The Existence of Zero
(Mother Bon Voyage to an Island 2)
The long drive on the canvas rolls smoothly. No-one on the road. You prefer the wake with dawn. The rich morning silences, the animated fabrics of net-working birds and bugs. The intruding start of the engine, the way the noise forces them to clear the air, and makes the road, in front of you clear too. These early summer mornings. The counting of milestones. Repetition of road-signs, lampposts, electric poles, arriving, it seems, from an infinite landscape. Vapour trails criss-crossing your windscreen. Another sunrise resting on your bonnet. This is how you prefer it to be. The morning.
Before you travelled you lost heart. You stared at the photo on the passport for days. A document renewed but never used. Before you travel, you iterate, you must look through bookshelves to find the map, the tourist guide, the route ahead peeping in-between dusty cracks, you search for the traveller, the foreign soul, the spectre. In a library of books written in abstractions so you sweep manuscripts off surfaces and display what’s palpable instead. A floating shell. A leaf without contour: what pulls it together is inner nervation. A picture with no frame of a pilgrim-figurine with arms reaching into your own dimensions. An empty copper birdcage.
Your veiled voice in the receiver. Words woven arduously from rough fibre, coarse filament. You tell me the drive turned out to be dramatic. You hit the large body of an eagle bird. And then sobbed all along the way home. The driving rules dictate and one mustn’t stop. One must not stop but prolong the serpentine reeling under tyres. This, you tell me after the journey neither into the past, nor the future. The journey of the present non-existent from which you are simply and suddenly gone. The trip that has not even started is already over. Are you back in the city of flint? You ask. Your smile blows a reminiscing puff of air into my ear.
Yes, I am back in the town of the black quartz. The glassy chalk you drew attention to. Eager to know the name of the texture of roads and houses. The way they cobble both the flat land and the vast sky. It means, you know, that this place is very old. Can you imagine this town not now but then, can you see a sedimentary pit? I can’t imagine, no. I can only see its here and now, the market’s stripy roofs, the tiny river that arrives inaudibly at the periphery of town and departs anonymously, never heard or seen, like a hooded monk. And that’s because I live here. I can only remember the curve of the road today, like a bird’s neck, the bus sluggishly rolls down on, crushing two oblivious squabs. A small town’s small catastrophe in slow-motion. The calm and empty sound of a pop. When I leave this place, these squabs will be packed in my red suitcase. A reminder of stoic intrepidity. No, I cannot imagine thens.
Do I remember? The colossal chestnut tree in bloom? The conversation drags out on the wire. Two-thousand kilometres long. The tree, dyed real green. Decorated with candles; a lacy wedding veil for a giant bride. You stood there mouth agape. Ignoring the cathedral hidden behind this colossal newly-wed. Inside, Rubens, and his wise men, the gifts, the silent adoration, Frankincense, myrrh and gold, look, mother: their annual arrival and departure. (And I wonder where they depart when they depart.) The organ’s quadrilateral body afloat in the air. Eagles on each corner, eager to take off. But it is the outside. A tree from a bird’s-eye view. It mesmerises you. From the top of St Mary’s, I do remember, yes. The spiral staircases: a withheld agony all the way of the ascending, the descending. These narrow tunnels whirling in vertigo. Like all spiral stairways, uncertain whether upwards or downwards. Smell of sweat. I reckon the view from up there is always all the same. From anywhere, wherever.
Terracotta roofs, bricked chimney pipes, the cooing of grey town pigeons. Their flights like ashes of burnt pages scattered in air. Repetition. I learnt it at the circus. The tautology of three acrobatic motions. Three exercises varied for a life-time. Their coming and going. The perpetual appearance and disappearance. One twists his body and like plasticine shapes it into a knot. Unravelling it again. The other’s numerous somersaults. Cyclical, perseverant. And finally. The wordless dance macabre: as she jams her red silk scarf into her mouth and swallows it. It slithers down with ease. But her two blue marble eyes, almost pop out. My silent adoration: for their three gifts.
We pass by at night the floating abbey. Three times. To and fro. A chronic dialogue of two final destinations. And in-between the beheaded cathedral again and again. It’s because it looks as if… because of the way it’s lit, only partially. The tower detaches itself from its own self during the night and elevates above its own shadow. Its own black chasm, abyssal absence, the torso. The reminder that everything is… It is not to remember. The only way it is to learn it by heart. I must go back to the garden where the chestnut tree… in bloom, but not now, then, later, too late, one thousand and one minutes ago, it stood. Memory always comes in the way randomly, like displayed museum objects, a mummified cat, a sarcophagus, or a bronze Augustine head from Iran. Greek Tympanums, a shrivelled Neanderthal, curled up, as if asleep, a lump of yellow hair on the skull, bleached by sand or sun. I too want to have memory. Of you. A tangible one. A memory of now.
You point at a skyscraper from the tower (beside you a humming ash-coloured pigeon) and began. You say things with courage. Facing the majestic metropolis. With measured assessment. It seems this country from up here is miniature truth. A dollhouse of precisions. A microscopic architecture of reality. Mock-up of framed rivers, cottages, cranes, zigzagging garden paths and creaking garden gates, ocean cruisers shipping in the river like a whale clumsily lifting the two wings of the bridge. The gravity of minsters, the vast East-country sky, an island of still twitchers and soundless golf-players. The ideal green grass: the archetype of all lawns in the world. The blue containers brimming with freshly fished mackerels. The friendly London planes. It seems safe. Well-constructed. What labour behind it. Millions collaborating for this enterprise. For the smooth horizontal landscape. Impossible. Your words. Moderate prophecies from a stranger, mini porcelain bonbonniers you hand over, when you speak to them in native morse codes and gesture thank yous. One for each host and hostess.
Standing in a harbour at night is reciprocity. Listening to the tide crawling inland. Something you and I never understood. The mechanics of the Moon. The way the ocean creeps in under your foot via secret detours. Locals say you could even drown. The earth is so flat. You are gone. The night trip towards home passes by the floating cathedral again, a tiresome tunnelling through dark woodlands, diving through thick black lakes. The journey is over. I am thinking of the three gifts: the plasticine man. The somersaults from height. The red silk scarf disappearing inch by inch in the ballerina’s mouth. You have taken the mood for reminiscing. The triumph for standing on Shakespeare’s corpse feels empty on my own. The colourful tulip fields. Golden cast iron gates. Clock towers piercing the sky. Now only a melodramatic ceremony of the hour hopping ahead like an insect. The city’s clangourous chimes: kitschy and eccentric departures of seconds. I look at the wild life you gazed leaning against the fence of the park. At cormorants, pelicans, black Australian swans with curly feather-wings. You suddenly speak again. Quietly. This could be home. I wouldn’t get lost here, you know.
All of this, forgotten by now. You are back where you came from. Your veiled voice in the receiver. We weave our conversation two thousand kilometres long. The only thing that matters is present. You sob all along the way home. The roads are empty. The rich air of dawn. The noise of the engine. The busy silence. When you hit the colossal body of an eagle bird.
[Agnes Lehoczky is a Hungarian-born poet and translator who is currently studying for a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She has two short poetry collections, Station X (2000) and Medallion (2002) by Universitas published in Budapest, Hungary, both written in Hungarian. Her first English collection was published by Egg Box Publishing in 2008 and is entitled Budapest to Babel.]
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