David Miller

Lit-Mag #40 – Expatriations:  The expat edition

Spiritual Letters (Series 5, #5)

Late one night, he began wandering unfamiliar back streets: and continued on and on, travelling enormous distances, even crossing oceans; though he only ever remembered walking. Far distant family and old friends met him on his way. Suddenly, a flock of ducks flew directly over my head, quacking loudly, as they swooped down towards the lake. Sitting outside a café, we talked about his child: four years old, she still couldn’t talk, nor walk – small for her age, she was carried, or wheeled in a pram. They’d arrived at Giza in the evening, going straight to the pyramids from their hotel; but the noise of the crowd, then the bright images, lights and amplified voices made the child scream, over and again. Forced out of art school for his small, highly realistic images of buildings when large abstract paintings were obligatory, he later studied the history of architecture. – I survived my exams with the aid of a water flask filled with vodka, he told me. Printed on your postcard, with a schematic drawing of a person: I’m lost. After driving through the desert for a day, we stayed at a Navajo hotel, the only non-Indians there, with stray dogs roaming outside and a scorpion in our bathroom. The following afternoon we reached a lake with snow, water running over rocks, and trees in leaf. A diamond setter in the daytime, he played violin at night in the clubs along Eighth Avenue, amongst other expatriates. This night, the door’s left open: for the passer-by, the wanderer, the erring traveller. After she’d taken me on a brief tour of the neighbourhood, we went back to her house, where I met her husband; but something, it struck me, seemed wrong between them. She went out to smoke a small cigar; I took a walk and then a taxi ride, slowly realising how large and strange the city was… and I wondered about leaving. Fountains and pools, even a man-made lake, had been incorporated into the architectural complexes. Stone dragons, red and dark blue railings, trees in blossom. Within the temple, three rooms full of stacked small wooden tablets, recording in Chinese the names of the dead, their districts and villages. She knew so much of the plants and birds and beasts around her, and loved the beautiful views over the sea of blue forest and real sea beyond… Falling ill at a friend’s, he stayed for a few days to recuperate. One afternoon they took a walk together, with one of his friend’s daughters and the family dog: up a muddy hillside, then past frangipanis, ferns, eucalyptus trees. – Sister, let’s go in, he said; they’d gone for a walk, and had been drawn by the sight of the basilica’s spires. Years later, he could recall the ascension window’s blues and reds, but not the cathedral gold windows; what she remembered, he would never know. He was taken aback during a sermon when his minister claimed she’d once glimpsed a ghost. As we left the station, we were caught up in a crowd surging towards the fireworks; even after the display, it was impossible for some while to disentangle ourselves. Two of the bridges had been closed off, and when we eventually reached a third and found it open, we were separated by the crowd and forced to go different ways. I often wonder if you miss your clarinet. Sometimes I see young people in Bourke Street playing and think of you; there are a lot of buskers in the city these days, sometimes so close together that it is just a meaningless din. I found myself staying back at the old family home, now my sister’s, and sinking into despondency at the windows that were falling in, the front door not locking, and she refusing to do anything to fix them. Dear adopted sister… thy history would furnish materials for one of the most interesting pernicious novels. You accused her of bribing a surgeon to operate on you as a child, so that you’d be left with a cleft palate. Doors in the floor and ceiling, or opening onto blank walls; a reservoir of water over a fireplace; a staircase ending at the ceiling.  When we were children, we had a cockatoo, a rosella and a crow, as well as dogs, cats and budgerigars. The cockatoo terrified us, and seemed to delight in it, chasing us around the yard while we screamed. Hearing me leave my room during the night, he covered himself in a sheet and hid in a closet to wait for my return. When he heard my footsteps, he opened the closet door, lifted his arms and walked towards me. …she is just outside the door raving at me. Unfortunately she is involving other people… she is making me out to be a monster. Returning from the hospital, she found that her daughter had taken all her cats to a shelter for strays. The journey led through a mountainous region where a dragon lived near a lake; if it was not propitiated, it would cause storms of snow, hail, wind. His efforts at proselytising were hindered by the interpreter appointed to him, alcoholic and uncooperative. There were two monastery buildings, but no monks lived in them. If a guest monk attempted to stay, the native people would drive him out with fire. A hospital famous for its eye clinic: in a place where blind pilgrims once prayed to be cured. You wrote about the quality of the white in her paintings, which she brought back from distant travels: to Japan, Egypt, India, Java, Australia… But it was her predilection for red – for painting red flowers – that I noticed. …then we went on, and soon entered the region of the doum palm. Birds also became more common, we had seen troops of pelicans, ibex, storks, and ducks, and now we had abundance of larks and water-wagtails, and lovely long-tailed green birds almost like parakeets, but smaller. She’d boiled water in an old black saucepan, and we drank tea together at a table made from a door. Across the street, my neighbours take turns sitting by the window, and smoking; their room’s dark, apart from the bright, shifting colours of the TV screen. Let the country with barbarous customs and smoking blood change into one where the people eat vegetables; and let the state where men kill be transformed into a kingdom where good works are encouraged. Many of the vagrants he went to interview had never seen anything like his bulky tape recorder and often mistook it for a musical instrument, thinking at first he was a busker. …he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last with much breathing hard we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. – Ah, you extraordinary illusionist! What have you come to show us this time with your occult arts? Then out came an Egyptian against me, of vicious appearance, together with his seconds, to fight with me. But another beautiful troop of young men declared for me, and anointed me with oil for the combat. He told his students that there were some things seemingly impossible to write about, such as his recurring dream of a mysterious route by which he travelled to see his mother, after meeting dear, long absent friends again. He would wake elated, and then remember that those he’d found once more in the dream were all dead.  