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 ISSN 1556-4975

   

Since 1998, a journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays edited by Ricardo Nirenberg.


 

"The Walk", by Stan Johannesen.

From The Wulfenite Affair & Other Stories (2012, The Electric Ferry Press).

On the last day of M.’s life he takes a walk around the lake, as he has many times before. Being in no hurry and anyway feeling a certain heaviness in his limbs—a hint of vertigo and shortness of breath, not in themselves distressing or even unpleasant, sensations he attributes to the warmth and humidity of the day—he lingers by the war memorial.

The monument stands on a walled parapet. On a stone plinth are two lifesize bronze figures, the first bareheaded and exultant, the second hooded and bowed. Bronze plaques display names of the dead. Broad steps descend in front toward the lake.

M. seats himself on a corner of the wall at the top of the steps, from where he can if he wishes gaze out over the lake and the expanse of lawn below, while keeping in view the two bronze figures of the monument, figures which now seem to him, by a slow percolation of awareness, neither redundant nor conventional but hinting obscurely at narrative.

The lawn is peopled sparsely with strollers and their dogs and children, and solitary figures sitting or lying. The scene swims before his eyes in a pointillist shimmer and the strollers and dogs and children freeze momentarily and then resume their movements.

He notices a woman, sitting alone at a wooden picnic table, perched sideways on the bench, her back to him, leaning on her left elbow. Her right leg extends out to her side, her naked foot tensed as though for the start of a race or some other sudden springing movement. Shining black hair, a black dress of clinging jersey negligently disposed, ruched carelessly high up on her thigh. Her leg is massy in all its parts, the strong masculine knee, the muscular thigh and calf, the roughly-modeled squarish anklebone, the prominent Achilles’ tendon, the burnished crook of the heel.

M. looks again at the bronze figures. The downcast hooded figure, the one closest to him, a broken sword at its side, its gown, or shroud, parted to reveal a naked leg arrested in mid-stride, a sense neither of motion nor of rest, but of strained immobility, a frozen energy amounting to a moral idea. This foot, more particularly the heel, like the woman’s a noble bulb or rootstock supported in a bridgework of tendons and the massive arch of the instep.

The seed of the woman shall crush the serpent under his heel. Is this inscribed on the monument? M. thinks it must be. He moves from his perch on the wall and circles the figures on the war memorial. He cannot find it. It is from the Bible.

M. returns to the head of the steps and looks out again over the lawn and the lake. The woman in black is no longer at the picnic table. A middle-aged couple are sitting there instead. A chequered cloth covers the table and on it, the remains of a breakfast. They have evidently been there for a long time.

Then he sees her. The high waist and the outline of powerful legs, in black, standing in the path beyond the band shell. Although far away, she is now level with him and this circumstance heightens the impression of connection, a certainty that she is looking at him, communing with him.

She wants him to look across the lake. He does not know how he knows this. There is no longer just the two of them, but a third, across the lake, making a triangle. The atmosphere vibrates with this knowledge, as though a chord has been struck at oscillations inaudible to the human ear but registering in a deep layer of the mind and will. He finds himself looking directly at a spot framed by elder bushes growing at the water’s edge on the far side of the lake, at the foot of a lawn and garden sweeping up to a large house with white columns and a tall blue spruce and a tennis court. A youth stands there, androgynous, slender, fair, round-shouldered and tentative, looking directly at him.

M. has moved further around the shore of the lake. The sun slants from the southeast, low through the willow branches. By the side of the path a little busker whom M. takes at first for a child. The body of a thirteen-year old, a broad, blonde, freckled face with no eyelashes or any particular colour in the eyes. Long strawberry hair, clean, but curiously lifeless, straw-like.

M. now sees that the face is an old face, ancient, blind. She wears a blue-black velvet dress, an ill-fitting cast-off theatrical costume, a long dress, its frogging or buttons or other ornaments missing, torn away, her bare feet visible below the dragging hem, a single gold ring on one of her toes. She plays a small violin, a child’s version with a thin, reedy tone, with surprising vigour, a tune M. thinks he should know. From childhood, a chipped 78 spinning under a steel needle. The little busker’s instrument case is open on the pavement at her feet and the bottom is covered with large dull yellow coins and a sprinkling of silver, all strange and foreign. M. recognizes the tune, a humoresque, which has begun again without a break. He can’t recall the composer.

People, tourists mostly, stroll here and there in twos and threes. Rather too randomly, he thinks, like extras hired for a promotion, to give the appearance of naturalness without quite succeeding. They seem oblivious to the busker, perhaps do not see her or hear her. Ahead somewhere her familiar, her controller, the dark woman of the heel, waiting, drawing this procession to its predestined end. And across the lake, hidden now, but listening also, without doubt, to the fantastic strains of the violin, the slender youth,

M. feels in this a certain impatience, and even anger. The anger is invigorating. These hallucinations—what else could they be?—but no, not so slight a thing, psychologically, as hallucinations, but rather symbols, no, not so much as that. Conceits—of a tiresomely literary type.

A wind blows over the lake, the farther shore recedes, waves begin to break at M.’s feet as on an ocean shore. A ferry appears, a longboat, with a lone occupant, an oarsman. M. steps firmly aboard. “Will he be there? On the other side?” M. asks. The ferryman says nothing. M. sees that the face of the ferryman is the face of his father, but younger, younger than M. is now, and the face wears an expression of remote detachment and amusement. As the boat speeds away into the waves, the ferryman says, “Let us all stand up,” as though repeating the punchline of an ancient joke whose meaning is lost.

 


Received from Stan, Sept. 2012: I’ve just published a collection of stories, The Wulfenite Affair & Other Stories. Anyone who is curious may read about it at my blog at skjohannesen.com and at electricferrypress.com and, incidentally, discover what I’ve been up to.



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