In the last month of my fiftieth year I turned to air, not air we breathe but air we are, not the moon was the sliverest of a sliver in air we breathe but air we were before lung and nose and we had no need of air as breath, not bird as shadow against the stars in air we breathe and the moon the sliverest of a sliver but air we were when air we breathe had yet to gain this use, to this air I turned in the autumn of my fiftieth year, to air we were, to air as air before the air was air I turned, to sudden memory I turned, not memory of then but memory of now, not all the moons I’ve seen sliver to the sliverest of a sliver in a necklace of memories but to memory as memory when there was no then to remember, not all my lungs of fish and toad and fox and wolverine, of butterfly and flower in one abandoned memory in pursuit of another but into sudden memory that there are no memories and that the air we breathe is not the air we are, is not the air that air was then before the air was air, into this memory I turned in the last month of my fiftieth year in the air we breathe with bird as shadow against the stars I breathe and the moon the sliverest of a sliver I breathe for I am air now and not my lung or toe or nose or arm or elbow, not a name, a name, a name only air now, but not the air we breathe but air that see and yes I now it should be sees but this is not the kind of air that take its verb in the third person singular because it’s not third, it’s not person, and it is certainly not singular, so it is the air that see, not the air we breathe or fall or rise through, or that heat and cold can whip to frenzied storm that rearranges even small cities at large expense to tax payers, not that kind of air at all, but air that see, not even air that saw for there is no then in this air, it is air that see, it is the air we were before the air was air and all we did was see, when all the air was see, when all the world was see, long before lungs and toads and wolverines and the moon was the sliverest of a sliver and the bird just a quick shadow against the stars and then gone again against the black.
I flounder, then slip on the ice. My knee hits frozen water. It hurts. I discover I have lost my mitten. I look for it. It is nowhere to be found. My left hand rests on the ice. The cold is metallic against my fingers. I labor and stand up again. My skates are too tight. I feel uneven without one mitten. I take one step, two. I still look for the mitten. The snow is too deep. It can be anywhere. Then I see it. By luck I see it. It is mostly buried in the snow. I take more slippery steps. There it is. I bend down to pick it up. The ice begins to break. I don’t hear it at first. It rumbles a little. It rumbles softly. Then it rumbles again. It is more than a rumble now. It is more like a pistol. It is more like many pistols. Then I am in the water. It should be cold but isn’t. It isn’t to me anyway. I don’t feel the water yet. I know where I am. I have heard of drownings. They can’t get back up. The ice is too smooth. Their hands cannot grip. So they freeze and drown. I’ve heard of this. You must carry ice picks. That is the lesson. They let you grasp the ice. They save lives. But I don’t have any. And I am in the water. Do I actually think at this point? No, I don’t think at all. I know. I know where I am. I know drownings. That’s about it. I know I must not drown. I know it’s a possibility though. I’m surrounded by water. It moves and gurgles. It claims me. It gurgles me. There are grasses beneath like hair. I can see with my feet. There is no bottom here. It is possible I will drown. I shudder. It is a heavenly shudder. I shudder out of the hole. I shudder out of the water. I shudder on to the ice. I shudder prone on the cold surface. Then I roll towards shore. I’m on firmer ice. I stand up. I am very, very cold. Still, I do not think. Instead, I run. I run on my skates. I run through the snow. I run for home, one field away. I run through drifts of snow.
Up here now, arrived finally, away from the deer and the fire and the competitive crowding of the busy lowlands, arrived: on near enough the roof of the world, to think things over. He has been a while at climbing this mountain, say many millennia, now arrived at last as seed, carried by wind, buried by rain, burrowed now into the cold, damp, soon to be dry again, earth, under crisp, oxygen-poor air. Burrowed and listening to the slow rumble of planet, for the heart of the Earth is audible to his kind. And what he hears is anguish.
A tendril now, not much thicker than thought, ruptures the seed wall in search of fertile earth nearly two thousand years before the Siddhartha Gautama, soon to become the Buddha, will be born. Barely five centimeters into hard and rocky earth where the seed now rests, it encounters a small stone, stops, thinks things over, veers left and past it, soon to find another stone, this one a little larger, stops, thinks things over, then veers down, and past it, and down, and down.
A second tendril cracks the opposite seed wall and sets out on its long journey into earth, less stony here, yet instinct tells it: down, down, down.
Nearly two thousand years go by before eyes open and see, before they see anything else, a cloud in a sky warm with rain to come; veering left then, they stray into a patch of blue, but that too is soon covered by warm cloud: so they veer again, down this time, and down some more, alighting at last on eyes and the smile hovering so close to him, his mother.
