Circewards

Circe was forbidden; Circe was a friend. Across the ruined railway, out of sight among the bunkers, she bade me rub coal dust in her hair. But when I felt the softness of them both, and shook my head - “So you won’t, or can’t,” she said, making a face: “Yet you know it’s forbidden, all the same?” Then, with increasing exasperation: “Don’t you understand the power of refusing? Not just this, but anything. The world may come to an end, but it is my destiny not to be turned over like a stone.”

We made our peace somehow. I shuffled my feet, as if really I had little enough to stand upon, and eventually Circe found something kind to say. But what I remembered best was the stillness of the day and both of us together there in silence, looking out over the fields. How barren, how barren they were just then. There was just the one gnarled building there, in the mud, like a plea against the sky, as though it had sworn it would always be remembered, and been crushed by the unsuspected weight of its own prayer.

With Circe for a guide, I soon surmised that prohibition was general in the world. The next thing forbidden was supper, a meal which simply did not exist, although I was only to discover its non-existence by waiting patiently through lunch, a meal that did exist, but which, in common with breakfast, invariably failed to appear. My hunger had started to make me dizzy, and finally I asked where her mother was. Admittedly, this was not quite the same thing as asking for something to eat, but it seemed to me it was a question inclined in the right direction, a precursor upon which I could doubtless build, since, by convention, mothers remain the most culpable custodians of food.

“She’s in the kitchen,” she said despondently, as if it were the other end of the world.

“Well then, what about your father?”

“You can’t see him either,” she said.

“Why not?”

“He’s a mathematician.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“He’s a mathematician,” she repeated. “Don’t you understand? He’s already thought of everything; he’s already calculated it all.”

We seemed to be at cross-purposes; I asked again, and yes, she conceded, everything depended on the woman in the kitchen, and what might or might not take place there. But a prohibition also hung above the door, when, at my insistence, she reluctantly led me to it. A brass chain had been looped across, and there were numerous rusty bolts, which perhaps had not moved in decades.

“You’re sure she’s in there?” I said, actually suspecting she had led me not to the kitchen, but only to some kind of store cupboard, which happened to have been built where a kitchen would usually be.

“Come. I’ll show you.”

She led me about the side of the house. Now we were standing in the overgrown garden, looking back at the room from outside. The light was on, red blinds drawn almost fully; you could just make out the bottoms of the taps and the top of the sink beyond them. And she was right; there was something in the room, whose shadow you faintly saw against the blinds. But for a long while nothing moved; it was just occasionally, particularly when the wind rose, that something long, like an arm or a leg, seemed to fling itself to one side, as if someone were shifting in their sleep. At the same time, whatever it was that was in there moved back or forth, causing its shadow by turns to dissipate and sharpen. At moments I felt sure it must come clear. But even as I strained to identify something definitive about that unknown heart, beating in the redness of its confinement, Circe asked, a little mockingly: “You still don’t understand, do you?”

“I don’t understand what?”

“You don’t understand me,” she conceded after a pause,” as if adding herself into the proposition in fact took something away from it.

But, though instinctively I wanted to understand the small, perfectly formed teeth, whose whiteness put the stars to shame, the dark eyes, which seemed to weigh upon my hands, the uncommitted scent, like dried flowers, that she drew about with her, the circular space where all of these things belonged was empty; it belonged to itself, and there was no beginning or ending with which to secure it.

“But you – I understand you very well,” she continued. “Some day you too will want to work your way to the heart of prohibition, for the all-encompassing mind beyond it is the space within which we must test our natural limits. Some day you will understand what it is to refute and countermand, and thereby what it is to mean and be. Even here, in this place, don’t you see that forbidding means everything? You can have anything, you know that? You can have anything at all,” she added. But she said it, I felt, in such a way that nothing was given; nothing was liberated or made more probable, as if she weighed my heart’s desires at their highest cost.

After a respectful pause: “I would like something to eat,” I concluded.

