Oh, it is a quiet world for an old man used to the city, surrounded and jostled by the shields and bucklers of fundamentalism. I would rather that people bumped into me, murmuring an apology or not as they hurried by. I wear a threadbare coat and rattle like a stick of dry leaves in the warm amber wind of this still unfamiliar South. Passion has freckled the backs of my hands but none here would know it. If they see me at all (other than to preach to me) I am sure they believe I am spotted as they are, by the sun.
But the sun did not freckle me, nor is it simply the effect of time. There is not enough time within one lifetime to build up so much rage inside oneself, and so much anguish that the fluids and bitterness of liver and spleen can be read on the backs of the hands. My knees and elbows are grown thin as the sky and I am becoming otherwise translucent. Look at me hard and see through me. Is it always this way? Sometimes I wake to find myself thick and gray, the color of the sea before dawn and I know I have slept through the night, not just the nap of an afternoon hour. Am I fool enough to attribute my anger or my anguish to the love or work of a solitary soul? I am not. This is Devil’s work, or God’s. The curse is beyond the ordinary; and if I have brought my troubles down upon myself by some thoughtless offense well, then so be it. The ways and motives of the gods are as insane as their methods.
My father was a dealer in antiquities. Specifically, in rugs and tapestries. As a child I played upon his stock. As an infant stacks of them were my cradle and comfort. I passed hours and years in the back of his shop and I listened and felt as the traders and buyers came and went. My father’s reputation was such that he was known to refuse a buyer he did not like, and to refuse to sell to a location he did not deem fitting or appropriate. To most, his wares were merchandise, decoration, or investment. He saw something else, and would have been a collector if he but had the means. As it was, the only way he could make ends meet and still be surrounded by his passion for weavings was to dicker and trade in the commerce of art.
Of my mother I know very little other than the stories a only child might be told by pitying older relatives. She was lovely, she was beautiful, she was talented, she was quiet. She was foreign, and spoke with an accent. She was skilled in the most exquisite and wonderful kinds of needlework. They said she loved me dearly and that her illness and early death were tragic. That my father turned more and more to silence and that I became withdrawn and inward, and I spent hours touching the threads of the tapestries, tenderly, as if they held a face and I could read it. They said I memorized the ties and the knots and became expert at reading the stories contained in the rugs and the tapestries.
Anyone can study and so learn to interpret but I learned from touch that there were stories both overt and covert contained in the weavings and it was as a blind child that I learned to read the knots as if they were braille. Later, when my sight was restored and I no longer turned cloudy, silver eyes to startle the onlooker (for my blindness was simply due to congenital cataracts) this faculty of reading secrets by touch was already well developed. I learned I could recognize the hand of a certain weaver by touching the patterns of threads and knots. Many of the weavings I touched were interesting and absorbing but certain of them I turned to over and over. As I came to know something of the details of the lives of the weavers it seems now I was blessed with an extraordinary cluster of gifts. Or perhaps it was my early blindness that forced my development along unusual lines. Whatever the case my abilities became legendary in our small community and my father sometimes loaned my talents out to friends and traders, thinking perhaps that I would make useful connections and gain useful knowledge even as my gifts were put to good use and service. He was a farsighted, practical man. He had loved my mother dearly and he had a kind heart, for all his silence.
I was eight when I had my surgery and it was many months before I learned to see. My father had favored 19th century German poets and read to me between customers. In particular I remember Rilke’s references to looking, as if it was something one could fall into, something one would wish to fall tumbling and mindlessly into. A kind of drowning one would wish for. In my blindness I imagined it to be something like the cool and satisfying inner light of the warm heart that I touched with the tips of my fingers when certain tapestries and fragments of tapestries were brought to me to read and study. It was like falling into the heart of a scent, the heart of a flower, and suddenly there was nothing else in the world and I was dissolving in scent.
Of these pieces I said little, except to try not to signal with too much agitation to my father that he should buy. He never demanded an explanation and always bought them, no matter the price. Once one of these fragments he purchased caught the interest of a customer and he sold it as I slept on a pile of carpets in the back of the shop. When I woke and discovered the loss I was so beside myself I frightened him. He found the buyer and repurchased the threadbare item and never again tried to sell any of those certain ones. I am sure he must have wondered at their significance. Perhaps he understood that for me it was something like falling into the looking, and to take them away jerked me back through seeing into blindness, and into anguished loss and grief. Perhaps my rage and anger scared him, for he was a gentle man. I could not tell what I did not know how to articulate, but I had found a certain heart and evidence of a certain hand within those fragments and I recognized and longed for the touch.