Little fingers rise into earthy air, weight and moisture, brown and skin, nay golden, and all his. While tendrils have aged now and ripened into root and settled and launched hairs of curious thirst into rocky, sandy earth, and deeper still; while trunk and branch and pine have risen into air to drink its elements, his arms now grow stronger, biceps grow bejeweled, hair grows long and dark. Conscience grows restless and he leaves the palace, if you can call a hut like this a palace, to seek a bodhi tree to reflect beneath.
But for his distant self there is no such leaving. Perched now perhaps eight feet from the precipice of the world and young still, there is only hearing.
The Buddha soon dies, painlessly, touched only, and not gravely, by the loss of arms and hands. But he is not branchless and not without his sapwood heart, death still distant, beating slower than any other living heart. Two thousand six hundred years later he still stands: alone, on near enough the roof of the world, carved from air, mourning the blind Earth below, death still distant.
And what does the Earth sing to him, to his roots, to his patient hearing? It sings the same anguish, only deeper still.
He sighs a long bristlecone sigh and draws another long earthy breath.
We brought our rain gear just in case for the skies looked uneasy then we all piled into the van without a moment to lose me Ann Bill Tom mom and dad who was already complaining about the heat and about the unfixed air conditioning something mom was supposed to have taken care of during the week and which is why dad has been driving the Honda since Tuesday he informed us all but mom forgot she said how on earth could you forget he said you knew we were going this morning yes but said mom but there is no real good excuse and she knew it and didn’t bother trying to invent one not with everyone in the car to witness so dad still muttering started the car and we were off down the road in our airconditionless crowded and already warm and getting warmer by the minute van hoping all except Tom who says he likes the heat that the weatherman is wrong in his ninety degrees plus and humid prediction but I had the awful feeling that he was right a little too right as I could already feel the first few drops of perspiration pop their heads up through the snowy skin like crocuses checking things out hitting the inside of my shirt and setting out no longer crocuses down my back in little trickles oh yeah this was gonna be some kinda day I said which Bill agreed with right away and dad too and finally Tom as well although he claims to like this shit while mom said nothing feeling really bad about forgetting to have the air conditioning fixed I gathered while another little crocus turn to sweat and heads on down my spine and we weren’t even out of town yet a hundred and twenty glorious miles to go roll down the windows please said dad as if we hadn’t already and mom cringed I could tell by her back the way it tensed yeah this was gonna be some kinda day and if it hadn’t been grandma’s ninetieth birthday I would have figured something out to get out of going but this was a big one and everyone would be there including Kim from what mom told me so I kinda wanted to go too if there was even the tiniest chance that Kim would be there so I tried to ignore the sweat gathering on my back and in my armpits and instead I looked ahead at the road at seeing Kim again and at maybe if I was really lucky we could manage to sneak into grandma’s barn again for perhaps another kiss.
Melting Into Earth
It’s first one step then another listening as I walk first left then right left ear right ear left ear hears the sound then right ear hears the sound bouncing back and forth and I’m walking walking one step then another.
Catching me with tendrils invisible the tiny molecules of odor fill the air and smell makes me wonder that I don’t see them how small they must be and I smell the fields and the dung they have just spread all over the field over there beyond the dike over there beyond the copse of juniper over there and still they catch me cow dung and horse dung but mainly cow dung that’s what I think and all these molecules how small they must be is it true that one molecule of Plutonium in a million of air molecules can kill you I don’t think so but they sure are small.
And smaller still the sounds everywhere the sounds I look and I look and I look but I still don’t see the sounds and they come in the shape of a bird a bee and the geese returning and the applause of millions of leaves from the grove to my right green shimmerings like a school of little green fish in the air resting for a while on the trunks and branches and then their susurrus grows again to applause sounds so so small I cannot see them.
And it’s one step and then another and I hear each foot as it reaches the dirt underfoot and crackle just so under my left foot and just so (though a little bit differently) under my right foot and again I cannot see the sounds but they do exist I am sure of that.
It’s blue blue overhead and green green all around and I don’t have a care I don’t think so with two feet to guide me and this wonderful springtime still a splattering of snow on the north side of the grove could it be no I was mistaken it’s not snow it’s something else and how could I have thought snow it’s May after all nearly June.
And I think of her hair as I walk with two feet of her long black hair as black and heavy as the night in my face and that smell that dark and forbidden smell of her hair nothing small about that smell but it was dark though the light turned down low and she laughed and said what are you doing burying yourself in my hair are you eating my hair and I said no not really but I would like to she said you’re crazy or said nothing at all I don’t remember and tousled mine and I drank hers fill after fill and she filled me with night and many many nights and thoughts of Baudelaire and Persia.
