Brother Solitaire

Brother Solitaire walks through the garden of his cloister. The vigorous morning sun has climbed up into the sky and heated the clipped rosemary hedges. The fragrance of the rosemary drifts into the walkway. Small bees swarm ceaselessly around the light blue flowers of the rosemary, the sound of their activity an indolent drone. The light is clear and golden; it warms the patient stone of the benches. It would be pleasant to sit here, if only there were time.

Brother Solitaire wears a coarse brown robe that rebuffs the caress of the day. The cowl hangs on either side of his face, like blinders on a horse. He fixes his gaze on the worn stones of the pavement before him. Brother Solitaire could have worn a more pleasant garment, but this was the one that fell to hand when he awoke. Now it seems a little late to change. Somehow the day fills up.

There is a fountain that murmurs in the center of the garden. The fountain throws moisture into the air; a cool, fine mist that drifts up like the languid exhalation of a newly-beloved. There are fruit trees in the garden, figs pendulous and heavy, apricots, mangoes and avocados. There is a lovely arcaded walkway that circumambulates the garden and embraces it. There are four gates that open from the arcade to the outside. The first gateway leads to the clamor of the marketplace. The second gateway leads to the quarter of the dance halls and ballrooms. The third leads to the ancient university. The last leads to a beautiful, unsullied forest. Every day scholars and dancers and merchants and woodsmen come and gather at the gates calling to Brother Solitaire. Sometimes Brother Solitaire leaves the cloister and joins them. It is then that he remembers that he is not a monk. He is a wealthy man of noble lineage, and the place he lives is not a cloister, it is a palace. After each foray he returns invigorated, and for a time he notices the beauty of his garden. But then, inevitably, he falls back into his familiar ways and gradually drifts again into forgetfulness.

Brother Solitaire paces the garden of his palace, and his feet find the depressions worn in the flagstones by his regular comings and goings. The grooves lead him on past the gates and toward the center of the garden.

He passes the first gate, and the merchants call out. “Come to our marketplace. There are beautiful soft clothes for you to wear and clever devices for your diversion. We have spices and wines and candies. The roasts are on the spit; they are brown and dripping. There is a feast ready and your cleverest companions await with their wits sharpened.” And brother Solitaire says, “I will come and sample your wares on Friday from 3:00 until 8:00. I have put aside an adequate amount from my budget.”

He passes the second gate and the dancers call out. “Come dance with us. Come abandon yourself to the banked curves of movement. Put your arms around us and we’ll dive together into the crystalline blue depths of the music. The currents will whirl us by creatures with needle teeth and iridescent fins, safe in the bathysphere of each other’s arms.” And brother Solitaire says “I will dance with you on Tuesday night from 9:00 until 2:00. I have good dancing shoes and a change of shirts.”

The scholars call out. “Come and study with us. We have stored up arcane secrets and uncovered truths so large that they are overlooked. Come wander through the streets of societies that do not yet exist, and those that are already dust. We have preserved the laments of the bereaved like insects in amber. Come quickly. We have letters for you. They are a thousand years old.” And Brother Solitaire says “I have signed up for your seminar on Monday mornings. I will be early for class, and I will bring a notebook and three pens.”

The woodsmen call out. “Come with us to the forest. The seasons are turning and as they turn they grind out gold. Perhaps today the daffodils will push their fingers out of the thawing earth. Perhaps the birds will arrive to sing their songs older than man. Perhaps the brittle leaves will waltz with the breeze. Watch them describe the contours of the air, and meander to the ground. The woods are breathing out a perfume, and each day it is a new one.” And Brother Solitaire says “We will walk together this weekend from 10:00 until 3:00. I have bought sunscreen and a hat.”

Brother Solitaire always gives each group its due. He is unfailingly polite, if a bit distant. He wishes he could spend more time with them, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time. Where does the day go? Brother Solitaire proceeds to the center of the garden. He does not want to miss his meeting.

He arrives early, as usual. He sits down on the bench, but does not notice its warmth. He does not smell the fragrance of the fruits around him. He does not hear the birds that sing in the trees, nor does he see the figures they draw in the air with their flight. He leans forward and looks down and his cowl falls forward and blocks off the view to the sides. He sees his shadow on the ground before him. He speaks to it:

“How about today? Will you show me the way today? If you would only make the first small movement, I would follow you.” He leans forward and the shadow leans forward, too. He grows still and the shadow grows still. He watches and watches, and then it seems to him that perhaps one of the shadow’s hands is beginning to move. Is it gesturing, or is it just the shadow of a bird overlaid upon his own? As he tries to decide, a cloud drifts in front of the sun. The sharp golden light becomes gray and flat, and the shadow fades away. When it reappears, the shadow is in the same position as he. It does not move. He sighs and the shadow sighs. He leans back and the shadow follows. He recommences his vigil. Brother Solitaire waits.