I was thirteen when puberty brought new wings of ability to my fingers, and deepened what my eyes were able to see. There were tunnels and caverns within my body that gurgled like the caverns at the edge of the sea. With the arrival of sex new floods of awareness filled the previously unknown chambers within me, as if the earth suddenly canted and salt water rushed through rock in newly available courses. In the tumult of one of those inward moments I found a shrine that I recognized. I must have created it; however unconsciously. I had constructed it out of memories and dreams in a distant and root part of my soul and then I had shut the door to it and left it alone.
When? I did not know. How could I have constructed a place so sacred and complete and yet not remember it? The alter was empty of imagery and surrounded by layers of veils that tricked the eye and fluttered and shimmered endlessly. The room was hung with familiar tapestries and I recognized them, not only by touch but now also by sight. That work is eternally pressed into me. I had lost my silver eyes, seeing would always be strange but I trust absolutely what I know through my hands. Now I am able to see into the world surrounding me and sometimes, to fall into the looking. I am sighted now, and this has opened new abilities within me, so that when I tumble within myself I fall into more than colors and sounds and textures.
If my life to that point was a quiet circle, easy and comfortable, it was after puberty jerky, energetic and bewildering. My quiet circle expanded in all directions. I had learned how to study, how to learn. My life seemed to have no boundaries and success upon success quickly followed every approach, every new line of study. My father retired and moved from the city. He surrounded himself with his favorite belongings and left mine to me. He married a wispy haired woman with few teeth of her own but who seemed to make him happy and I spent my days in the university library and my nights carousing. I had discovered that people liked me and after my long isolation wanted nothing more than to be with them.
I was wildly attracted to certain young women and after a difficult and painful period of shyness I often enjoyed their company. My hands were magical and my love seductive. I never dreamt I was truly worthy of love. A sudden illness overtook me which was serious and came unexpectedly, a threat which frightened and weakened me and made me feel unwanted, dejected and crazy. The melodramatic structure of my life came crashing down. I no longer had the energy to uphold it and I rolled helplessly forward into despair. I was young and this was my first brush with my own mortality. Weak, isolated and subdued, lacking in true friendships, I fell back upon my collection of tapestries like a frightened child fleeing to familiar safety and comfort
The illness was complicated by unhappy circumstances. I had fallen in love but did not know it. I did not value the person, nor treat her fairly and though now I believe that she did truly love me, she had abandoned me abruptly and disappeared. I was enraged with a quality of rage I had experienced before only once, when my father sold the fragment of tapestry.
When I recovered from my sickness I had gone to her apartment and found it empty. No one returned my letters. If they were forwarded I never knew. I had not met her family, and her friends would not speak to me. My eyes were no longer silver and frightening but something in must have been alarming, for none of the subsets of our mutual acquaintance would do more than nod to me, evading me if I questioned or reached out to them. The city was a beast that sprawled from harbor to mountains. Its tunnels crossed over and under each other. Its visible heights were easily be measured but the layers confused the eye and I had no way to plumb its depths. If one wished to hide or escape it was easily done.
When I returned to myself it was through the touch and comfort of the tapestries. I was shocked to recognize the touch of my lover embedded in the fabric of the weaving. How was it I had failed to recognize her when I was in her presence? She who had disappeared here, in this city, in this year of this century was the one who’s familiar touch had been the background to my life. I had known and touched her soul’s presence in tapestries and weavings since my earliest days. Her soul was the companion to my soul. It was her hand and her touch that I recognized, the down from her arms, from the nape of her neck, and from the insides of her thighs and the undersides of her breasts. I felt her poise and her strength, her determination and even her shyness.
She had woven her soul into the tapestry and I understood what had long been a long mystery: how work separated by centuries could seem to be from the hands of the same person. It seemed so because it was so. It was the work of one soul, and the life and activity of that soul spanned centuries. The weaver returned and picked up the threads where she had left off. She stitched the scenes from her life, time after time, and now her work was easy to recognize. It should not have taken me so long to see the obvious, for after my mother’s death my father spent hours upon hours reading aloud from the most obscure and esoteric texts, which he also collected. He used them to put me to sleep and for years they had gathered dust in a storeroom. Now I pawed through them in a desperate search for answers, for to have found the weaver and failed to recognize her was absurd, and devastating. The books offered guidelines and wisdom but nothing that consoled me for long. Finally I closed my eyes and searched the way the blind do – through the corridors they use to find their way into and through the world.
In all of this I find much that stirs me now to reflection, and truth can seem to be very close to madness. I have checked myself as carefully as I know how, reconciling appearances as best I can. I do know the danger of wishful thinking. I also know that I do hear and see in registers beyond the ordinary. I know these hands remember things that I do not remember learning. They push me forward into looking. They pull me backwards into knowing. And questions give rise to more questions.
What kind of Creator would raise a gate between twins and then lock it? What God would sever lovers from each other and then hurl them into different centuries? Spite tempts and reveals, then withholds. I find it easier to discover details of the life she has lived in other centuries than to learn anything concrete of her life in this one. It was if Creation had yawned and swallowed all traces of her. In this period of my life the mystery nearly consumed me. I slowly recovered from my illness, but my soul has taken longer, so much longer, to heal.
