Bracing with his left hand on the trunk while rising on his toes and lifting his right arm, the farmer stretched his body and swiped his finger across the wet, gleaming spot.

“How about that,” he said out loud. He smelled it, then put a bit on his tongue. He looked up again. This was hard to believe. He took a step back. There was no hole and no damage. No rain and no dew. Nothing at all to condense or congeal.

But wait. What was that? He did notice something. Just under the glisten that sparkled in the light. Just a few inches down, at the nape of the neck where the shortest of limbs joined the hulking, dark trunk. Whatever it was, it was curved and, yes, spiraled. A strange pattern ran counter to the petrified grain and somehow intersected and diverged with the swirl of the wood.

The farmer took his glasses from his breast pocket and put them on. He leaned forward and raised his head as far as he could. Certainly, there was something. It was easy to see if he looked just askance, to the left or the right, but not straight ahead. It appeared like a circle, with curving lines set inside, swirled and fine, with incisions all worn like the smoothed signs of a scar.

He stepped back again. Now see a glow there as well. He saw it straight on, wherever he stood. He walked to his left and walked to his right, he tilted his head and then crossed his arms on his chest. He had never seen this before. But how could that be? The wound was too old to have occurred in the storm. The script was too fine to be of natural chance. All those years he spent here, playing on this tree, climbing and swinging from every position. How is it possible, he never noticed it before? How could that be? But look at it now. It was glowing more brightly. It was becoming more clear. It was a very fine G carved into this tree – a fleur de lis placed inside – and the light turned to orange and grew in its brilliance.

The old farmer kept staring, now with both hands in his pockets. The carving pulsed in and out, like the beat of a heart. Transfixed by the light, he stood motionless, frozen, and a spider appeared from the top of the branch. It slowly crawled down, around the throbbing curved shapes, and moved down the trunk toward the gaping hole in the tree. In the yard it was twilight and a long, cold shudder ran down the farmer’s old spine. . . .

Chapter 14

Aramis Brings a Wake-Up Call

Opening her eyes wide, Marie looked at Aramis and tried to bury the past with the sight of the present.

“My mother was beautiful,” Marie continued. “She was so gentle and pretty. Aramis, I really loved her. I didn’t know how much. I don’t think I showed her. I don’t think I ever told her.”

“I’m sure she knew,” he said. “Love shows itself even if we don’t.”

Marie was silent. Aramis saw, by the way she was staring, that she was seeing her mother. It could not be stopped. When a ghost comes to visit, we must keep the door open. They will not leave until ready and ignoring them makes it worse.

“What did the two of you do?” he asked.

“We didn’t do much,” she said. “She was just here. She would stay with the hens most of the time and I would play with the chicks or be off by myself. But sometimes we would talk, especially in the afternoons. She would take me to that old tree and we’d sit under it when I felt sad or scared. And she would tell me stories.”

“Stories? he asked.

“I remember one,” Marie said. “There was a tale, she said, about this old tree. It was a children’s story. A little sad, but I loved it. She said the tree was a spirit, warm with memories and wishes. It had left its old home, looking for love. I remember some of the children said it was haunted, but my mother told me it was here to protect. That it needed a place to cry amid smiles. It’s funny, I know. I believed it back then. Today, I’m not sure I ever knew what she meant. I wish I had paid more attention to her.”

Aramis listened lightly, absorbed less by Marie’s words than by the look on her face, that look of innocence and grace that comes after cries, after the tears of love wash away false protections. He wanted Marie to keep talking. She rarely spoke freely and her words and her face combined to a beguiling perfection.

“What else did she tell you,” Aramis asked.

“She would point out the branches,” Marie continued. “She would show me the long thin ridges in the branches and I would think I could see things carved under them, designs or letters, like when you look up at the clouds and see funny shapes and make them into animals and things. She would show me the scars where nature pushed through and where man had tried to destroy its old strength. She would show me the roots that poke out of the ground. She would show me the holes that opened up in its trunk, how they split into the wood and burrowed all the way through. She said those were the openings where spirits enter and leave. Then once, she walked around it and counted, and told me its age was more than a thousand chickens in years.”

Marie laughed. “I always found that funny,” she said. “I was little and I would try to picture a thousand chickens. Can you imagine a thousand chickens all in this tree? What a noise! What a mess! All of them hanging on, some hugging the branches, some the trunk, with wings held out trying to balance and so many others falling off?”

Marie was smiling, broadly and freely, not at Aramis, but at her own thoughts. Yet Aramis welcomed it as a treasure all his own. Inside her imagination, she was mimicking the chickens, and she began swinging her wings out and around and upside down, tottering as if losing her balance. Aramis watched while her head tilted down slightly to her right and her eyes bounced up to her left as she smiled and she spoke. What a sweet smile! How delightful she was! What contrasts played within heartbeats of each other!

