Over the past two decades, silver ticked tabby cats, one after another, have visited a gravesite in Geneva's Cimetière des Rois, brushing their slinky torsos against the headstone, mewing as if there were a door in the tomb and someone had forgotten to leave it open.
An eminent poet-scholar is buried in that tomb. His admirers have heard how, when he lay dying, his wife asked her blind husband what he wanted to take with him to the Elysian Fields, where surely a place had been reserved for him among the great bards and heroes. She promised that anything he named would be interred beside him.
In a whisper only she could hear, he said "Walking Stick," then "Hourglass," then "Question Mark." He could not bring himself to say "Tiger" lest a living creature suffocate underground before the arrival in Elysium. Our poet died the next day, June 14, 1986, and among the items sent with his remains to the mortuary there was no Tiger, even though it was the boon he most craved, even though fortune-tellers say it is the auspicious animal for that date.
Opinions vary about the actual destination of the poet's immortal soul. Perhaps he really went to the classical Groves. Perhaps he joined Virgil in Dante's medieval Limbo. Perhaps the deities of the Afterlife chose still another dwelling for him. Everyone is sure of one thing: As he passed through the Valley of the Shadow, his afflicted eyes were healed. It is gratifying to imagine his first sight of a Viking longship that would bear him to the shores of his own North Sea island. There, he would disembark wearing a natty English suit and sporting a beechwood cane, to be greeted by dock workers, fish sellers, innkeepers, and librarians, all delighted by his fluent Old Norse and his faint accent, seemingly more British than Hispanic.
Then again, he might have found a home here on earth among scholars and poets in a secluded monastery designed, not by Homer, Hesiod, or Dante, but by the genius Palladio. Just such a monastery stands on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It is maintained by a charitable foundation which, in memory of our poet, commissioned some years ago a huge boxwood labyrinth. This glistening green maze invites visitors to plunge into its corridors. As they grope for the way out, they find topiary initials—the poet's, his widow's—and the shapes of a Walking Stick, a Question Mark, an Hourglass—without any sand, of course. There is even a boxwood Tiger, as if the designer had seen into the poet's dying thoughts. In this Venetian Limbo, eons go by unmeasured. Frail monks and grad students visit the long, sunlit reading room that has no closing hours. A dapper old ghost studies there, unnoticed. He's at his table now, reading the works of Lord Byron, coming upon a description of the soul after Death:
Above or Love, Hope, Hate, or Fear,
It lives all passionless and pure.
which feels to him somewhat overstated, but very pretty, especially the last lines:
Away, away, without a wing!
O'er all, through all, its thought shall fly,
A nameless and eternal thing,
Forgetting what it was to die.
He remembers the eclipse of a dim, beloved face. He remembers his arrival here at the monastery. As far as he knows, between the two events, Nothing happened.
In a past life, Sarah White taught French at Franklin and Marshall
College, Lancaster, PA, and met the Protagonist of this story when he
came there as a guest lecturer.