Monday, July 30, 2007

The River

The fever was on him again.

It was his old friend, now, and he knew it best just to give yourself over to it. He laid like a dead thing on the litter in the bottom of the canoe, face gone white. Paler even than his lobster back coat, worn to a sort of cheesecloth here and there, and faded from the sun and rain to a kind of translucent pink that reminded him of the scales of a fish.

Everything that drifted by was a marvel. The British Army thinks everyone is good for everything. He boxed the compass of mediocrity. He didn’t even like the killing much. He did it like the others when it was required, and shrugged and stopped when it wasn’t. No enthusiasm, his officers said. But he cooperated, in his fashion, and they decided his fine fist made him just the man to collect the samples of every damn thing they came across in the Americas that looked like you wouldn’t see it out the window of a coach going from Newcastle to London. After a while he gave it up and simply gaped at it all like an idiot. Pressing a cornflower in a folio and writing some half believable prevarication about where the hell you were when you found it was like sitting next to beautiful woman at a dance and staring at her ear all night, and only asking her about her motions. He was looking down the front of the dress and dancing with a whole continent now. Or he had been, anyway.

First it was the heat of the kettle when you forgot the rag mother kept by the hod for the handle. Then it was shivering like the snow from the kirk roof sliding down the slick grey slates on the roof and down your collar after Christmas Mass. It was the shivering he hated. It made you look silly, or worse, like the drunks in the lane, sleeping off the night’s gin in a pile of straw and offal and a puddle of their own functions gone crazy. His comrades carried him and cursed him, until they were no more. Who did they curse, really?

No, he wanted the heat. It surged through you and enervated you so completely you could just lie there and sweat and not care if you lived or died. You weren’t a sick man any more. You were a baby again, given over wholly to the care of another, unable to do more than sigh and gesture. He embraced it. Everybody else was always searching for something. He just roamed along with them, cataloging or killing as required, and looked for something to look for. It had found him.

The savages were his mother now. He lay on a sort of matt woven from supple branches of some sort, like the wattle of a sty at home. His hands brushed the gossamer sides of their boat, made like sorcery from the bark of a tree, and as thin as paper. He could feel the river pass by him through it. Sometimes the sun would come low on the horizon and the banks of the river would temper their angle and the trees would open up and the sun would light up the boat like a lantern, and you inside it. The copper backs worked the paddles deliberately in front of him, one magnificent looking brute behind him, and never wearied or paused. They sang the song of death, the song he heard them sing before they waded into the last of his mates like a plague and killed them without mercy. And with weapons he couldn’t kill a barnyard fowl with. Then they had stood over him, talking in their fashion. They didn’t look anything like the Hottentots or Arabs, but like how he pictured his own brethren, centuries before—Picts; Jutes; Angles; Celts; grim and powerful men painted for battle and living among the beasts they covet. They opened the box and looked at the crazy whorls of his writing and fingered all the little talismans of their home he had collected before he had become bored of it. That, and the Sergeant had begun worrying too much about seeing home ever again to bother him about it. They spared him in his sickness. Or perhaps for the remains of their life’s objects he carried and blessed with his runes.

There is no understanding them. But they sing their song of death for him now, for he cannot, as they search for the place where he must go; where they would go if they were him.


Wolf Flywheel said...

Interesting piece. When is the next installment?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

You write very, very well.

SippicanCottage said...

Hey wolf- All I need is an advance.

Jacqueline- Thanks, but I imagine your message was garbled going through the intartubes, and you actually wrote:

"Well, you write, and have beri-beri."

XWL said...

If Coleridge's notes about writing Kublai Khan is to be believed, then fevers (and the opiates taken to combat the effects, too bad they don't prescribe opiates for fevers, anymore) can be inspirational.

Here's a quote from Coleridge about the writing of Kublai Khan:

"The following fragment is here published at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and, as far as the Author's own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.
In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage: ``Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.'' The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"

Just be sure to turn off the celphones and such, as these feverish/opiod inspirations seem very fleeting (of course, STC might have been using the 'it was all a fevered dream' device to get away with more weirdness than he would normally be able to justify).

Also, the note about the poem is as important as the poem itself, they are a work to be taken together (those that present the poem without the note are doing Coleridge a disservice).

And, do get better soon, I doubt furniture made in a fevered delirium is particularly attractive.

Sam L. said...

Except for the lack of verbose verbiage, this sounds much like something James Fenimore Cooper could have written. (I read "The Last Of The Mohicans".) It has that flavor, and the feel of that time in history, to me.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

writing has been berra, berra good to me.