Variation on a Theme

“I’m back.”

“Oh, good.  …good Lord.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just – I’m sorry, how many bags of books do you have there?  I thought you said you were going off to read, not raid a bookstore.”

“It wasn’t a bookstore.  It was the library.”

And there wasn't a book sale. I didn't even get that many new requests. This was just me cleaning out my car.

And there wasn’t a book sale. I didn’t even get that many new requests. This was just me cleaning out my car.

“Oh.  I’d thought maybe a coffee shop…?”

“No, coffee shops are full of people buying coffee and chatting over their tea and – and then there’s the pressure to earn your seat by buying more coffee, which I don’t need.  Bookstores have no BYOB policy and in fact discourage bringing your own book….whereas the library has a fine parking lot, and a quiet table inside.”

“Sorry – what, exactly, does the parking lot have to do with anything?”

“Oh!  Well, on a fine evening like this, you can read in your car.  More airflow than indoors, and there was at least an hour of light.  And then inside for another hour and change.  I almost finished off that volume of Milosz, finally.”

“Seems a shame to read so fast instead of lingering over the words.  You can’t get as much out of it.”

Quirk of a bemused eyebrow.  “Is that how you always read?  Lingeringly?”

“Well, yeah.  More or less, depending on the book.”

“Tell me: do you always sip daintily at every glass of water?”  A blank look in response.  “Do you always, always let your beer or wine set for five whole seconds on your tongue before you swallow it?”  Sheepish shifting of feet, eyes drifting to the floor.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought.  Sure, maybe I don’t remember as much of it as you do, or as much as I’d like to recall – but good God, man, sometimes it’s sweltering out and you’re sweating too hard to do anything but gulp.  Sometimes you’re too caught up in conversation to attend so studiously to your beverage.  And that’s all for the best, honestly – drinks go with your food and conversation, not the other way ’round.”

“But contemplating words makes a good deal more sense than contemplating wine.”

“Not all words.  And, for that matter, not all wines, either.”

The Ships – A Prose Poem by CP Cavafy

From Imagination to the Blank Page.  A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous.  At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.

The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.

Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.

And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.

Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.

Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.

Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.

Fog

By the time she took her leave, darkness had fallen, and the fog with it.  Together these obscured the path so thoroughly as to make her memory doubtful – even memory built up over years of taking this road, thousands of times.

This route should never feel anything but friendly – and yet, cloaked in obscurity as it was, every mile turned foe.  Nothing promised that the curves would remain as she had always encountered them; nothing could assure her that the trees and ponds and buildings by the way did not lay under some enchantment of their own, shifting thither and yon.  Whole minutes had gone by since she passed the last traffic signal, had they not?  Surely she should have reached the next red-light-turned-green by now.  But in between the road stretched on and on, with only fresh darkness on the horizon.

Ghostly eyes of lamps passed intermittently in the dimness, floating in the mist, whatever car or carriage they might be attached to invisible.  She shuddered at the thought of a deer, or a man, wandering out into the road, standing frozen while her car barreled into it.  Him.  Worse was the thought of a driver approaching without any lights, colliding twice as fast, with pulverizing force.

Pondering this, she eased off the gas and played idly with the headlights.  The regular lamps were dimmer, and thus of limited use – but the high beams fell on the cloud of water droplets, illuminating no further.  However slow she went, it couldn’t be helped – she couldn’t see.

No wonder fog stood in for fear.  Not only would it veil the unknown twice over, but it sent even the familiar into oblivion: dementia come sixty years early.