The colors and forms blurred and faded into each other: trees of pale green into the blue sky fading to grey, brown rocks edging the road into yellow grasses lining the fields. Wisps of clouds emerged from the horizon as he travelled toward it. This was how he remembered it in the cold season. The road stretched far ahead, his anxiety building--like when he had first imagined forever--or tried to envision the universe expanding ever outward--into what, into where?
He was going back and had to keep on, even if he didn’t know what he would find or even what he was looking for. There was a place at which he would eventually arrive, to which he’d planned to return one day, ever since he left so many years ago, closing a circle “whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”
Early next morning, he saw it: the house rising dark against the brightening sky. His eyes fixed on it, as he turned onto the narrow dirt road leading to it. He marked that the fencing was all but gone, broken in some places, missing in others. Some of the sheltering trees, living only in his memory until now, still stood on either side of the front porch, its unpainted, wooden steps sagging into the dark earth. Tall weeds, twisting bramble and vines obliterated the many gardens that once grew in sunny spots.
Easing around toward the back of the house along a rutted curve, he saw parts of yellow and green farm equipment strewn across the barn yard. The barn roof was partially collapsed on one side. The familiar, though weather-faded image covering the top half of the barn side facing the house, came into view. It was the first thing that had appeared to him each morning from his bedroom window: a red cross against shafts of light, over which floated the words, “GOD IS LOVE.”
He sat with his eyes closed for some time, then emerged to make his way to the house, observing cracked windows, siding bare of paint and fallen roof shingles that all but blocked the sidewalk as he made his way to the back door. To clear the low door frame, he had to bow in a forced gesture of humility as he entered.
In the kitchen the wide stone hearth still held charred ends of logs across a blackened grate. Moving through to the next room, he half expected to see the harvest table that he and his sister would help prepare for Sunday dinners and holidays; he stopped and touched the place where it had been. In the front room, he faced the ceiling-to-floor windows to the west; He took in the whole scope of the room, scanning it camera-wise, recalling it like a once-seen but forgotten film. The windows’ wavy panes, coated with a fine yellow film blown from the fallow fields across the way, diffused the widening morning light through the empty room, which smelled of earth and cold, and felt like pain.
He imagined this room as it had been on that summer day he left, when no words were spoken, no forwarding address given. There was a rocker on one side of the fireplace; a cabinet on the other against the wall, containing books, a radio and an outdated record player. The window seats were laid with cushions his mother had made. There he would sit and read in the late afternoons where breezes would lift the white curtains into the room like the sails on a schooner and sun lighting up the space. There was a sofa facing the fireplace and his father’s wooden chair, straight backed with a worn, crackled black leather seat A round marble-topped table between them held a lamp of frosted glass painted with peonies, like the ones on the wall paper--now worn in large areas down to the plaster. All the while, his mind projected a tableau of random, intimate vignettes from the past.
He had arrived--returned from another world to speak to his God-fearing family who had fed and clothed him; raised him to work hard and long hours and made sure he went to school, at least as long as it took to learn to read and write well enough to run the farm. Gone now, they had waited years in grief for his return. He felt that in some way he would be heard by those who needed to hear and were still awaiting the reunion. His voice would soon fill this room where they had gathered in the evenings.
The wind kicked up; it blew through the house with that shrill, whirring sound, jarring and rattling the remaining shutters. It was late winter, and his fingers, though gloved, were numb with cold. Outside, vortices of golden dust rose up here and there, as he looked for bits of kindling and fallen branches to make a fire. Once the fire blazed up, creating one last warmth in the frozen house, he stood directly across the room from it, as he conjured up his imaginary truth and reconciliation commission: his mother seated at the windows gazing out, his father standing at her side, his sister curled on the rocker next to the fire, his abandoned lover on the threshold to the room facing the back of the house.
He had wanted to say: Call me Ishmael, Gilgamesh, Oedipus. I have seen the white whale, entered the cedar forest, solved the famous riddle, but that was an inner experience he never could articulate. He would speak in plain language they would have understood, though those epic figures were part of him, the foundation for a way of thinking which had allowed him to understand himself and the world. Though he did not think of himself as a hero, he did think that living life was heroic for those who are aware of and survive all that comes against it and develop all that it takes to contend with it. He had survived.
Though battle-weary, he could trace his path to consciousness and conscience, more certain of and clearer in his judgements and actions, precisely because he had freed himself and dared to leave the known for the “undiscovered country.” He had developed a vision of what it means to be human, which his first readings and musings had begun to suggest. And he strove toward that vision, though he was flawed, still so flawed, he thought. These things he wanted to convey to them, as he unraveled his tale, partly in sorrow without remorse, partly in victory without joy, so that he himself could hear it, grasp it and, in some feeble sense, atone for the pain he had caused those whose souls he would now address.
