The Passing of Sadly True
By James Allison, illustration by Darryl T. Jones
6 November 2000
Point one: I'm not looking for sympathy.
Everything is perfect. This carpet of crystals is a welcome bed, long awaited. I might be shivering but it won't last. I've always found the snow beguiling despite its childhood promise.
My father died while I was kissing a girl in a haystack. Most of all, I remember the stench of rapeseed from a field not even close by. Death's perfume.
Anyway, I'm beyond all that now.
"Kiss me here," she said. I can't remember her name.
My lips brushed her throat, beneath her murmurs. "My father's dying," I told her. "But it's you I chose to be with."
"Now here," she commanded, unbuttoning her shirt.
Because I saw the shards of windscreen even then, I kissed once more that pale unpunctured vessel, hot with words.
"Can you see my future?" she asked.
"No," I lied.
I always kept my mourning private.
Some Diversionary Tactics
Because I was a small boy I worshipped mountains (in my own small way). My father was the highest peak, snow-capped, beyond reach.
"Why have you released your rabbit?" he asked me when he saw the empty hutch.
"He's dying," I explained.
"But I don't want to see."
He should have held me then. But he was truly a great mountain.
I remembered him when I traveled to Iceland, where the world cries. The sun has a heart and one day it will melt. I met Anna in Iceland.
"You look lost," she told me, bulky with rucksack.
"I'm passing through," I told her. "I wanted a new experience."
We watched primordial hands cup the boiling earth while we warmed to each other. I saw her die in a hospital bed, the epicenter of a conduit web, but I didn't tell her.
"Perhaps we're meant for great things," she said, "but you seem so sad."
"It's a gift I have," I told her.
The night sky was a crystal, and to each facet I ascribed epic fates. This star will fade, said I, and that one too. She only half believed me but it was sadly true.
"Mom," I asked, "do you see what I see?"
My mother held me so tight I thought I might drown in her skirts. She took me out into the snow and I stumbled through its brittle crust.
"One day, you'll die in the cold," she told me.
I told her I wasn't afraid and she held me tight. Father was chopping firewood, a mountain in the ice. He smiled and waved, innocent of secrets.
Odd how one's memories become solid near freezing point.
Perhaps because my fingers are growing numb, I'm thinking of the hearth fire in Anna's cottage. When we argued, I always surrendered there. I never really had much fight in me.
"Do you want children?" she'd asked me.
"I might prefer to dream them," I said. I think she understood. "Let's travel," I suggested. "The Pyramids, the Aztec Temples, the Rainforests, the Polar Caps, the Seven Seas."
I put a telescope in the study and Anna made coffee in the kitchen while I watched the stars. I never gave up hope.
Points On The Learning Curve
Our only child was a boy. Anna handed him to me when he was tiny and bawling, and I saw him die in a plane crash. I loved him anyway.
There are things I have to show you, I told him. Motorcycles and sidecars, two-tone cows and fairy lights. I looked for myself in his eyes.
When he grew, I took him into the snow and we surfed the slopes on battered sleds. We found a frozen bird, nearly dead, and he cried.
"Daddy," he asked me, "do we have souls?"
I told him I didn't know.
As a schoolboy, I'd raced from the classroom with similar questions at my heels.
Mother had greeted me with a hug. "Try not to look into people," she advised.
"There's a boy I know," I told her. "He'll burn in his bedroom."
"Be his friend," she told me.
The boy's parents left me his books, but I never wanted those. I have no faith in legacies.
I'll see more snowfalls than my son.
Anna and I bought a house in the countryside, a million miles from sirens and stoplights. The floorboards creaked, and it didn't matter that the upstairs was cold because we still slept close. Mother and Father came to stay in winter and we trudged in the snow.
"Are you happy?" Anna whispered in my ear.
I knew Father was ill but I played baseball with my boy. Sometimes a plane would scream overhead and he'd gaze up in wonder.
I met a girl. She was the daughter of neighbors and she came to baby-sit for us. I was set adrift by the tectonic shift of her shoulders, but it was the smile that netted me. I took her into a field where we hid in a haystack.