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Echoes of Weeping

Knollwood Beach is surrounded by a black chain link fence. It’s an ugly enough fence, and it makes the beach look like a kind of gulag, although it is softened by the beach roses planted on the inside. The fence replaced a low red brick wall that used to be there. The wall was good for sitting on, and for placing slices of pie on top of for the fourth of July pie eating contest. The wall had a small gateway that led directly into the street in front of our house. It was through that gateway that my youngest brother, not quite two, ran onto the street, was hit by a truck and killed.

The truck was backing up at the time. It was driven by a friend of mine, and I had been talking to him. It was May, and the summer was just in view, the shape of it emerging out of the constraints of the schooltime winter. I was 16, my friend 17. He was driving a truck that belonged to a fish store, where my sister and I had worked the summer before. I had liked working there, despite the incredible stench that clung to my clothes. All my friends worked there. I got to hang out with my friends and make money, too. To my mind as an adolescent, the two great goods of making money that I did not need to account for and hanging out with my friends easily outweighed the negatives of tedious work and malodorous environment.

My friend had just driven up to drop off another friend. We chatted briefly. He looked behind him, and backed up. My youngest brother was so short and so close to the back of the truck, that we didn’t see him. When I try to recall the event, which is not often, it is like viewing a series of artifacts. Here is the image of me speaking through the driver’s window to my friend. Here is the image of my brother’s small body travelling around the left rear tire of the truck. Did I actually see that? I don’t know for sure, but I have the memory of it, as I have a visual memory of many stories that I have heard. Now here is a kind of treasure map that outlines the paths of the actors immediately afterwards. Here is the X where the truck hit my brother. Here is the dotted line that represents my sister scooping up my brother and running up to the house. Hear is a circle where my mother was inside the house. I could not see her, but I heard her scream. Here is the dotted line of my mother carrying my brother out to neighbor’s lawn, where a paramedic, another neighbor, has already appeared. Here is the X where my brother’s body was laid on the lawn, my parents and the paramedic crouched over him. Where are the memories of my emotions? I can’t find them. Did I misplace them, or was that event like a cut from a knife so sharp that you do not feel the slice, but only realize that you are wounded when you see the blood?

Trying to find something helpful to do, I told my friend to move his truck, to get ready to take my brother to the hospital. But an ambulance was already on the way, and we stood on the street, on the corner where the beach pushes furthest into the road, waiting and superfluous. And now I come across an image that I am sure is a real memory, even though it has become iconic. I know that I did not invent it, because it surprised me. From down the street, we could see my friend’s mother running toward us. She is a dancer, graceful, and I can picture her now, her arms thrown out over her head, her hands angled out as she reaches toward her son from a hundred yards away. In my memory she is frozen there, a carved figure, a caryatid, her body sculpted into the curves and angles of movement. She wails for her son, a terrible cry of pain and sympathy. For a moment I am baffled. Why is she comforting him? It’s my brother who was the victim. And then in a rush, I realize that in the irrevocable moment of the accident not only was my brother crushed, but my friend too, although it is his fate to remain alive.

We all of us want to undo the awful accident. But we are like passengers facing backwards in a train, borne away on the invariant geometry of the rails. As soon as the thing bursts into view, it is already beyond our grasp, though it dwindles for a long time in our sight.

Many years later, I heard another wail on that corner. This time it came from my cousin. He had just returned from the hospital. A friend of his, one of the kids from down the block, had dived off a pier into the bay below. The friend had made a simple, graceful, direct dive headfirst, but the tide was ebbing, the arc of the dive not wide enough and he had broken his neck in the treacherous mud under the too-shallow water. My cousin was in med school at the time. He knew all too well what that injury meant. His friend was paralyzed from the chest down. There was little hope for the recovery of his movement, and nothing at all that my cousin could do to change it. I remember my cousin meeting his parents on that same corner, and the wail that burst out of him as they hugged him. (Where was I at the time? I can’t recall. My memory of the event seems almost as if I was in a boom camera looking down at them. Yet I am sure I witnessed it.)

Years later still. One of the neighbors had been taken off to the hospital. She was the woman who gave all the kids art lessons down on the beach one summer. Occasionally, I stumble across the improbable portraits of tiger lilies that we created, the pictures slumbering now in garages and attics. The ambulance carried her away, and we wondered – had she had a stroke? No one was sure, and from the porch of our house, I could see my sister and my cousin’s wife meet down on that same corner and discuss it. No, it turned out, the neighbor had had no stroke. There was no weeping on the corner that day.

The beach association planted some ornamental grass on the corner a while ago. It grows there like an unruly shock of hair on the forehead of a beautiful straight-haired boy. There is no way one would know that this corner has heard such weeping. Why should such an innocuous looking place be the witness of tragedy? Is there something special about it? No, I believe that it is simply that I have spent more time near there than any other place. Stand in any one spot and the whole multifarious parade of life will pass in review. Life will unpack all its wares for you, dealing out awful moments as offhandedly as it does sunsets and thunderstorms.

One place is much like another, as far as life is concerned. There is no place to hide from tragedy, without withdrawing entirely from life. I don’t want to withdraw from life; I mean to participate in it as fully as I can. I know that I will return to Knollwood again, to be with people I love in a place I love. And therefore I knowingly risk that I may yet again hear the weeping of witnesses on that innocent corner.