I. Last Oath Of The Day
I'd been cursing all day, cursing everything. From groggy dawn to exhausted midnight I'd fled baying hounds of Hell in every guise, rabid packs of them, all famished for my flesh. So I cursed, and cursed, and even as I cursed, transmogrified everything I encountered into more snarling hounds -- the animate, the inanimate, the near, the far, the dear, the detested -- until my inner landscape had become a smoky Breughelian hell of plague and carnage.
Come night, I crawled, exhausted, into bed. I pulled up the covers and turned onto my left side. Something was tapping on my ribs. I rolled back a few degrees. It tapped still. I pitched forward a few degrees. The monotonous tapping continued, the merest touch, just enough to ward off sleep. I pictured it: an overloud alarm clock, a red fist clenching and unclenching, a little man with a jeweler's hammer tunneling through a rock wall.
I couldn't find the sweet spot, the angle of repose, where the prisoner would hang free and flail midair.
"Fuck you," I said. To my heart.
It had been a long, bruising day. My brain was seething with thoughts, roiling with images and feelings. So I pushed everything down and walled it up. All that remained was a faint, fading clamor from somewhere below my amygdala. I pulled my blankets up over my head, curled up in a ball and willed sleep to come.
A thought arose. Breakfast. In six hours. Coffee. A bagel.
I sighed with pleasure.
Another thought arose. A wolf awakens hungry, sets out into the frigid night after prey.
I growled and drooled.
III. Beside Myself
I pulled into the driveway and switched off the engine. It was dark and cold, and the first time in weeks that I'd not been hours late coming home. My car was a mess. CDs, papers, hats, gloves, boots, old coffee containers lay scattered about. I sighed and pulled my backpack toward me. It, too, was a mess.
I pictured my stethoscope coiled at the bottom amidst breadcrumbs and stray raisins and pen tops and ear specula and rubber bands and paperclips and post-it notes, buried under a torn lunch bag, a tupperware sandwich container, a Book of Common Prayer, a few torn New England Journals, a grimy lab coat and Volume Five of Thomas Merton's Journal. And wasn't I too old to carry a backpack anyway ?
I looked at the seat beside me and the floor. I saw two hats, a black one and a green one, and two pairs of gloves, one pair grimy red and the other pair threadbare black. My heart wrenched at the sight of this sad diaspora of winter outerwear. So lonely, I thought, gathering them up, matching glove to glove and hat to hat and placing them in a cozy pile on the seat.
There. That's better, I thought. And then I thought of my childhood bedtime ritual of setting doll beside doll, shoe beside shoe, comb beside brush, book beside book. How could I abandon one single thing to darkness and loneliness ?
And I thought of how, playing in the bath amidst bubbles and floating toys, I would ever so carefully turn off the faucet lest one infant water droplet be separated from its mother. It was crucial. I had to get it right. Then I'd set the bar of soap and the bottle of shampoo side by side to keep each other company during the long, dark, tiled nights.
And I remembered how, on New Year's Eve, I would, with a ritual gesture of my childish mind, make sure the Old Year made it safely into the place where all the Old Years gather. Otherwise it might float forever, unmoored and lonely, in a sad waste of empty time.
I turned to the hats and gloves on the seat beside me and patted them once more as if I were soothing a fretful child; as if I were blotting up their disconsolate lacrimae rerum.
I thought of my mother, dwindling, diminishing, attenuating. She was becoming as insubstantial as the images my father had projected on her beige ward wall a week ago: images of her from six decades past, slender, beautiful, smiling, newlywed. A few stray photons, caught on a transparency, ungraspable except by the retina's canny net or the mind's imperfect, crumbling trap.
I stepped out of the car. The night arched overhead like a black, spangled wing. I looked at the stars and thought of the words of the vespers office : Seek Him who made the Pleides and Orion, and turns deep darkness into morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth..
I heard the sound of water rushing over spillways, out of faucets; it was the sound of the river of God and the tears of things as they converged. It was a sibilant sound, like the hush of comfort that opens the oldest lullaby, the one that goes
whoever falls first, the other soon follows .
Humming that, I closed the car door and went into the house.