And the air molecules too are very small I feel them on my skin on my face on my eyelids in my hair against my thighs but most of all on my face the fresh space that touches and touches and touches everything and I move through the sky that reaches all the way to the ground when you come to think of it and it’s blue here too if you really look for example over at the hills over there that’s air molecules from what I hear that color things distantly blue and the forest on the side of that hill is dark with just a shade of blue if you really look and now I know that I see air and that’s why the sky is blue.
And here she comes again not in real life but in my thoughts and I think of her a lot she pushes air and smell aside and comes and puts her arms around me and kisses me right smack on my lips and I blush and get a small erection it should be the other way around that’s how it’s supposed to happen I say and she giggles and then she’s gone and we my erection and I are left with the memory of this memory and air and smell return and I laugh for life is just wonderful.
Taste is another small thing small things but taste is not really what you taste it’s really what you smell for taste buds can only tell sweet sour salt and bitter apart from what I hear and the rest of it all that good food and her delicious tongue which gives me another erection is really smell from the top of your mouth and not taste at all but it’s so warm and she moves it around when she kisses me and she reminds me of my cat very content.
I have begun to melt now it’s very strange and I didn’t notice it at first just noticed that my feet didn’t make their sounds any more when they struck the dirt no crackle at all and after a while of this little silence in this big sound all around me I looked down and I no longer had feet they had become the dirt on the road and little pieces of grass that has sprouted in the middle between the tracks from the tractors and cars that come this way sometimes but not often at least not the cars and they no longer made their sound.
My legs are still moving though and I’m moving forward but I’m shorter hey that’s for sure a lot shorter now and really I’ve melted all the way up to my knees and flowing into the road I had betted get out into the field if this melting is going to go on for I don’t want to become a road for the rest of my life no sir having cars and tractors drive all over me no I would much rather be a field so I head into the field getting shorter all the time and I’m moving forward still and under the electric wire fence it’s not really a strong current just enough to remind the cows and they need reminding too they’re quite dumb but nice who’s the boss and to keep them from running away or into the road and get run over and killed and I’m still melting didn’t even have to crouch one bit to get under the wire which I haven’t been able to do since I was a kid and just so tall.
And everything but my chest and neck and head has melted now but I’m still moving forward although I don’t know how that could be possible what with my legs gone and oh yes I also have some arm left on each side and I can move them too but my hands are gone.
And then it’s just my neck and head and everything looks strange from this angle but very green the grass coming up and fighting for air and sunlight and then my mouth is gone and I can taste the earth and then my nose is gone and I can smell the earth and then my ears are gone and I can hear the earth the grass the tiny roots and how they work and talk to each other saying quit pushing and a million million voices of the earth and then my eyes are gone and I see the earth only my hair left for the air to tousle and then the earth has my hair too and I grow and I feel the little dike more like a brook gurgling on my left shoulder and the applause on my right and the slow slow but really quite fast spinning and I move and move and move with all that’s upon me and there’s a larger circle and I race with all the life upon me and the seas and the mountains upon me around and around the brilliant light always upon some part of me and we all move in many directions and I am the mother and harbor of things that are and I think of her just briefly and wonder what she’ll think when she finds out I’ve melted into the earth.
She cocked the hammer. Fine gray metal so smooth under her thumb. It eased back eagerly, happy to finally be of service. Locked smoothly into place with a barely audible sigh and sang a swift mechanical click into the trigger, which shuddered ever so slightly: I am ready. Her forefinger found it and curled that tiny embrace that spells death, the black metal cold and solid on her skin, familiar. She pressed. Gently. The action of the weapon so wonderfully smooth, for the pistol was well cared for and oiled often. A little piece of harmony, nothing extraneous, not a part not in synergy with all other parts. All existing for the same purpose, all aligned. A little piece of perfection. A craftsman’s gun. Loved. The cylinder spun softly into place and lined the next bullet perfectly with the short barrel. The hammer, released by her goodbye pressure on the trigger sprung forward and found the cup and struck, exploding the primer into exploding the propellant into exploding the bullet on its merry way: out of the chamber if flew, into the barrel it flew, through the barrel it flew, accelerating all the while for the exit up ahead. And arrived. And exited. Into air. Into not so much of it though, for soon there was skin to find, and bone. Found them, found tissue and tiny astonished vessels—startled at the unexpected visit—but it pretty much ignored them and their protests for it was finding brain now and had begun to spread: this soft and hollowed lead hindered by a much offended and resilient colony of surprise, spreading like a parachuting little jellyfish opening into inside sky.
Not a single lead particle made it all the way through his head.
But how could it? When there is no head, when there is no brain, when there is no bullet, when there is no gun and no trigger and no finger to gently and lovingly squeeze that final good bye.