“You can’t have something to eat,” - she was annoyed again: “There isn’t anything. If that’s all you can be bothered to say, have a jug of tea, and lie on your tummy.”

The jug of tea, though, also failed to appear. Instead there were shelves of books, she said hopefully, in the attic. At least, they had been in some attic, once, though now, deferential to her moods, they scattered themselves about her, flapping after us from room to room, until we took them in hand and knocked in vain at the various houses along the street. It was autumn, and Circe started singing on a doorstep; there was nothing else to do, until, about the same moment, we both caught sight of them at last – all seven of them, ranged in order of size, behind the pelmet of the front room, watching us; they might almost have been a cut out of a family. But they did not want our books, and we did not want their lives, and even as the seven gazes followed us back onto the street, I felt convinced they would remember us as insubstantial too, so softly did we seem to live, that there was nothing we could offer or rescind to change their judgments of us. Days passed, and, as they did, it was this same translucency we carried now abroad, by way of pilgrimages that were so many pictures, dredging up the town by its street ends, wringing out the black water of its squares, painting ourselves in corners of its history, turning aside its sadness, turning aside its pride. The world did not resist us, because we were its spirit, and it had no other way to be. All the same, it never strayed far from where it found us, repeating the same names and feelings without real ambition, wandering in circles, tiring itself out, progressively losing faith in things, then losing faith in losing faith, so that the further we sought to carry the lightness of our gospel, the further we had first to walk through everywhere we had already been, until the excess of seeing, the excess of walking and remembering stripped the facades away, and the world beneath it was at best half-formed, with machinery and dreams boxed away in unlikely places. If there was a home for anything, it was far beyond us, with neither character nor voice; and Circe slept more and more, longer and longer, so that she could walk whole streets with her eyes closed, and when she spoke there was always a hint of irony, as though she had considered her words too long, and now they fell out beyond their time and no longer made sense to her. Until one day we stopped and sat down together on a ledge, weary from everything we had done, and I tried to explain that from here it was a long way back to anywhere, and more of the same, the same streets in reverse, the same familiar time wound back, restitched upon its converse; it was mere thickness of thread.

“Listen,” she said, “and listen carefully. If you take a very small boy with nothing and you put him in an empty room, will that be an end of him? If you take a young girl and cut out her tongue, will she give up trying to speak?”

I wasn’t sure whether she agreed or disagreed with me. But, evidently moved herself by such bleak pronouncements, she tried to comfort me by taking out a small key and promising to show me the garage filled with bullion she had found. And indeed she did, most probably, although the key no longer fitted the lock, and it was a cul de sac in which she explained, with faultless logic, that if she had found a key it was only because its owner must have lost one, in which case it made perfect sense he had replaced the padlock, and therefore everything else must be true; so that, by extension, all the padlocks in the world we could actually open were worthless, for they guarded nothing worth seeing. Wearied by the explanation, she closed her eyes again, and we started back toward the stone house where she lived. Then, as usual, she mounted the stairs to the small room under the eaves, lay down in the bed and tugged the covers over herself without even taking off her shoes. I tried to say something, but she turned her head the other way; I asked if she was cross with me. In answer, she kicked the wooden board at the foot of the bed. I went away; I went down to look at the other rooms in the house – large, empty rooms with curtains that were either drawn or undrawn, and chairs that were destined to be arranged in precisely the places they were. I don’t know if it was the forlorn feeling of twilight, or the smell of vanilla and dead flowers that reminded me of Circe’s hair, but I found that tears were forming at the corners of my eyes, and the moment I recognised this I could no longer stand up; I lay down on the carpet and banged my chin on the floorboards. It was not clear to me where Circe ended and I began, for I did not know who either of these people were; all I knew was that she gave me the strength to be, whatever being meant; she gave me the strength to desire, or to want to desire. I had come a long way from somewhere to be here with her; but even without food or light or real affection, and even without a cause to carry us, she was enough to be a world; in the absence of all these things, she was sufficient in herself to signify without constraint. I thought of her now in the lonely little room above me, and I thought of the white limbs that stirred languidly in the red light of the kitchen. Deep in the amniotic waters of her mind, perhaps her mother was only a dream of being born, while her father had reasoned himself out of existence. If this was the reality of the world, could Circe help it if her own life wandered without either joy or belief, as she strove to regain the humanity that escaped her on all sides?

