by Ihab Hassan
It started as a pun, ended in bewilderment, worse, images of a life I never lived, songlines leading nowhere. And why would bewilderment stop here? Why wouldn’t it stretch to query our comings and goings and all? The mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the old mystics called it. All the super strings, wormholes, quantum foam of the universe.
There is nothing mystical about a slipped synapsis, though, a finger fluttering over a keyboard, a pun or long-echoing song. I simply forgot to attach a file to X, and he messaged back: “Empty Attachment.” That was all. Must his words become the indelible stigma of my purloined life? There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.... No, that’s not X, it’s Maeve, Maeve singing in the evening, humming through the shadowy radiance of the day.
Of course, X is not like others, not like me either: he is more like the Kadaitcha sorcerers whose casual gaze can reach around riverbends, drill into rock. I felt X could close his eyes in Brisbane and see me in Minneapolis. Down under, the heat would shimmer like layers of lymph spread out in the sun, while up north, the air would lie, blue and still, over frozen lakes. It didn’t matter, whatever the distance or climate, X could see me—from the inside, so to speak. Perhaps Maeve could too, sending her songs across the Dark Threshold, calling away from the sea.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if X really exists, despite his huge, glistening head, his nose like an osprey’s beak. But that was precisely my trouble: people, Maeve had insisted, were not entirely real for me.
Yet I remember X—was it X?—lifting a finger as he turned his great, runic head ninety degrees over his bulging shoulder and, fixing me with a terrible, objective gaze, growled: Recite the Heart Sutra. We were strangers at a reception in the Brisbane Art Gallery. X loomed, the center of a tight, chattering circle, a figure of mysterious probity, holding a full wineglass; I had drained mine and hung back some ten feet. But there could be no mistake: the big man in a rumpled, black linen suit and loose magenta tie was addressing me. Then he turned his back and floated away, a column of smoke.
Piqued, I asked a vague youth standing next to me: Excuse me, who’s that large man?
Sorry mate, can’t tell you. Someone said, might be X.
People, events have a way of shifting on him, like fata morgana receding before human sight. They shift and leave him with a white, impersonal sadness. Events even like the death of Maeve.
I’ll come to Maeve. Let me first say, I’m no artist, I’m in the business of insuring art. It is good work: you travel a bit, you live with art, above all, you lose yourself in the serenity of figures, the bliss of ciphers, which some swear come from the mind of God. I am also an autodidact and read widely, as no Ivy Leaguer reads. So I guessed what X meant by his imperious reference to the Sutra: “Emptiness is Form, Form Emptiness.”
But what does that mean? That all life is a shadow? Who doesn’t know it? Or is there another meaning, one that we discover only too late, discover when we no longer need meanings? When we become truly parched? Old Dan and I / with throats burnt dry / and souls that cry for water, water.... Yes, that’s Maeve again. (I wonder if she would have liked X.)
Weeks passed at the Brisbane office of North Central Mutual, which I managed temporarily, in dubious flight from Minneapolis. Then I received an urgent call: a painting had just been stolen from the Art Gallery. A painting by whom? By X, they said. How large? (That’s a key question in my business.) They said: large enough, 197.5 x 304.5 cm. Is it one of those eerily abstract landscapes? Yes, they said, we’re faxing you a color photo.
The landscapes were famous: looping figures of infinity, fading into a background, sometimes bright, sometimes black—they said X painted them at night, plein air—of alluvial valleys. I liked them though critics said the paintings interpellated gaudily the void. Perhaps I liked them just for that.
Well, the void was on the wall now, where the painting once hung. Detectives would try to track it down; my job was to collate the relevant figures and facts. That’s when I tried to correspond with X, tried to knit up the loose strings of the case before returning to the head office in Minneapolis. And that’s when he began to pepper me with enigmatic e-messages—just as Maeve sometimes did with her songs:
Do you know that when the Mona Lisa vanished briefly from the Louvre in 1911, hundreds lined up to see her empty place on the wall? Including Kafka.
I knew that. What I needed to know is the market value of his stolen painting, “Night Downs III.” So I offered to drive up to his place—in some photos, a vast, ramshackle studio on stilts—north of Brisbane, on Deception Bay.
He curtly declined: Am busy now. Empty attachment.