“Can you see that?” she asked with a small, quick laugh. “All of them, hanging on with their feet as they lose their balance, swinging upside down for a second before dropping on their heads. Others hanging on for dear life. It’s silly but it wasn’t until I grew up that I knew what she meant. Not a thousand chickens at the same time, but one after another. Generation after generation. That’s how old the tree is.”

Aramis could not stop smiling. He was imagining her then, as a thin little chick, the last remnants of baby down dropping away, awkwardly stuck to her new yellow feathers. What images she had then, so many pictures that didn’t make sense. Yes, children see much that does not exist, the reality of which they only miss later.

“What else did you do?” Aramis asked. He wanted to hear more. Just to hear her voice happy.

“Not too much,” she said. I see nothing but my mother, she thought, sitting by the tree.

“And your friends? What did they do?”

With the word “friends,” Marie unexpectedly felt caught. She looked directly, very briefly, at Aramis. Very, very briefly. “Oh that’s enough about that,” she said. Her voice was soft, not angry, tired, not sad. “That’s enough of the past. I have thought about it too much these past few days. I was young and I guess I imagined my life with my mother forever. Even the others, who I did not like, I always imagined them here.”

“I only wanted…” Aramis said.

“Aramis,” Marie interrupted again, “then the farmer would come, and I never understood….He would come and he would take my mother’s friends and my friends. And they never came back. They would forever disappear. It was awful. It was awful. Aramis, is it like that on every farm? Is the whole world like that?”

Aramis pictured briefly the life he had known – an image of friends, of family, of twisted necks and dead eyes open. “Sometimes,” he said.

“And Aramis,” she said, “they never came back. None of them ever came back. Eventually, I found out. I would feel so lonely and we all felt so helpless. These friends, these others, would just one day be gone. I cried so much as a child. My mother…you asked about my mother…she would tell me stories and say it was all part of life…that sorrow, that fear, that loneliness we have when someone leaves never to return…all that was part of life, she said. She would tell me, though all this was true, that still we had life and for that, we were thankful. She explained it would end…someday for us all. But before it all ended, we should be thankful we had it. And she said we must see this loneliness as a temple. We had no other. It was our place to go. There we could be thankful, and there we could retreat, again and again, to refind our lost strength. It was where we could remember our love. She would tell me one story she loved most of all. There is a secret place inside us. We should go there when we need and we should be happy when we visit. But we must not stay there, she would say, in that loneliness, in that place. It was only there to visit. It is a secret place, she said, and it is a far land of tears. It is where we can all go to live, but it is not where we should linger.”

Aramis looked down and slid his right heel out to the side very slightly. He did not look up. He did not know what to say and his silence, brought by an impotence in the face of this pain, left him feeling hollow and weak.

“It was from her favorite book,” Marie said, barely above a whisper.

Both were quiet as they sat. Aramis folded his wings in front of him slowly, pulling his shoulders down. Marie arched her back and raised her head. Looking forward, her eyes began to tear as she again saw the past.

“One day, a storm came. And it took my mother,” she said. “And now I try not to remember the past and I don’t want to think about the future. It is filled with nothing but worry.”

“Marie, yes, there is no future without worry,” Aramis said. “But there are no dreams in the now.”

Marie looked at Aramis, then turned her gaze to the ground. Aramis did not move, but continued to look at Marie. He watched the dance of feathers above her eyes, the gentle shimmer of her cheeks, the way she held her mouth firm when she was deep in sad thought. He remembered how he saw her, early that morning, when the sun began singing in the light of her eyes.

“And if you dream only of what is lost to the future,” Aramis continued, “you will come to find you also are lost.”

“But we are not our dreams,” Marie said. “Maybe we want to be, but they are just wishes, or maybe they’re fears. Whatever they are, I know they’re not real.”

“Yes, but where there is fear, there is hope. And in our dreams, we explore,” he said.

“I have no need to explore. I only want to live for the present,” Marie said quietly. “I don’t think of the past and the future is not here.”. . .

Chapter 21

A Special Day

After returning from town, the old farmer and Charisse decided on a walk and out past the arch, the two turned left, stepping briskly along the driveway that wound down the hill toward the village. Neither discussed destination, though each one assumed the other had reason for choosing this direction, past the berries still maturing, past the sign to the farm, turning left at the bend that led to the church.

The two walked in silence. Charisse looked at her father repeatedly and slowly summoned the courage to ask the question she had repeated silently to herself the past several weeks.

“I received your letter,” she said. “Thank you.”

“I received yours, too,” he said. “I was pleased to read it.’

“Why did you write that my spirit is evasive?”

“I thought you should know,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “But why?”

“In your letter to me, you sounded lost. It made me think of myself, and of some things I should tell you.”

“It made you think of yourself?”

“Yes, in some ways it did. But not anymore.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“We all become lost at times in our life. As if our spirit has wandered. Or maybe it’s hiding. If we’re lucky, we find it. But sometimes we don’t.”

“Maybe,” she said, “we’re not meant to know.”

