Aug 7, 2010
Some would refer to me and, perhaps, not incorrectly, as a creature of habit. It is a fact that, in my usual and necessary meanderings to the local shops, I tend to follow a path already beaten down and worn clean by my own shoes. It may be that this habitual and somewhat automatic routine leaves my mind a little freer, while normally some soft music is fed into my ears from the antiquated device in my back pocket or jean jacket, to idly ramble over the multiple, confusing and abstractly linked, mental vignettes that are the population of my thoughts. Usually, by the time I return from my errands to my comfortable apartment, from the maze, I have extracted at least one thread in its entirety where, later, in pen and ink or in word, it will receive what representation as I have the meagre capacity to give it.
I am a great lover of stories and, as I have previously insisted where given the liberty to do so, they are to be found everywhere that one chooses to look: from the way that light falls across a lichen and moss embossed tree stump to an unheard but wildly gesticulated conversation observed across the broad, sun-drenched desert of a parking lot. All of these things provide visual impressions that are wanting only of a context and, then, almost passively, to be allowed to tell of their history and future which, I am convinced, is already there and only needs the silent intensity of perception to be heard and seen completely; it is, by similar extrapolation, that the titanium white priming of the canvas only hides the image which resides there and, in the act of applying paint, the artist, more precisely, removes the white.
Some stories, however, come already formed and filled with the brutal reality of life past and present - impressing themselves upon the thoughts with insistence that permits no resistance; a sort of psychological rape. These are the stories that singe as a brand in to essence as if, by some empathetic departure, the scars of mind and body which belong to another have transferred to one's own, bringing with them the pain of limb or of remembrance.
This is one of those stories.
Being, as I am, when left to my own devices, a late riser, it is usually on 11 o'clock by the time I have showered and dressed to make myself as presentable as possible for the world which exists outside my door. Having usually at least a couple of errands to run, I walk the short distance to one or another of neighbourhood shopping areas and, first, for their convenient and nearly ubiquitous presence on every corner of the city, enter a popular coffee shop for my once or twice daily fill up of caffeine.
On the particular day, which I may or may not actually be recalling, I entered from the outside oppressive humidity to the freshness of the inside, conditioned air and the always alluring scent of roast and ground beans which, for the power of perfumes to trigger memory, always transports me to my parents' kitchen when I was a boy and the noisy percolator, popping and sighing on the stove.
In that hour, the shop was experiencing a fair traffic of customers and, just inside the door, I had taken my place in line when, in the periphery of my sight, to the right, a timid movement intruded on my consciousness. I turned and encountered the origin of my story.
“All so tall...,” she said to me, smiling, and waved a knobbed and liver-spotted hand – what motion seemed no different from that of a floating leaf on the breeze – vaguely in the direction of the line of customers.
I looked back at the line and confirmed, by my own criteria, her observation: a number of tall, well-build, young fellows were in the line along with a smattering of those with a more average or diminutive stature.
“I suppose they grow them healthy these days,” I suggested and returned the smile. She continued to speak, her voice feather thin. I drew closer to hear, forfeiting my place in the line.
She must have been well into her nineties, hunched, tiny and thin in her seat at a little café table; beside her was stowed a metal walker. In younger year, she may have had a severe or even handsome countenance with marked, high cheekbones and a slender jaw. Her age had done to her what it must and, studying her more, I could easily discern, scarcely veiled beneath skin wasted to the thinness of tissue paper, the movement of the skull beneath, driven by the pulses of muscle and blood vessel.
Her voice continued to come, lilted by accent – German was finally confirmed – and, by one of those obscure segues that are the exclusive domain of the aged, I was taken, following the trail of that whispered voice, to a terrible time for the world that was 60 years ago.
I am convinced that, in the grey, simple days of extreme old age when the body slows, the spirit hovers close – now only tenuously tethered - and the vision fades to the black that will be the release of the grave, the memory has become so full of those things, large and small, that mark and become sentinels along the passage of a long life, that they cannot help but tumble forth into speech and, in doing so, merge the present to happenings of long ago.
“Six years we lived in that,” she said and, in unspoken exclamation of grief, the palms of her time-wearied hands pressed together in front of her, the fingers intertwined and trembling. “...terrible ...terrible.”
“We lived just beyond the German border so the planes did not come to us but, in the night we saw them and heard them and, then, we saw the light in the heavens.” She gestured weakly to indicate the glow of explosions and fire against the sky.
“So many Canadian boys...” Again, she paused, lost in emotion, and shook her head, “...and the people - escaping - they passed through our village with... nothing.”
A server arrived, interrupting, and deposited a mug of coffee and small, sugar-dusted pastry on the table. She brightened, returning to the present and, thankfully, bringing me with her.
“I should let you enjoy your breakfast,” I proposed, grappling to assimilate the memories with which I had become infused. My hand, before me, hovered, as while she had spoken, I had offered it for support.
“I hope you never have to go to war,” she said to me and turned pale blue, watery eyes earnestly upon me.
Her hand, so light and cool, almost ghostly, closed briefly over the back of mine, larger, with those veins that distinguish the hand of a man and where the pulse is always strong.