One day I received a call from one of my dealers who had just returned from a trip abroad. I met him and watched as he unrolled a rare find he had discovered. It was a tapestry, very old, very distinguished and beautiful. It was one I recognized, one often described but which had been assumed lost in a fire which had consumed many other treasures. It was quite distinguished for its royal provenance, it’s artistic merit and attention to detail, and also for the very curious juxtaposition of images and the stories they told. It was hers, of course. She had created it. I knew it in an instant.
Her work always told her story, and the story of her time. With my fingers I had traced husbands, lovers, children, the threads and branching of relationships and generations, the times of conquest and triumph, the times of darkness and oblivion. When I felt through the stories with my hands, moving through layers of carefully embedded detail, it was not unusual for me to run across references to myself, for she was easily as knowledgeable of me as I was of her, especially in the works of the latter part of a lifetime. In those I frequently found my presence or absence remarked upon in the stitching. Now I found what seemed to be physical evidence that in at least in this one other incarnation we had been joined, for I found threads of myself in the embroidery.
My hands told me what eyes could not. Fine hair from the small of my back was twisted into the threads. Though taken from a different body it was one that had known the same defect of blindness and bore traces of the same psyche, the same soul, and the same intellect. With shaking hands I took the tapestry from my friend, thanked him, and returned with it to my father’s shop, which now had long been mine. I was not old, but I locked the door like an old man in a hurry, one who did not to be disturbed. I drew the shades and dragged a light to the back of the storeroom. Surrounded by my collection I dropped down into the thick rolls of carpet and opened this newest treasure on my lap. I closed my eyes and started to read like one who has been starving for words.
I quickly found myself in the tapestry. My hands told me that I had been passionate and fierce, that I was neither kind nor tolerant, that blindness was a suitable metaphor for my life. I was ambitious, and seemed to be, in that time, formidable and dangerous. My patience seemed to be a fiction contrived of necessity. The woman who had woven this picture wore a wedding ring. I could feel the way the gold moved with the threads, but it moved without joy. I shook my head, to clear it, and wiped my eyes.
It was necessary to stop and calm myself for I found myself weeping. I put the work away. My heart was breaking.
I arose the next day and picked it up again, having resolved to take in slowly and deliberately whatever there was to learn. And there was much to learn. The colors she had chosen were from the palate of mineral and insect and vegetable dyes available in the time. The threads were the finest and most expensive. She used silk, wool, and the threads of precious metals. She added fine hair and down she plucked from her own body and mine. There was evidence of a daughter.
Our bodies were woven into the meadows in the background. Once again she lives here with me, in a tapestry, in ochers and umbers, in siennas, and gold, in silver and purples, and rusty, sidelighted grays. What I held in my lap was a dream she stitched to cover her shoulders, a cloak to protect herself and her daughter. It was a net she had woven to capture and interpret her time, and one to throw into the future. I jumped when I felt where her needle had pricked her finger. Her blood was worked into the the colors.
She observed her lifetime with the eye of an artist and the mind of a scholar. She practiced and studied. She walked the battlefields collecting skulls from the crows. She stepped where blood flowed from perished thousands. She witnessed the carnage and I wondered at our identities, our motivations and trials. I wondered at the seeming necessity of dark and fateful encounters.
Who was she? She lived when fire was the ultimate rage, and seduction and intrigue and war the most interesting games. She has had many names and alias and I have collected all I can find. She has become my light and my passion. I am the detective who traces her passing. Her mastery is astonishing and her mystery, breathtaking. Silently she invites me into her time.
I feel my way across the life she witnessed. Over here – romping horses, a mare, a colt on unsteady legs. He stretches his neck to his mother. Over there a boy with a rope and a halter. The wind steals the boy’s hat away. Beyond the horse – a thick edge of forest and a protective tangle of thorns. Concealed within the forest is a well and garden. A man tends a small child and as they walk she holds his fingers. She is bright and happy, picking flowers. He is alert watchful, ever ready. He goes about in leather, and is never far from his weapons. Our vantage point is aerial and we wheel in a gyre. Below us a dream opens and I fall into it, reading as I fall into her world.
An old woman at the edge of the forest sweeps flagstones beneath brilliant stars. Here the sky is a medieval blue arch and inside the arch the saints mix with the old gods and goddesses. The sun is a chariot, blazing and golden, the moon’s silver curls float on the ocean. Far behind the old woman a team of half mad horses have broken their traces, and a carriage rolls out of control. It bounces and hangs in the air over a rutted road. It rushes past an encampment of soldiers who mark it with keen eyes. They pick up their weapons and slip silently away from their campfires as the carriage rushes towards the edge of a precipice. Below the cliff are gray rocks surrounded by surf and foam. The soldiers move like scavengers smelling blood.