It was mid morning; she still hadn’t left her room; I took her a jug of tea.

“You woke me up,” she declared.

“But you’re always in bed.”

“I was sleeping – sleeping in the darkness of my soul,” she observed drily.

“Isn’t the world wide enough for you?”

“Wide enough?” she responded, suddenly sitting up: “You really think that’s the issue? Look at yourself; you’re no better; you’re just asleep on your feet.” Seeing my bemused expression, “Where has your life gone?” she said with precision: “When is it going to begin? Answer me that. You can have anything. What’s wrong with you? Why do you waste your time with me?” Involuntarily I thought of the locked garage with its stash of gold bars; they existed in almost exactly the same way our lives existed, and perhaps both had only been invented out of boredom.

“Well, what should I do?”

“Precisely,” she said with satisfaction, looking at the wall: “Precisely.”

Then she looked at me again: “You are very far away. Do you eat enough?”

“Circe, you know I don’t. Only what you give me, and that’s nothing at all.”

“Well, one can live almost forever on tea,” she said. “I used to feel light headed; but that passes.”

“How long is almost forever?”

“I’m not a prophet; I don’t know. Nothing can be hurried, so there’s no point in speculating about it. Everything is exactly equal to its duration,” she concluded, settling her pillows: “Don’t you get bored standing up? You could lie in bed with me and tell me stories. But no nonsense; if you keep me awake, you can sleep on the floor.”

“It’s eleven in the morning,” I said.

“Yes,” she agreed, yawning. “I can see … empty plates; how compelling.”

“I don’t want you to die,” I said involuntarily, as though I were confessing a dream. For an instant Circe looked at me with sudden concentration, as if she finally recognised that I were speaking only to her, that no world existed for me beyond the four walls of her room; she recognised every difference we had, and every difference we shared.

“The idea doesn’t exactly invigorate me, either,” she conceded gently. “But I can’t stay alive just to please you, and if you understood properly, you wouldn’t be sad. You’d see that Circe is simply a name wrapped about a thing, just as parents and books are different words, wrapped about different things. You can take the words away, but more only come, in their stead. You can make the things strong by denying the words about them, or else you can make the words thin by refusing the things they cover, until they are too frail and clear to hold anything – until they are too frail even to uphold themselves, and then you see the layers beneath.”

Kneeling beside the bed, I put my arms about her and breathed in the darkness of her body, that smelled of horses’ saddles and smudged stars and pieces of old lace; I was thinking of the shadows on the grass; I was thinking of – the shadows on the grass. Leaves brushed the window, and like a varying wind I felt the great weight of the world, the great lightness of the world, in this moment in which everything is beginning and ending, in this moment which, like every other, is both pointless and predestined, and cannot be had again.