"Kiss me here," she invited.
I hate funerals. My father was the lucky one in that crowd. You're spared all this shit, I thought. One lifeless body and the balance of the collection promised. A fresco of mortality, if one were seeking to be expressive. Mother took it well.
How awful, they all said. So sudden.
Not really, she whispered from beneath her veil. They thought her bewildered, but she moved with perfect grace.
"Venice is the place," Anna said. "We'll make a carnival of it. You in your mask and me in mine." We left our son behind.
I wore the moon and she was a dark spirit. We danced by firelight in the Piazza San Marco, while a babble of gilded masks surged to the calliope. I saw through them all.
At dawn we lingered on Fondamenta Priuli-Nani to watch the boatyard. Creeping across the Bridge of Sighs with expressionist grace, I thought I might be Conrad Veidt. More like Max Schreck, chuckled the canal.
Anna cried in one of the churches for some reason. All the Jesuses had cracked feet.
I had a phone call. The girl from the haystack was in the news: "Kiss me here," her throat had said to the car windshield.
We listened to Gershwin in Il Grand Caffe Chioggia while I ached for home.
"Are we safe?" Anna asked me at thirty-five thousand feet.
I imagined the fins falling away, melding us into a frosted bullet. "Don't worry," I assured her. I never see the journey, only journey's end.
When my son greeted me, I was Shane and Sam Spade, a celluloid amalgam, shrewdly fraudulent. I always loved the movies; nobody really dies.
I'd found my rabbit in the ice, solidly beyond care. I showed Father and he told me to bury it. The worst is over now, I thought.
Mother and Father took me to Paris once. Look! The Eiffel Tower! they pointed. The one you've seen in pictures!
An iconic stab of girder, to be sure, but I spied a praying mantis, absurdly green, poised by the roadside. Someone's pet, maybe -- released into the metropolis to make its way. Stilettos and hobnails bullied past, but it stayed perfectly still, arms folded in perfect concentration.
"How come you're laughing at me?" I'd asked Anna in Iceland.
She was hunched like a boulder, me ready to erupt.
"You're always so serious," she said. "Can't you see the funny side?"
She guffawed like an infant geyser. I think that's what hooked me. We'd agreed to meet again in London, but not in Trafalgar Square as I had no wish to see all those fowl fates. We did the Tate, and the Petrie, and poked our noses into a black Soho alleyway. Anna bought market stall tangerines while a pretty whore propositioned me.
"Looking for company?" she leered.
I saw her old in her bed, her final breaths blessed by children.
"I'm fine," I smiled. "Thanks for asking."
Anna wanted to see the coast so we drove to the bottom of the country and parked on a cliff-top, where the wind made a madness of our hair.
"I've always loved the sea," she told me. "It's the mystery that draws me."
I had to agree. A billion small tragedies scuttling across the black bedrock, and all of them private.
When our son was born, we went back to the coast, tumbling down the pier like Lowry matchsticks to a fortuneteller's booth. Anna bought some fresh prawns and sat by the carousel to wait for me.
"What about my boy?" I asked the sage.
She was a veiled fossil, thinned by the weight of too many truths. "A healthy child. He'll live long."
"Can't you see the plane wreckage?"
She burst into tears and we held each other for a while. When I went back outside, Anna had eaten half of the prawns.
There's a field near our house that I've marked. In the summer, the grass is as tall as a man's thigh, and in the winter the snow drifts deep. There's woodland on each side; one would think the trees were holding hands.
I sometimes wonder if the rabbit might not have preferred to stay in the hutch. Perhaps nature is only now showing itself to me.
A Comedy of Cruelties
I never wanted to skate, but I was shown anyway. Anna was magical on ice -- an elemental dervish. I was clumsy but I loved it all the same. Perhaps it was because I saw the funny side.
Mother was staying with us at the time. I knew she wouldn't be with us much longer. I think it pleased her to see me put one over on the cold. I'd skate past her as she sat huddled on the riverbank and she'd tap her nose as if guardian to some profound scandal.
She died in our house in the country, just before dawn when the birds were most riotous. It was a farcical business.