Who is it that rides silently to certain death in the carriage, holding herself and her blind infant child? Who watches it all from a darkened tower window, his back to a tapestried hall? And who is the silver eyed man lying bleeding on the carriage floor? As the cliff and the river rush forward she reaches for his hand and clasps it to her once more.
In yet another corner of the weaving smoke from a signal fire rises from far distant mountains. The underbelly of creation is ripped open and her children spill out. They are battered, and beaten, and bruised. They are twisted and broken for sport, tortured and then killed for amusement. A woman notes it all from a room in a fortress. The fortress is surrounded by siege engines; inside are boiling vats of oil. She stands at her loom. She notes and arranges. She rearranges, and the shuttle goes back and forth like it has a mind of it’s own. She draws and she weaves, she stitches and sews.
A man rolls a stone up a mountain and onlookers laugh as the mountain rolls it back down. No one steps forward to steady or stay him. No one steps forward to hold his stone. They jeer, not seeming to notice they drag their own stones in thick leather pouches tied with hemp ropes to their raw, burning ankles. In the valley behind the mountain tortures are invented and practiced. The tormenters gibber and howl. They make jewelry and necklaces of teeth and knuckles, threading jawbones and clavicles for masquerade dress balls. Human skin splits to reveal demonic monstrosities. Those who question savagery have their skins removed slowly and then they are boiled. Martyrs hang from crosses and children are slain as easily as dogs. The world is a cauldron of money and power, sex and illness, torture and blood. Greed and strength build engines and towers, rams and barges, castles and catapults and gallows. Murder is an everyday occurrence, and justice and honor a joke.
And yet in the tapestry there was much that was wayward and unpredictable, for along with everyday cruelty, everyday kindness acted, and observed. My attention was drawn to a strangely highlighted moment. In the texture of the time, Christ the fulcrum emerges. Merciless onlookers grow quiet. Little by little, does the world move toward the good? Or do we simply turn our faces, now to light, now to insanity and darkness? Are the shifting half-lights misunderstood? Crowds gather, crows, prophets, martyrs wheel together. I felt electrified and numb, frozen and burned, rushing between grief, shame, and exhaustion. Another pass over the tapestry warms my hands momentarily. I read again how that solitary signal fire burns. At the edge of the picture, where the leaves of the trees stretch skyward with fat fingers, a river quietly runs. On a sandy beach the twilight darkens into night and suddenly I remember that place. I remember love under starlight. How much can a person know and still call himself sane?
She has woven a dolphin into the river and his laugh carries to me into this lifetime. Perhaps his charge is to remember. He brings loaves, and fishes. He is fire in the water, life in the ether, laughter that startles a company of mourners. He is the candle that breaks open the darkness. He is music and dance, celebration and enjoyment, the libation before and after the storm.
The dolphin laughs as the moon rises over the mountains through the last patch of twilight. The moon brings us passion and wistfulness, power and hunger. She nods to the dolphin and laughs at the rose of our compass, laughs at the way we set our courses, laughs at our belief that iron will save us and guide us. She knots us with longing and restlessness. How easily she calls us out and betrays us! She feeds us, enlarges us, and slays us. Yet without her our souls would be threaded with grass, our roots a thin and threadbare, easily broken carpet of awareness.
And the woman who knew this and stitched it rides to her fate quietly in a runaway carriage. Today her dust mingles in sunlight with the dust of my hardness. I read with my fingertips the evidence of her passing. I feel constantly the light of her presence. We scrawl notes to each other on the pages of the centuries and set our signal fires blazing for each other in tapestries. I know her by her hands and her umbers and ochers, her side lighted grays, silk threads, her spun precious metals, her bloody burgundies and a few other color choices. She knows me by the path of destruction I have left in the wake of my frustration, as she knows me by my kindness, my love and devotion.
This weaving means more than all of the others. Of course it is she in the carriage and I bleeding beside her. I am the watchful man tending our child in the forest. I am our blindness. I hold the stone and I design the tortures.
My knowledge crumbles. The trees and the soldiers, the mountains. We go bounding over the edge of the precipice and the dolphin laughs to greet us. God veils our faces and buries our joys, our madness, our passions. We are comets wheeling out into emptiness, wishing to extinguish the shoplights and go home. I go a vast distance, collecting experience, trading stories with strangers. I shall return to this place and bring other gifts when I come.
Perhaps I was bred for war and storm, for fire and hunger, but I was also bred for other than violence. We pick through the centuries for our scattered bits and pieces, and find them remarked and remembered and tossed ashore by dolphins. We are refreshed by cool moonlight even as restlessness undoes us. We read meaning in way the air shimmers. We are banished from love until we learn kindness, until we no longer love warfare and we no longer fear silence.
What could be more fair?
to be continued…