He wanted to say that he wasn’t ungrateful, or at least never connected what he did or didn’t do with ingratitude. He just knew he couldn’t live out a replay of his father’s life. He wanted to acknowledge that he had betrayed his sister, after all the confidences they had shared, and that he knew he had left her utterly alone in the life they both hated. He would kneel before his mother, asking forgiveness for his mysterious disappearance, for her never having heard from him again, for his not being able to fulfill her reasonable expectation that her family remain near, insuring that life would go on in the same way ever after. He would say he was sorry to the beautiful young lover whose face he could not remember. She had told him that if he ever left her she would hang herself from the barn rafters. “No, no you won’t.” he had shouted. “I can’t be held hostage to save you.” Then, he did the only thing he could do.
He would recount how he had to veer off that set trajectory, how he had created his own, though he had been blown off course many times. He would say that he had to travel to where he would see water that was not just in irrigation ditches or in the form of rain--or the small stream of the river that was not a river running through the nearest city that was not a city. He had thought of this place as God-forsaken, though his mother had told him, "God is everywhere the eye can see and the heart can feel--horizon to horizon." If that was so, then he would recognize Him in other lands and landscapes, which he knew would serve to form, shape and grow something still small inside himself. He would see, hear and feel the blue ocean, stand before and climb mountains, meet and get to know people that were not like him--who would be God and His angels in disguise--strangers who would become his guests.
He finally landed on that island on the wide Hudson, “The City” where long, black limos stopped in front of hotels, theaters and restaurants, and, where downtown, he mingled with those who had lost their way, but not their souls--those who carried the sum of their lives in carts or plastic bags and hid the countenance of their sainthood beneath blank and sombre stares.
He would ask the conjured visions now assembled for his homecoming: Can you ever understand that I had to trade predictable for the possible, security for spontaneity and comfort for experience? He felt their memory of him beyond his boyhood was of a selfish dreamer, a fool, a doubter, a lazy sinner, and a bad influence on his sister, with all of his wild ideas about journeys and trials he got from the books he read, when he should have been working--ideas that, for him, became ideals to be acted upon--light-filled thoughts that opened up all colors, dreams and initiated his plan of escape for body and soul.
When a boy, he loved this house, family birthdays, Christmas and 4th of July celebrations, picnics and Sundays of prayers and hymns. He had wanted to be good, to be grateful to God for creating him and everything around him, to obey and please Him and to honor his father and mother. He would concede that, but also that he needed to feel alive and that he had found and believed in something as surely as they trusted in God’s Word, and it was this: We did not come to earth to fulfill the expectations of God or man, yet, he knew that through his not doing so, he had somehow nevertheless, by default or destiny, managed to achieve the self-same thing.
He now believed that if there was a God, that He intended that we be disobedient, that we be cast out of the Garden we are born into, that we lose our innocence in order to gain the knowledge of good and evil, both of which God had brought into being himself. He knew that God would have it no other way, because evil and good are all mixed up, and one can be mistaken for the other, because one often results in the other, no matter what we intend. That’s why he thought that, if a God allowed a Satan to roam the earth, it was not just so that we resist temptation, or try to eradicate evil. He had once read something as true as any Bible verse: “Evil is not something to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”
Maybe some people could be content to remain in the place where they were born, but not him. He was a wayfarer, took the road less travelled, finding fulfillment and loss in that dark-haired woman he loved too much. She had painted a portrait of him in blue and red after they had a child born with his spine outside of his body. Then, on the first anniversary of the child’s death, when he arrived home on that snowy evening, she had vanished like the snowflakes melting on the window he stared out of all that night. Disappeared--just as he had from the forlorn farm house he now stood in, triumphant.
He was the cynic who burned the red and blue portrait with the letters he had written to her every day for a year, with nowhere to send them. He lived alone, not knowing what do with the remaining love for the dark-haired woman and the dead child, until he took in and looked after the young man in rags with wild, violet eyes, who danced nightly in the streets of St. Mark’s Place in a stained, suede vest, asking nothing for his performances of grace and beauty, but a witness.
All this he meant to speak out loud into the quiet of the cold room to those who waited and listened.
When he started to speak, his voice sounded hollow and weak in the gaunt, high-ceilinged room. All at once, what he had left behind appeared before him as a sacrifice to become human, to arrive at a state “of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.” Or had he forfeited the simple for the sublime, the facts for the hard-won truth? And peace descended upon him. His frosted breath became visible when he said only this: “Peace be with you.” And he felt that it was so.
The fire had gone out, the wind had died down. Across the fields, the afternoon sun was low in the sky, but shone through the darkened spaces of the room as the figures vanished in its illumination.