*

What happened next was that, rather than go off and have a life like anyone else, I walked very carefully to the sign at the end of the town, and, to ensure I didn’t get lost, secured a piece of string to it (the other end was tied to a children’s toy which, for sentimental reasons, I kept in my pocket, though pretended not to acknowledge). Then I sat down on the stile there, and it must have made a very good seat, because I stayed there for fifteen years. During that time there was one question which kept coming back like a cat to sit on my lap, and, like a cat, I felt I had to keep shooing it away, namely: Why I was doing this? Was I unhappy? Had I decided to become unhappy? Did I want to be a failure? But no sooner had I accepted the questions than I felt a kind of panic at the world, as though something had got a hold of my meaning and was grinding it away between its teeth. By now I had realised that, secretly, the string stretched as far as my thoughts, and I was still free, if I chose to be so; but I did not want this freedom; I did not want to be brought face to face with the continents I had failed to cross; I saw that it was too late, already, and it had always been too late; it was too late even before I learned to walk, and everything I did later only compounded the problem. I was only a small person; I had neither the space nor the time for regret, and, more importantly, I had no idea how to govern a future based upon it – the continuing to live, whatever that might mean, with full recognition of the loss. And so, instead, I lived a life which cannot really be described. Or, if it can be described, it cannot really be explained. I was waiting, as I later put it, for all this to become unbearable, and realising, with growing disenchantment, that I was stronger than I knew; the world could not break me, and, because it could not break me, it could not relieve me of responsibility, either. And so, while the others went their separate ways, I found myself living without living, living nowhere in particular, but without the romance of wandering, or even the decisive stigma of being lost. Particular images from that time come back to me now, just as they did then – fragmented images that were never parts of greater things, but all of which seem rich with potential, nevertheless. In the first of these Circe was standing on a black-slatted gangway; in the second, her fiery shadow was retreating down a stairwell somewhere; the two images shared the colours black and red; the one was a grid and the other a spiral; beyond this, they were irrelevant and meaningless, but neither castigation seems reason enough to forget them.

I had always known I could go back; it was the prospect of returning that held me there, like a promise. There would always be things to which one might return, and really no time has ever passed, since nothing truly changes or begins. But, far from being passive, my absence had silently assumed obligations of its own, and now I found myself hesitating precisely because I knew I would have to return empty handed, carrying back only the burden of my waiting. I wanted to return dismissively; I wanted to return with strength, the strength of a recaptured childhood and fresh ideas; I wanted, even, to return heartbroken to hide in that old coal bunker, and be pitied for my commitment to the past. But, however I end up returning, everything will still hold me too closely, and never closely enough, like trusting yourself to someone out of fear of drowning, when you know that they are a coward, too, and all the lifeguards have perished.

Sometimes I wake up and think I have the answer, the answer that I have so long allegorized as Circe that I sometimes wonder if the two are separate at all: I know who I am; I know both what to do, and what is expected of me in this life of mine. I get up and go to the window and say: I will never need to apologise again, except on account of things that are provably wrong. Or else I stay in bed, suddenly calm, thinking that I am happy with any future, because at last I can see what it is that has been living, and it is something I no longer hate or want to change. But as the days pass, the answer seems to shift and flatten, and, while it continues to characterise everything I sought through it, it loses its relevance as a support. The answer is bound to me; the answer depends on me, and yet it makes no claims upon me, and because of this I have no way of holding it for long. I often wonder how it would be if the two of us were actually bound, such that we changed together without volition; I imagine such a union as a kind of sickness, a stupor, like something that happens on a boat.

I go to the pub; I come back from the pub; I sit on the dilapidated chairs in Circe’s garden. Many times, over the years, I fancy I have seen her, here or there; perhaps at first it was her, or someone in some way equivalent to her – by which I mean, someone who made the same movement in my mind, someone who, as I looked at her, seemed to offer the same reasons or justifications for being. But everything was westering in the world, and finally these Circes continued to look too like the Circe I remembered for them not, in fact, to be different people. The closest I came was once to say: “I thought you were Circadian.” I had meant, of course, that I thought she was Circe; but the word would not come out; the word was not available. Instead I had to wait for it, and waiting for it, I slept in this place and that, and now at last I sat here in the hollow heart of it, not knowing where it had gone. Dozing, I imagined seven-faced children resting upon an even run of castellated palms, as they beheld me from the top of the sofa and asked me about the ceiling of the world, or why it is raining on the farm, and none of the livestock have heads.

*

When I awoke again, it was still light, but someone was shaking my shoulder; as I turned to face her, she continued: “And now I ask you this: What distance did you come?”

