The Prodigal Son Climbs Down (from Things that happen while reading Rilke)‘The night counselled me to be patient and, indeed, towards dawn the skies cleared, and the full circle was squared. Looking up into the Great Beyond, I was absorbed into it. ‘I am nobody. I expect nothing. What the Savants think is neither here nor there’. A star catches my eye, not a particularly bright one. Steadfast, lids apart. I’m moved to think ‘I am its reflection’. My not-so-bright star winks at me. I was in free-fall upwards, out of time.
‘When I fell to ground I crossed the Mediterranean again to the blue coast, avoiding the savants of Aigues Mortes. I traversed the plain of Lot, ascending by spiralling paths along gorges dangerous to look down. I found my mountain again. If there was anyone else around, I would be seen as a romantic figure, the valley smiling before me. But far from posing as a pastoral archetype, I was being more myself. Time no longer mattering to me. I found a space to stand still in, and listen to my breathing, until I could hear my heart beat, and then I sang, ‘I am just myself, past, present and future, all in one’.
‘Still as I gained in strength, I became embarrassed with this air of evaporation. I heard the echo of my song, and it sounded hollow. ‘Subtract the future from the past and you get the present’. I thought more about who I was than what I could be by just being. And that lead me back to my illustrious ancestors. I was the rump of a family with a long history of ‘diplomacy in war and courage in peace’ (or was it the other way round/). There were even worthies buried in a disused graveyard called Alyscamps. in the foothills.
‘I descended to pay them homage, disguised as myself. The peasants paid no attention, and travellers on the road regarded me with pity (‘another hermit savant on the loose’). The necropolis had seen better days. Once the last resting place of princes and prelates, fed by a river to ferry their cortege, it was abandoned when the river changed course after an earthquake. The bed is now a stagnant pool that gives voice to the odour of death with a chorus of frogs.
‘The Moors plundered its metal, and the cathedrals its gargoyles and relics. Venerable bones were scattered in shattered sepulchres. Moles made catacombs under them. The last tomb standing was peeled back, like a whale in its death throes, and I heard cries of torment within. Who are these revenants, I asked myself, the children of Job? But when I heard dogs barking, I guessed it was a band of vagabonds, no doubt , in mortal combat for the dregs of the meadow mead.
‘I remembered what a sacred place it was for the family. They petitioned the authorities to have the mausoleum restored to its former glory, but nobody was interested. Then my brother had the idea that the necropolis could be made into a place of pilgrimage for the many families like ours with evicted ancestors. It should be possible, he said, to make a business out of it. A village would spring up around the environs, and so it should pay for itself. The town was interested, but my father vetoed the idea. He wanted the place left to rack and ruin as a reminder of times past and the evils that had lead to its desecration.
‘I located the remnant of our mausoleum under a withered cedar. The family’s hard won victories and hard done losses were forgotten with the causes that inspired them. Instead of a heraldic pendant flying over a memorial, all that was left was some cotton wool stuck in brambles crawling over a derelict site. The famous stellar symbol with its lucky number that guided their exploits had been erased. But I scratched the mossy surface and underneath I counted sixteen little stars indented from light years that no longer illuminated anything. The stagnant frog stream had a mercurial sheen and I looked at my reflection in it. I was surprised to have one. I thought it was amongst the stars! My straggle of beard was like the scumming up of a latrine. A Narcissus I was not.
‘It was possible to laugh at oneself. But I felt like a soul-haunted shade in this doubly dead burial place. Tombs torn open by looting troops in a bygone age, who wanted to destroy not only any sign of life, but of death, fearing an enemy resurrection. ‘These desperate men, haggard eyes pursuing the trajectory of a dragonfly…’ My nightmare of the other night could have been a tribal memory. One that would be painted by another prodigal son, Vincent, centuries later in Alyscamps. But time is playing tricks with me, and I’m forwarding the past. Still I’m happy to think that the cracks could be painted over.
‘I searched for bones in the family tomb, but only found the skull of a sheep. Nearby I noticed something trussed in ivy, which I removed, revealing a tabernacle. The door creaked open and inside I discover the bones of a clenched fist. As I shake hands with it the pack of dogs bound out from the last tomb standing. Soon I was eye to eye with the vagabonds. Their bloodshot curiosity glinted knives. I ran off before they could decide whether I was worth killing or not.
‘My solitude had not been crowded out by the presences that haunted the necropolis. I only talked to myself and the dead answered. Anywhere but here, I thought, and returned to my mountain refuge. Making a detour of the town, I pretended to be a scarecrow when I saw anyone coming. ‘If the mountain helps the weak, it is not deliberate’, I thought as I got back up without breaking my neck. I counted the goats. Not one had wandered off or fallen from a cliff. In the world below I had glimpsed the horror that is people. Now I bore witness to the benignity of beasts unbothered by human intervention. Goats could milk each other, mouth to udder. Vultures wait for an accident, and clean up the mess. Wolves have their ethic: what could creatures expect who make their whelps vulnerable? Pregnant bears shake off the snow and hunt honey in the lower slopes. A mongoose confronted by a snake stuns it with stillness..’