In some cases a laurel crown in gilt, symbolizing their future happy state, has been added to portraits of both men and women… The composer said that birdsong was “God’s language”; he also affirmed the resurrection of the dead. The philosopher praised birdsong for its beauty, nothing more; while his religious philosophy, with its God who was forever in a state of becoming, had no room for any afterlife. With these Eyes the cathedral’s face is on the watch for the candelabra of heaven and the darkness of Lethe. – Lines from your writing have been appearing in my dreams. Often when I can’t sleep at night I wonder what you are doing, trying to picture you and your pursuits. Vespers are said here, and sung; Bach is played, jazz, too. Suffice to say there has been taken out of our limited garden one of the most perfect plants that ever was planted in mutability… Long after her death, he depicted his granddaughter in his final painting – a little girl amongst the animals of the Peaceable Kingdom, leopard, lion, sheep, wolf and ox. We played music, recited, sang to my mother’s memory.  – I like your shirt, I said, conscious that I’d never seen him wear one before; he admitted that it was his girlfriend’s, worn specially for the occasion. Walking by the lake, the trees illumined from below by yellow lights in the grass, he listened to the calls of the terns, cormorants, teals, mallards and grebes. Thy rose bush is very pretty and thy geranium will be beautiful. From the rooftop or windows, we enjoy every fleeting glimpse of spring growing in the park, or a grey sheet of rain advancing over the trees. For flowers are good both for the living, he wrote, and the dead. Beneath their feet: sun, moon and stars, and the signs of the zodiac, in the mosaic pavement. She wanted to go to the riverside to view the fireworks, and I went along to keep her company. The exploding lights that seemed to fall towards me and the booming noises brought on a panic attack, and I tried to leave; but the display ended, and I was caught in a dense, slowly moving crowd in the near-dark, and kept thinking I’d fall down. He smashed at the door of the synagogue with an axe until they let him in; taking a scroll from the Ark in his arms, he sang an ancient Castilian love song. At midnight, he rose from his bed and walked down to the sea, where he immersed himself according to a ritual. You sat every day by your dying friend’s bedside, in accord with his wish. It was,you wrote, a painful, a difficult death. We were ordered into the sea by the sports master, and I was swept beyond my depth in no time; he called to me to swim back; andI called out that I couldn’t, and then went under. I’d gone under three times, into a black tunnel of water, before two of the boys reached me. He collapsed in a tube train and was taken on a stretcher to street level; but he claimed to be all right and attempted to get up, and died of a heart attack. You walked to the hospital in a winter evening’s severe wind; and then lost yourself in the mostly deserted corridors, before eventually finding the ward. Your friend was sitting on the side of the bed, and you sat down beside him and listened to his obsessive recital of mistakes and missed opportunities. – I am praying to God, he said, but not to yours: to Osiris, Osiris. Every evening he prepared a meal, and always insisted, much later, on making a pudding – often after a good deal to drink. He would reject each one after a single taste, and throw it into the garden: for the birds to eat, he’d say. It had been a half-hearted, absurd attempt at suicide, an outburst of adolescent despair in which you’d forced yourself to drink disinfectant as if poison; however, the doctor insisted your mother should have you hospitalised. She asked you what you wanted, and then accordingly told him: No. Having spent the afternoon writing in cafés and searching amongst bookstalls, he headed towards home; reaching it, he realised it was no longer where he resided, but his home of many years ago. Confused, increasingly desperate, he asked passers-by to help him: for he no longer knew at all where he lived. After eating and drinking on the beach with friends at night, he decided, against their advice, to swim along the coast and cast a long string of fishing hooks. He never returned; his corpse was discovered the next morning. A forest of ancient chestnut trees, brooks everywhere, and wild goats gazing intensely at you. He enjoyed the company of sponge divers, the poorest of all – but he was also friends with the captains of the boats. He had to be carried from the ship and taken to an abbey where he was known to the monks, who nursed him until he was strong enough to continue the journey. From the harbour, yellow lights shine in the distance; fishing-tackle hanging from a white T-frame where he stops to rest, and white boats in the water. Muffled voices and faint music from a larger boat, in an otherwise still night. When it began raining, I turned to follow the path back again; the estuary and the island out in the distance were only dimly visible through the rainy mist. When he switched on the kitchen light, something darted across the worktop and ran towards the wall: it turned around, finding itself cornered; and he found himself looking at a field mouse, which sat looking back at him. Another night, he stayed up reading in the lounge and listening to the storm outside; the mouse suddenly scooted across the floor in front of him and dove under the gas fire. Testing for a detached retina, the doctor put drops into my eyes to dilate the pupils. Afterwards, I attempted to walk home, but had to keep to the shadows to avoid being blinded by the sunlight, even then struggling to see, and having to stop. He could hear the rivers protest as they were soiled by dirt washed into them, and could see blood seeping from the flesh of freshly cut fruits and vegetables. Late in the evening, heavy rain beats and pours at the windowpanes, while I sit drinking wine. Earlier: a helicopter circling overhead repeatedly; and the sound of breaking glass in the street. The raft went in out of the bright moonlight to pitch darkness, the roof of the cave so low that it seemed to be touching the top of the mast. Then, in the blackness, the rain and wind struck.

from Spiritual Letters (Series 1-5), forthcoming with Chax Press.

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