“We always know,” he said. “But we don’t always discover.”

Charisse said nothing. What did that mean? We know but can’t find it. She was ready to speak but unable to choose among her dozens of thoughts, most of them questions, some of them simple, but none of them ready to volunteer next. Indeed, at one moment, overwhelming impressions of her father, this path, taken so many times, crowded out words. At the next moment, it was a torrent of doubts, of questions, of fears that flooded her mind. The two continued walking, down toward the creek, between the rows of thick trees.

Finally, one surfaced. “Do you think it’s possible that we find it in dreams?” Charisse asked timidly, hoping this question might include all the others.

“It depends what you dream,” the farmer said.

“I don’t know,” Charisse said. “I don’t remember my dreams.”

Again, in silence they walked on. For seven decades, he had walked this. And though his steps remained steady, they were now weary and uninterested for all the years that had passed, it seemed little had changed. Charisse walked by his side, their steps out of pace but equal in length. Separate generations drawn into unison, sharing the same course of a narrow long road, walking as one within an envelope of time. In profile, the two had the appearance of belonging, the contours of each amplifying the other. Her aquiline nose a softer version of his. Both faces of tradition with broad and high brows and two matching chins, one gentle and both pointed. His face of hard years, course and well-weathered, thin with small cheekbones and tired hazel eyes. Her face made delicate by youth and smooth skin, her shining eyes nestled above a woman’s gentle cheeks.

Immediately after Charisse spoke, the guilt of her answer lay heavily within her. Of course, that’s not true. She remembered her dreams. No, not every one. Does anyone do that? But enough to discuss, enough that it mattered. Charisse tried to forget but the pathway refused and dared her to answer.

“Sometimes, I dream. I dream of the farm,” Charisse finally said. “I dream of mother and of being held and of people I know. And sometimes I dream of flying and of looking down and making everyone happy with only my smile.”

“Those are good dreams,” the farmer replied. He watched his feet step into the ruts of the rocky dirt road. “They are the types of dreams that make sense at your age.”

“What do you dream?” Charisse asked quietly, afraid she had no right and then especially afraid of what he might say.

“Me?” he asked, and he gave a small laugh. “Well, I dream of the past,” he said. “That’s what old people do. I dream of lost friends, of the farm, and my children.”

“Do you ever dream of mother?”

“Not as often as before.”

“No?” she asked lightly.

“No, the older I get,” he said, “the more she’s with me when I’m awake.”

“You mean you dream of her during the day?”

“If it’s really a dream. Or is it remembrance and thought? Or is she still here? The older you get, the less difference it makes.”

“It makes a difference to me.”

“Only because you’re still young.”

“What did you dream when you were my age?”

“When I was younger? I dreamt many things you dream as a child. I dreamt about friends, about school, about leaving the farm. But those dreams have long past. They stopped years ago.”

“Leaving?” Charisse asked. “Leaving to where?”

The farmer thought for a moment. He had not known where to go. He had thought, of course, to move north to Paris. But Paris was not a city of mystery to be explored by those seeking to discover the world – not if first nurtured by this part of France. Paris was elite, aloof, filled with the wealthy’s pretensions of France. It was not, for farmers like him, filled with those qualities now considered immutably French, that pure alloy of cultures that had swept through these fields. No, the fact was, he had not known where to go. But he believed at the time he could not stay on the farm. Until, that is, the second war came. He was barely a teenager and his brothers were gone. His father remained, but the work was too much and within just a few years, he fell ill and he died. That’s what life brings. By then, the old farmer was grown and the only one left. He liked the radio and its music and he found the newsreels exciting with black and white images of jungles and ships.

Charisse could not imagine her father as a boy, a young man, or even in his thirties, the age she was now. By the time of her first memories, he was already ten years her senior. She wondered if he had ever been passionate and spry, jumping and laughing as some men will do when mortality remains beyond the horizon and the sun of their life has yet to crest in the sky. Charisse only saw her father as old, shrouded in taciturn and deliberate ways. He had always been father but a secondary figure. Her mother had dominated the ways of the house. He was mostly just there, at home, on the farm, a man, a figure, a presence, a stone.

Charisse listened intently. She knew some of these stories but not all that he told. Now, here she was, walking next to an old man, who still was her father, listening to his youth, his questions, his dreams. It was like eavesdropping as he talked to himself. As she listened, she wondered if her brothers knew these things. Perhaps, she thought, they’ve heard these same stories. Maybe she too had heard them when small. Perhaps everyone knew, yet no one repeated them. Or perhaps no one knew, and he was talking to himself.

As they approached the church and walked left off the road, the two grew silent. The farmer slowed his steps and let Charisse enter first onto a narrow, fresh path through a small field of tall grass. He walked a few steps behind, watching her back. The sway of her hair, the bounce of her dress, the way that her hands played out to the side as her thin arms swung awkwardly forward and back. He pictured her face, the face of a child, the face of a child who was now an adult. . . .

* * *