That was it. The truant file had been a list, titles and prices, of his earlier work. I sat in front of my computer screen, gazing at the five words in Courier with distaste. (The font always reminded me of midget ants, wriggling out of cyberspace.)
There had been ants on the Block Island beach the day Maeve drowned. They crawled crazily among corks, soggy Kleenex, sticky Styrofoam cups, stray jelly beans. It was the end of the season and we had come East for a short, cheap holiday, to heal one of those obscure, silent ruptures that hurt lovers more than lacerating words.
Was her hair black or midnight blue? We had met long ago on another beach, Bondi. A casual turn of the head, the eyes catch, toes squirm in the sand, lives change. What really caught my eye, though, were her large shapely feet, an Aussie beauty with opulent hair and big feet. And she liked to hum and sing.
She teased me: I think the fairies stole the left ventricle of your heart.
I said: What do you see in me?
She answered: What others don’t see.
She had followed me to America, gelid Minneapolis, with its floe-strewn river and labyrinths of fluorescent malls. Dilating her wondrous bice eyes:
Does the monster Mississippi ever freeze over completely?
Ah, you Aussies envy fertile rivers and water pouring from the sky.
She was good with numbers, too, not the least Platonic in mathematics or love. We ended working together, in adjoining glass offices, mine larger than hers. We worked well and hard. Was I happy then?
I didn’t believe in fairies but I felt something in me crack, letting in an icy draft.
I had transferred to Australia after Maeve died, looking for a clue to her songs, or perhaps just a rag to stuff in the cold crack. Or was I looking for the far edge of the world? (In America, I had managed only to numb myself and chafe every woman I stroked.) But now, in Brisbane, clueless still, I wanted to finish quickly my business, return home. Frost to frost, I chuckled dryly, the world is round.
But X remained elusive, like his missing “Night Downs III.” He had no listed phone, no postal address, no known friends or clubs; he answered his e-mail only when he chose to taunt the world. I sent him an emphatic message, against my grain. Three days later came his response:
Take up your grave and walk. What are you doing in Oz?
Clearly, I needed a breakthrough in the case—or in my mind. So I did something odd: I went out to the Art Gallery and looked at the absent painting again, transfixed by the white space, scrutinizing it as if I was studying the Mona Lisa smile, noting the grainy plaster, the imperceptible discolorations on the wall, the plastic hook still hanging from its rail near the ceiling, supporting an invisible sheet of air. I stood there, gazing at nothing for nearly an hour, as if waiting for some pentimento to emerge from the wall.
Abruptly, I turned away and commenced walking back to the office in a wide arc through the Botanic Gardens. The air was luminous, just a dab humid; the great ghost gums barely trembled in the breeze. I veered away from the bamboo groves, royal palms, macadamia trees, from the magnificent exotica of the garden, beds of Cooktown orchids and Sturt desert roses, and took the sunless, river path—a clever zigzag of boardwalks, piers, bridges, weathered wooden stairs—through mangroves clutching the sepia mud like a forest of standing, giant squid.
He stood for a moment in the deep shade of the mangroves, above the still water, eyes closed. Loss frees, he thought, but walk where with his grave? The water beneath him smelled of mold.
The night before Maeve drowned in the gray waters off Block Island—she had braved worse currents at Tamarama, near her native Bondi—I asked her: Do you sing in your dreams? She blinked roguishly and punched me softly in the shoulder.
You can will your dreams, if you remember them when you wake.
I said: Your songs are always fragments. She punched me again and we lay in bed. Her body was soft and loose like foam.
Afterwards: Songs carry the wisdom of the world.
I cocked an eyebrow: All songs?
If you listen quietly.
Well, I can’t carry a tune.
Did you know that Aborigines find their way across the land by following songlines? They’re maps of their Dreaming drawn with their feet.
They follow those lines to the end? I was incredulous.
We were on the last day of our holiday and woke late. The pebbly beach was deserted, the bluffs treeless, the sky low, spilling moodily into the sound. Maeve asked:
Are you going to loll on the beach again today?
Yes, I teased her back, with Bartleby, the Scrivener, who “prefers not to.” Are you going to swim again?