"I'm done," she wheezed, then decided she wanted a game of cards. I beat her five times, after which she flung the cards across the floor. Ridiculous, she grumbled. Get me a gin.
When I came back with the glass she was cold.
"Are you coping?" she'd whispered only the day before.
She'd held me then, as she had when I was small, but it didn't feel the same.
Our son cried for her when he came back from University. He was learning to be a chemist, but he'd never wear his white coat. "I think I'm going to Thailand this summer," he announced, "in the way of a vacation. It's my girlfriend's idea."
Anna fussed over him and asked how tall his girl was. I went for a long walk with him, traveling through my marked field and beyond the woodland. In each gentle jibe I found new and small ways to say goodbye.
"Do you think we have souls?" I asked him.
"I'm not religious," he laughed. It's a matter of energy, he explained. Transmutation. Alchemy.
After my mother's funeral, he and I hugged each other. I never did meet his girlfriend. She was five-foot-ten, apparently.
There's a device on airliners they call a black box. One lies missing over the Thai coast. I always wondered what visions such a box might conjure. Whether they might surpass my own.
My son's name was Tobyas, but the airline spelled it with an i. Anna was comfortless. It was a time of transmutation.
I think myself lucky for this pure and placid fate.
Thomas Kean burned to death in his bedroom at the age of nine. I wasn't really his friend, but my mother said I should be, so I invited him into my tree house.
Father had built it for me. I'd watched, cross-legged on the lawn as he'd worked with his tools, a mountain through the leaves. I never felt completely safe inside it; the timber creaked and creepy-crawlies ran amuck. I dreamed once of a bright green mantis, waiting patiently for me in the corner.
Thomas brought a large chocolate bar and most of his Spiderman comics, and we swayed together in the breeze.
"So what do you want to be?" he asked me, face darkly smudged.
"It's not my choice," I explained.
"Mom thinks I should be a lawyer," he told me. "For the money and good living."
I saw for an instant the dance of flames in his eyes.
"Takes a long time for that," I reminded him. "Ten years or something."
"Shit, that's forever. A football player would be better."
"Do you ever have nightmares?" I asked him.
"Sometimes, I'm in a fast car and I can't stop. Maybe I'll be a racing driver."
When he left the tree house, he missed his footing and slipped from the ladder. He swung, red and squealing, until Father rushed from the house and caught him in his arms. Nobody ever really expected him to be a lawyer.
"Can't we change things?" I asked Mother, my head in her lap. "Will nothing I do make a difference?"
She told me no.
I met once with a careers advisor in High School.
"Have you thought about the future?" he asked me.
I thought that was funny.
"You should be making plans," he advised. "Laying foundations. One should always prepare oneself for the road ahead."
I watched as he twiddled a leaking pen between his fingers, dark blue gradually staining his bony fingers. Even then I think I understood the joke better than he did.
"I'm doing the best I can," I told him.
Deus Ex Machina
Anna and I went to a school play when Toby was nine. He was a passionless Aladdin, if truth be told, but it was a colorful pageant and we clapped furiously.
Afterwards, we went to the dressing room to pick up our son. I met Jonathan, ten years old, with failing heart; Judd, seven years old, crushed in a football crowd; Vincent, ten years old, felled by a fatal stroke; Heather, nine years old, serenely catatonic.
"You seem so sad," said Anna, while our son tugged at my fingers.
I saw Lisa, seven years old, whose fate I was blind to. She gave me a sweet smile, looking over her shoulder as her parents led her away.
I thought it might be the last time I would see an angel, though I dreamed her sometimes, in clouds, or in the strobing of freeway headlights.
When we met again, it wasn't the same name or face, but I knew the eyes. She wore a nurse's starched whites, busying herself with metallic clatter while I sat by the hospital's vending machine.
"Have you traveled far?" she asked.
"Not as far as we wanted," I said, popping the Pepsi's ring pull. "We'd hoped for the Pyramids. The Polar Caps. The Seven Seas."
"Is your wife dying?" she whispered.
I told her yes.