“What distance? What do you mean? What distance from where to where?”

“Is that how you measured it? With your feet?” she said dismissively. “May your journey be a long one. Do you not remember that time we went to the beach, and we were coming back in the car, when you must have asked for the hundredth time when we were getting home, and the sun was setting and there were telegraph poles on one side of the road only. I looked at them, and thought to myself: They don’t know when they’re getting home. How lonely they look .”

“How could I remember that? How could that happen to me?” I asked involuntarily.

“Then who did I think you were, and who do you think I am?” she declared. “If these things mean nothing to you, then were you ever there at all? I half have it within me to bear you upon the world a second time, and this time, take note,” – she raised her voice triumphantly – “there will be no aimless ambling; there will be no perfunctory perfume; there will be no sheepskin over your ears. This time the façade will fall, the show will come to an end; they will switch off the lights, and then you will see the night-governed world as it truly is, not lit by sun and clouds and sky, but the darkness of it face to face.”

“You woman with your nonsense,” I said, trying to find my feet once more. But she was no longer looking at me; she was watching something else across the harbour, upon which I had no claim. "You’re an old, a past woman; you talk nonsense," I added childishly, willing her to contradict me. But instead she said, quietly reentering my mind much further forward from the other side of a passageway I had overlooked: "Why does everything people say have to mean something? What would be lost if your ear was turned the other way, or the leaves caught the words, like something in a wind? Would that mean less than if you heard it and hadn’t understood it at all? Then, by the same token, what extra thing does meaning give it; is it like putting sugar on something?” she concluded brightly, too quickly to want an answer. And, sure enough, when I looked, her eyes were hard and black; they went on fearlessly forever, without variation; they would forget me in some special way, like something thrown decisively from a car; it’s lost and gone, and you might as well get used to it.

I had a yearning then to be in the lonely space of Circe’s bedroom as a child, with its bare boards and a view that faced the crease of two walls beside a window. I could have waited forever, staring at that crease whose meaning is a corner, waiting for whatever it is that people are supposed to wait for - the tick of a clock, the onset of dusk, a particular person to ascend the stairs or turn off the lights.

“You thought it was her, didn’t you?” she said with inspiration. “That’s what you came back for, wasn’t it? You came back to find her; you came back to find she . Well, there are two ways of going away, and two ways of forgetting. You and she broke bonds long ago; just look at you now.” She pursed her lips: “You’ll have to go back, my boy; you’ll have to be born again; what a struggle it’ll be ... “ Her arms, suddenly massive, swept down protectively in opposition, as though to free me from myself, and for my own good, too.

Later, somehow, I was trudging over a field, in the country below the town. Hours, days or years had passed; the period did not matter; all that matters is its recognition, which understanding instantly reconnects its end with its beginning, relieving the interim of any obligation to exist. Against the grey sky a bristle of telegraph poles rode up upon one cheek of the world; the other was shorn and green, and a general heaviness settled lamely on them both. I was trudging across a field, and what I understood was that, even now, my life remained tied to Circe’s, and there was nothing I could do to change things because, at heart, Circe was just a promise, nothing more. Yes, even now it was not something I clearly knew; rather, it was something I had slowly come to share, like a sensation of communion; and, in common with most things that are deduced rather than proposed, there was a neutral, vaguely deficient quality about it, as if it were an answer which someone else had left behind, or a joke you thought up too late after the others had all gone home.

“I’m clutching at straws,” I said to myself; and, sure enough, as I fought my way further through the field, I began to see patterns in the rain; first it would sweep one way, and then the other; then something would seem to move through it all at once, like a quiver or a sigh. At best it was grey; there were shards of silver and black, and then I saw that, behind it all, was a farmhouse in the very middle of the field. It wasn't much of a farmhouse; there was nothing about it which meant anything except its darkness in the rain, and yet, perhaps someone lived there, all the same.

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