Maeve saw my anxious hunch, saw perhaps something else. She came up close and I could smell the freshness of her hair, her lightly tanned skin: Don’t worry, my big feet are flippers, I can’t sink: My father was the keeper of the Eddystone light / And he slept with a mermaid one fine night. My dad used to sing me this one when I was thirteen—I don’t know where he heard it, probably from his Pommy father. She pouted: Someone should have taught your Scrivener to sing.
I looked sideways at Maeve’s feet, wondering how she had come to stand where she stood now, so far from Bondi Beach. Or was it the same sand? I felt my lower lip droop. When they finally pulled her out, her feet were gun-metal blue.
Maeve was not the first woman I knew. The others—Andrea, Kristie, solemn Pam...—vanished in a haze of inattention. Despite my steady focus in work, I cannot tell whether they left me, or I left them, or we left each other, or even if we never left one another at all. Since leaving means more to women than it means to me, let’s say they all left me.
How magnanimous, Kristie had said, you just let them leave you?
Well, there is a story about Babe Ruth. Long ago, he hit a ball out of Candlestick Park and it fell into San Francisco Bay. Later, someone dredged it out and put it at auction. An anonymous fan bought it for a small fortune, and threw it back into the Bay. When I told Pam the story, on the day of our breakup, she snapped: That’s so stupid. Then she stepped briskly out.
Maeve would have understood this story. Certainly, she would have. Once I asked her: where do you store all those songs?
At the center.
The center of everything, silly. Earth, water, love.
I had looked away, irritated. She held me gently by the chin and turned my head: Songs rise from the deep, release their feelings to waves and winds. Light she was, and like an angel / and her shoes were number nine....
He wanted to ask: angels sing, but do they drown, do they suicide? Is our second innocence angelic indifference?
X continued to stonewall our business in Brisbane. He also continued to lob cryptic quotations (they were nothing like Maeve’s songs):
“Now that I am nothing, I am, and love is the simplest of all tongues.”
“God cannot come and visit you / Unless you are not there.”
“Everything stated or expressed by man is a note in the margin of a completely erased text.”
I called Angela to my office: What’s this? I asked, pointing to the monitor, teeth clenched. She smiled: Give me an hour.
Angela was in Research. Her smile seemed painted like pale lipstick on her mouth; sometimes I imagined that her round, gold-rimmed glasses glinted satirically. She had been in the office forever, knew everything, needed nothing. An hour later, her answer appeared on my screen: Patrick White, Angelus Silesius, Fernando Pessoa. By the way, have you read the piece on X in Cringe?
I slapped my brow figuratively: I should have remembered the line from Voss. But the others.... And what is Cringe? I rang Angela and she answered before I could ask:
It’s a new, avant-garde magazine. The article on X is interesting. Written by Ivan the Terrible himself.
Nickname for the editor, Ivan Kolenko. A lapsed Marxist of Ukrainian descent. But he has fire in the belly and generates cultural heat. You may want to talk to him in Sydney.
But why “Cringe,” Angela?
The name is in-your-face. It shouts: we have no cultural cringe in Oz.
Well, please get me a copy.
The next day, it was on my desk, lava-red cover, black graphics menacing like a swastika. I sat down to read Ivan’s essay, titled “X: for Nix or Hoax?”. This is not what I need, I thought, after skimming the piece with narrowing eyes. I’m interested in the man’s value and veracity, not his art, and now Ivan tells me that X may be a shadow! X, his painting, its theft, phantasms all?
That time on Block Island, strong hues of evening. He saw her leaning out of the dormer window, humming to the sea: He’s a real nowhere man...making all his nowhere plans for nobody.... No, no, he thought, no.
Truth to tell, I had been avoiding Sydney. (The scenes of my happiness have always been intolerable to me, just like the first, warm stirrings of every spring since my late youth.) But I had decided, after fierce equivocation, to leave Australia, the business of X finished or unfinished, and to stop in Sydney only for a few days on the way home. (Was Minneapolis really home?) So I went to see Ivan Kalenko the day after I arrived in the Big Smoke.
A garrulous Palestinian taxi driver—wanted to know where I came from, and did I like Australia, because he didn’t—took me to the offices of Cringe, a three-story row house in Surry Hills, with stucco moldings and loopy wrought-iron balustrades, gates, railings, which—I had read somewhere—may have once served as ballast on a convict ship.
