Thursday, February 28, 2008

The English Patient

I sense a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall trees in the park just beyond my window sway. I hear the first drops of rain on the window pane.

I lie on my couch, on a sheet, naked: my body exposed to the mild breeze from the window which is opened slightly on this warm day in early spring. I turn my head slowly to the book I hold awkwardly in my left hand. I had purchased the book second hand at a book shop near Dupont Circle. My gaze turns to my body, beginning at my feet and ankles, then to my legs, then to the penis sleeping like a sea horse. I lie on my back, my head on a pillow, looking up at the ceiling. I take a bite of a plum that I hold in my right hand. I withdraw the stone and pass the flesh of the fruit into my mouth. My mind is focused on the book I am reading and the well of memory that I plunge into from time to time.

My memory slips from level to level like a hawk. It is late afternoon. My hands play with a piece of sheet, the back of my fingers caressing it. I stand up naked and walk across the room to the kitchen, where I wash my hand.

I return to the couch. I am not tired enough to sleep. I read from the book. A candle flickers over the page, barely revealing the pictures that decorate the walls. I swallow the words of the book like water. It is still raining. I smell the liquid in the air. The rustle of things. Tree branches and dead leaves. The banging of a tin can whose deep pitch reveals it is full of water.

I lie and read the book under the waver of light. I glance now and then at the wall of books across from me. For years I had fallen upon books as the only door out of the prison cell that is my life. They have become half of my world.

The book is perched on my lap. I realize that for more than five minutes I have been looking at the porousness of the paper, the crease at the corner of page 17 which someone had folded over as a mark. I brush my hand over its skin. A scurry in my mind like a moth at the window. A table sits next to the couch. Earlier I had ceremoniously poured myself a small beaker of wine and set it on the table and now I lift a glass to my lips and sip away further into the book I am reading. The book has gaps of plot like sections of a road washed out by storms, missing incidents as if plaster on the ceiling had pealed away.

My past, my memories are much like that. Some phases of my life cannot be entered because the rubble of memory, fragments of lived experience, have crowded in on each other leaving many periods inert and lost to reminiscence. I am not concerned about the gaps in plot, either in the book or in my life. I simply continue to read. I hear the sound of a bird and I look up from the book again. My eyes come to rest on the high wall of books, then the walls.

I glance back at the book. Some of the pages are joined together in a stiff wave. I feel like Crusoe finding a drowned book that had washed up and dried itself on the shore. The English Patient. As in all of the best books, there is the important page with the list of illustrations, a line of text for each of them.

I enter the story knowing I will emerge from it feeling I had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back more than sixty years, my body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

The candle goes out. I light a match in the dark room and move it onto the wick of the candle. Light lifts itself onto my shoulders. I breathe in the smell of sulfur. I imagine I also breath in light.

I pick up a notebook that lies on the small table beside the couch. It is a book that I have had with me for many years -- a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that I have added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in my own observations -- so they all are cradled within the text of Herodotus. I begin to read my small gnarled handwriting, and set as aside The English Patient.

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