"Come with me," she entreated, taking me by the hand. She changed out of her whites and led me beyond the wide double doors, where a squalling sky flinched to the jabs of dazzling catheters. We navigated through schools of shrouded souls and she laughed like the rain.
"What's the secret?" I yelled, as we ran, soaking, through the park.
"Look around you!" she sang. "You can see it. Smell it."
We surfed the thickets and hedge ways, finally setting anchor by the War Memorial.
"You've seen so much," she crooned.
When we kissed, we fused pulse by pulse. I brushed the raindrops from her lips, breathlessly hot.
"It all makes sense," she said, pushing her hips against me. "It's wonderful."
Sidling behind coy privet, we fell to the steaming mud. I cupped a bared breast, rousing the nipple like a tiny volcano. When I melted into her, we seethed like fresh magma, furiously elemental, Icelandic.
"Can you feel me dying?" she moaned.
I was sure I could.
She buttoned her shirt, while I crawled under the carved obelisk. She left without farewell.
When I returned to the hospital, freshly showered, Anna was gray like a fallen monument. I sat by the bedside and she smiled at me.
"You look lost," she said.
She held my hand while I folded inside.
A Glorious Perambulation
Large cell carcinoma.
I don't think we ever used the words. I went shopping for some music for Anna's Walkman. A light analgesic.
My angel was at the counter. She took my tape and leaned across to me. "Are you coping?" she murmured.
"I wish the world held more mystery," I admitted.
"Kiss me here," she said, offering her throat. "And I'll bring you blindness."
She was smaller than before, with short hair in deepest black. I saw the universe spinning in her irises. She put her hand in mine, like a seven-year-old girl, and we stepped out into the daylight.
"Is this a love story?" I asked her. "And if not, what's it all about?"
"Perception," announced my cryptograph. And she led me like a galleon prow, benevolently mythic, breaking the waves while I stayed pinioned to her fingers.
"Stop!" she said, and she covered my eyes. "Now, you're sightless."
When she took her hands away, I felt dizzy. I looked upward, and the sky was still a dull tin lid. So where's the trick? I mused.
"I give you: the moment!" quoth the witch, with a gentle curtsy.
And then the cityscape drew my eye: spires and cubes in unity; a single cursive display. I saw no ruin, no dilapidation, no doom.
Walking like a somnambulant into the pedestrian throng, I met twenty score eyes and more, seeing only the moment. Grandmothers gazed, punks peered, a baby's mouth fell agape. None displayed fate's shadow. Life without death. A roller coaster to the unknown.
My angel skipped at my side.
"I've dreamed of this," I cried, the tears tumbling. "Please let me keep it."
"It's a passing fancy," she declared. "but you'll have the memory."
We arrived at a sculpted fountain, a chivalric study in black bronze, beneath which carnations flowered.
I kneeled amongst the white blooms, breathing their architecture, caressing their color. Beneath me, the ground gently stirred, in awe perhaps of the life bustling within its muddy enclave.
My angel hopped on a bus. Time to go, she sang.
Five minutes past four o'clock. And thirty-five seconds.
The single happiest moment of my life. The moment of acceptance.
Point two: I'm not looking for sympathy.
Anna has a copper plaque, no bigger than a picture frame.
There's a beauty in simplicity, I think.
I have no judgments to pronounce. I love the smell of freshly cut grass; I find mystery in the dawn, and Nat King Cole's voice still moves me. Things are what they are.
There's no place in nature for bitterness. It's a beautiful winter morning and I'm old. This faded calendar is done.
I'm hoping for a new world now. A bird passes overhead, a black arrow pointing somewhere distant. The trees' hands are bravely clasped. Everything is perfect.
Did I mention Anna had red hair? I should have.
An injured deer teeters from the woodland. Guileless black eyes. We watch each other in the snow. I'm sure it's at peace with me.
Perhaps -- in our own way -- we've both worshipped mountains.
James Allison worked with an English theatre company as writer/director and as a columnist/reviewer for a European movie music magazine before turning to fiction writing. His work is currently appearing in issue #6/7 of Altair magazine. For more information about him and his work, see his Web site.