I paused to look at the creamy, renovated building, with prim front yard, no wider than a kangaroo hop, and a tall blue gum rising from the back as if shooting up from the chimney. The quiet street, belying the whacking energy of the city, conveyed a peculiar pathos, some sadness older than Gallipoli, older even than the First Fleet. Was it a yearning for plenitude, some ancient memory of green groves and childhood dales, long gone and far away? Ah, but there’s another drier, antipodal desire, a white-fella Dreaming, longing for spinifex, corkbark, desert cactus, for Uluru and the red rim of the world.
Ivan proved to be a stocky, middle-aged man, with quick eyes the color of Sydney Cove in early morning, before the ferries start churning. His aggressive brow and thick, hairy hands gave his decisions authority. He knew what he wanted and said so even if, in our preliminary chatter, he didn’t know words like kenosis, and confused pommodoro with pommes frites. Cringe was in the business of making and breaking reputations, and that was culture, Ivan was sure. The jovial truculence of his attitude reassured his financial backers.
After five minutes, Ivan—he had ordered me right off to call him that—leaned back in his polished-steel swivel chair and shook his head:
X is a pseudonym, I’m afraid, a fraud or ghost. His gallery in Paddington will say nothing about him. But I’m going to expose him. This country has already spawned too many tricksters and hoaxers. He spoke with anguished certitude.
I looked around the vast, cluttered office to give myself time: piled books, dog-eared manuscripts, bark paintings, prints and photos and etchings propped against whitewashed walls, everywhere bric-a-brac from Oceania and the Outback. What chance had an insurer against the eidolons of art, the cunning chaos of the mind? With a formal sigh, I put my business card on an empty corner of Ivan’s desk:
Please let us know if anything turns up. I’m sure North Central will want to make a contribution to a distinguished arts and letters magazine.
Ivan smiled only with his eyes but his handshake was warm. We parted genial accomplices: we understood that society, though it may countenance artifice and deception, abhors a vacuum. And I, did I bend to the void?
I still had two days in Sydney before my flight back to the States. How would I spend them? I knew only that I wanted to avoid Bondi. But why avoid Bondi? Why deny memories of Maeve? She had taught me many things: the names of flowers and trees, the song lines of happiness, the idiom of light. Look, she would say, look.
I said to her once, exasperated: How about looking within?
Darkness, she said, all sass and bravura. Then pointedly: Or emptiness.
That’s when we decided to take off a few days by the sea.
The sea, life hugging littorals and shores. But what if, instead of flying east, I would wander west, beyond those mountains hiding the wide, bare continent from all the complacencies of the coast? What if. The phrase brings vertigo.
Back in my hotel room, I unfolded my large map of Australia and found my finger tracing a random path, from one obscure town to another, all the way across the Blue Mountains to the Indian Ocean. After a moment, I folded up the map again neatly, observing the bias of every crease. Mouth pursed, I looked around me slowly. Then I walked out of the room, leaving the door ajar.
Across the Harbour Bridge to Cremorne: it was like strolling through the air. A red-hulled behemoth, some deep-draft, windowless container ship, glided silently beneath me. The traffic—cars, trailers, trucks, trains—whooshed or clattered viciously by; the trusses and cables hummed a metallic glissando in the wind. I felt the bridge vibrate, my palms sweat. I pressed on, heading toward Cremorne. (We’ll take that walk some day, Maeve had said, it’s my favorite.)
The din of the bridge was now behind me. For the first time, I noticed the moving sky strung with cirrus, the mildness of a late spring day. The path at Cremorne wound up and down, through trees, shrubs, flowers—scribbly gum, angophoras, some ferns and wattles, but where is the jacaranda in bloom? Scree tumbled toward the waters of Port Jackson on one side, lovely pastel houses rising on the other.
He stops as the wind ruffles the sails, fills spinnakers and jibs, boats of every kind racing past the Gap toward the munificent Pacific. In his head, he hears siren songs, sees landscapes looping, looping away toward the horizon. He calls out: Broken Hill, Kulgera, Warburton, Yarraloola.... He knows that a song can fade in its echo, a painting forever vanish. But can he, can he?
Appearing in Pleiades 28,2 (2008)