Saturday, August 05, 2006

There once was a boy (Conclusion "Steppingstones..."

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
– Ernest Becker

I once dreamed I entered a deserted building and in total darkness found my way to a stairway leading to the second floor. The place was familiar—formerly the Ideal Laundry in the Five Points area of lower downtown Denver, a hollowed shell the length of a city block with boarded-up windows, rusted machinery and strange noises with no discernable origin. There were two sets of stairs, one on the north side, one on the south. I was in the south stairwell. It was silent except for the slight creak of my gun belt and the whispered footfalls on my progress. The revolver was heavy in my hand, the grip slippery from sweat.

I turned at the landing and started up the last flight and saw the silhouette of a man standing at the top. The shape was so indistinct that it seemed more impression than verifiable fact, a darker shade of darkness against a midnight backdrop, and as I studied it wondering if my eyes were playing tricks on me there was a pop of light and something slammed me into the wall. I slid into a heap, my pistol and flashlight gone, blood running from my chest in a warm dark stream. The figure took a step down, and another, lingering on each stair as if it had all the time in the world, or relishing what was to come. Never was there anything other than shape, or shadow, until a pistol barrel loomed into focus and centered inches from my face. The maw of the barrel was blacker than the night itself, blacker than the figure, blacker than the shadows in the far corners of the room, and it drew me in like an embrace until a blinding light and explosion rocketed me from bed, my heart hammering in my ribs.

The following evening I was dispatched there after a burglar alarm sounded. Was the dream an omen or merely a nocturnal fabrication? There was no knowing until the night had run its course. I entered the building alone, fast, rushing up the north stairwell with pistol in hand, finger on trigger. Very, very afraid.

There came a time, though, when fear crippled me. An alarm had sounded at a small convenience store in a bad neighborhood. It was a moonless night, the street empty, a few lights glowing in the brick houses lining the street. A dim light in the store illuminated narrow aisles crammed with goods, but there was no indication of forced entry. I couldn’t check the back without walking down a narrow alley and I was not about to do that.

As I slipped the key into the front door a terror fell on me. It was like suffocating, oxygen vacuumed from my lungs until I staggered back, panting, gasping and clawing at my pistol, as if that would do any good. I retreated to the truck and locked the doors. For a long time I glared out at the building until my eyes reddened from the strain, struggling to calm down, wondering what frightened me, knowing with a humiliating certainty that I did not possess the courage to enter that place alone. When at last I drove off it was to the whispered accusations of a part of me that died on that lonely street: Coward, it said. You coward.


We were not finished yet. We turned south out of Washington and followed the needle on our GPS units until they swiveled sharply to the right. Another hundred feet and we parked in a shallow turnoff. Low grassy hills rose to the west and behind us a ribbon of trees shadowed a small stream. Steve and I waded into thigh-deep grass, letting the GPS dictate our path. After a few minutes of searching he held up a small canister. We signed our names on the logbook and returned it to its hiding place.

There was one more. At a picnic area outside of town we walked across a manicured strip of grass and confronted a dark array of trees. Poison ivy grew thick in the understory while webs glistened wetly in the fractured light. A cardinal sang.

For a moment I hesitated. To enter was to face an age-old fear of insects crawling on me—not the elm beetle, certainly, but far worse, a dizzying variety of spiders, ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes and, even worse, the unknown. But there was a cache to locate and something powerful and pure luring me on.

I broke through the first rank and dropped down into a small declivity. The others followed. In the woods our GPS units gave wildly varying directions, whether from the cloudcover or the trees or a dearth of satellites. Stumbling over obstacles hidden in the vegetation, we bulled through to a small sluggish stream that blocked our progress and turned back. Steve and Lori headed for the open, saying they’d had enough. I carried on, looking for a path of least resistance.

Bird songs echoed through the stillness. Ticks crawled up my pants. With a rotted branch I fended off spider webs. From the clearing Lori and Steve tracked my moves, nor were they alone. Mourning cloaks and wood nymphs fluttered in the dappled shadows. Orb spiders hung fat and heavy from vast glittering webs. I felt watched, as if my presence in the woods was unwanted. Zeroing in on a fallen tree, I circled it three times until I noticed the edge of a metal canister poking through. Scattering a pile of rotted timber, I pulled out the cache and held it aloft triumphantly, and then cracked the case to get to the logbook. My bare arms were covered with sweat and bug bites and in the steamy closeness my human scent was rank.

All around me rose incantations of indeterminate tongues, melodies and tempos of pure sound echoing as if from beyond the universe. Such a strange and inhuman place these deep woods, and yet so soothing, as if this were a homecoming and I a traveler turning his back on a larger world whose skies he had once known and now repudiated. And why should that be when surrounded by this alien place?

With luck, we find our way in dreams and memories. For I had been there before, not in those woods beside Mill Creek but far away and long ago in a dense bamboo thicket where I alone ventured, and in an airy elm tree where I would scamper as high as I dared and look out on a world more vast than I could imagine, and the memory was like a continuance of a life once lived, as if everything that happened between then and now transpired in the blink of an eye, and the only traces were strange thoughts haunting my sleep.

I was once that boy. A skinny, freckled, red-haired boy who looked out on the world through the parted branches of a thicket or the upper reaches of a tree, and if what he saw troubled him he would retreat deeper into the shadows, or inward, where only he knew the path. He could not have known that fear would forever cling to him like the webs he brushed against, that there would never be a time when he was not afraid, or uncomfortably conscious of an underlying terror all wild creatures know. That he would never age, no matter the lined face staring back in the mirror. How could he? The world was young and so was he, and there were other skies to imagine, and if he could imagine them, then he could imagine a different self entirely.

That other self never materialized. He would forever be the boy looking through the thicket, forever shadowed by a nameless dread, and if occasionally like a sword he wielded a dried length of bamboo, or dreamed of weapons that could never protect him, it was less flights of fancy than fledgling attempts to keep a world he did not trust at bay.

I was still that boy. And these things—the sticky webs draping themselves across exposed flesh like a second skin, the unfelt legs of creatures scribbling beneath my clothes to burrow and feast, the drone of insects like the aggregate of thousands of automobiles faintly heard from a quiet suburban street, the potentialities of poisonous snakes or wasp swarms or infectious mosquitoes—were never really barriers but simply conditions of being. Indispensable, irreducible, prerequisites for the totality of existence, they could be either shunned or enjoined. The choice was mine alone.

I signed the logbook and shoved the cache under a log. Between me and the others was a wild riot of briar tangles, poison oak, mossy trees moldering into the forest floor and gigantic webs glimmering in the shattered sunlight. Through the eyes of a boy who had never aged, I went looking for a way out of the woods.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here's what I mean -- prose that could easily be poetry:

All around me rose incantations
of indeterminate tongues,
melodies and tempos of pure sound echoing as if from beyond
the universe.
Such a strange and inhuman place these deep woods, and yet
so soothing, as if this were a homecoming and I a traveler turning his back on a larger
world whose skies he had
once known and now repudiated.
And why should that be
when surrounded by this alien place?