The following story was published by The Turk's Head Review in December 2010.
The Sad Migration
Gérard felt like he could just lie down under a tree and sleep forever. His body was numb and heavy, his eyelids felt like wet sand and his head like a stone. He had no reason to go home, he had nothing to do today or tomorrow. His thoughts had repeated themselves so many times, like a bad play to which he knew every line, and in which he played every role. He thought of the aqueduct, he thought of her eyes. If it wasn’t for his dog, Absolon, by his side, he would just lie down right there in Alamo Square Park, under a bench, and not think for one second about what was to be, or what had happened. He closed his heavy eyelids, listened to the slow burning trumpet in his headphones, and imagined lying down on the grass. He wanted to gently lose consciousness into an endless plain of zero responsibility and flat dreams, but he couldn’t leave Absolon to fend for himself, so he opened his eyes and walked on. He circled the cypress trees at the top of the park with his best friend following closely on his leash. He told himself to regain presence and vigor, to stop feeling sorry for himself. He wondered where the others were now. He heard that Jean-Pierre had moved to London to paint or sculpt; it didn’t matter, he knew he would never see him again.
His knees ached and the acid built in his legs as he climbed the steps to the war memorial. The words under the tall stone statue probably used to read -They shall never be forgotten, but the etched granite had been rendered illegible through fifty years of wind and Pacific rain. The city of San Francisco hadn’t remembered to look after it. Absolon cocked his leg on to the statue before taking a big slurp from a muddy puddle nearby. Gérard pulled the dog away from the unhealthy looking sludge, and looked up to see the city’s orange skyline sparkling between the cypress trees. The day was fading, drawing his attention to the electric lights, glowing from the houses and apartments that surrounded the park.
The evening she jumped was still and silent. She had been talking endlessly of something she had read in the news that had stuck with her. Ten thousand wildebeest had drowned together in a river somewhere in Kenya. She talked right through the other philosophers, as if all of her focus was gone, beyond retrieval. “The wildebeest simply follow the smell of the rain and each other,” she had said, “They chose a crossing that was too steep that day. Ten thousand animals…” Gérard and the others liked to think that they didn’t know where she was going when she stood up and walked away from the group, towards the aqueduct. Maybe they knew, maybe they didn’t. It changed nothing now. Nothing ever changed now.
Gérard played some old songs through his headphones to draw his mind away from Montpellier. He started to feel blue and stroked Absolon. Gérard had such an embarrassingly acute sense of nostalgic sentimentality that the sound of a certain melody in the right light in a dusky city park could bring him to irrepressible tears and heaving emotion in seconds. At that devastating moment, as he watched the lights turn on in family dining rooms around the perimeter of the grass, he understood two things.
1) Other people are inferior to him. They walk around scratching their eyes, cackling into their phones, eating their chicken in their homes, ripping the meat off the bone, while Gérard is perfectly stuck in the moment of beauty, with the past weighing on him, pushing him to tears. Other people deal with their neuroses so that their minds don’t slide to the greatest problem, while he understands the weight of the world, they are the ignorant, but of course, they are free.
2) Beauty can lead to fear and is not taught or learnt but intrinsically and naturally understood -and can weigh a man deep into the soil.
What if he was to lie down under the bench and close his eyes? It had happened once before: Gérard had awoken to Absolon licking his face in the warm morning Pacific sun, as an old lady offered him some water. The lack of consciousness was attractive to Gérard. Absolon would find home, or maybe a new home. The passersby would just presume Gérard to be another young dying homeless man of San Francisco. Maybe they were right. What if some dog thief threw Absolon into the back of a big black van and sold him on the black market? He probably wouldn’t sell for much; he had over excitable salivatory glands, and a manic smile which often rendered him positively rabid in appearance. He had a big heart, though, and was loyal. What if he was run over on his way to his new home? There would be no one to claim him, no one to bury him; he would probably get destroyed at the city canine incineration yard, if such a hellish place actually existed. Gérard shuddered at the thought and jumped down onto his haunches to scratch Absolon behind the ears, lovingly. “Mon bon chien, Absolon!” he said and smiled. “Bon chien.” Absolon panted happily. Gérard decided not to sleep under the bench, and continued to walk home.
Had she jumped to prove them wrong? He could picture her silhouette at dusk, atop the aqueduct. Like a shadow in front of the dark blue sky, and then she leaped, for one split second her shadow separated from the horizon. She was always one step ahead of the other philosophers, Gérard included.
Gérard thought about walking the long way home, to avoid the construction work which scared the fleas off Absolon, and made it hard to think about anything much. Although maybe this was exactly what he needed, to drown out all cyclical thoughts of death and forever with the sound of a pneumatic drill and shouting construction workers. Some kind of meditation in an oblivion of orange cones, white noise and petrol fumes.
Absolon followed close to Gérard’s feet. Gérard looked up to the clear sky, a blimp with a large green advertising logo on the side slid across the perfect dark blue space, and made its way west past the flickering lights of Sutro Tower, which had gathered fog around its large antennae, like a red fork spearing a giant silver liver. He stopped walking and looked to the tower before closing his eyes to pull some memories into his mind. He gathered three distinct scenes from his history; three floating clouds of nearly lost images and sounds behind his eyes. The memories were unstable and ever-moving, and sometimes lost all recognizable form, before being cleverly retrieved with intense focus. Gerard was a whaler, harpooning images, sounds and emotions from his past. He saw his father, a flock of starlings, a distant familiar horizon, his brother, a sadness, a hope, and somewhere of course, Aceline.
He planned on singling one of these memories out on its merits, and crowning it:
The Thing I Miss the Most about France.
His gathering of small personal histories was abruptly destroyed as Absolon jumped at a scruffy English Bulldog passing by, stretching the leash, pulling Gérard’s arm sharply. The three memory clouds, almost perfectly formed and ready for closer inspection, popped and dissolved. Gérard looked down in frustration to see Absolon dragging his raw backside across the asphalt near the fountain, and looked hard into his eyes, trying to convey sincere disappointment, but then just felt sorry for the animal. He carefully gathered the dissipating idea vapors as they fled to the periphery of his mind like sunspots, and this time inspected the clouds before they could be destroyed.
Firstly, he saw his father lifting his brother, Lauren, up onto the hay bales on the trailer, Lauren looking down to Gérard in the field with joy. Gérard, overexcited, fidgeting, awaiting his turn, “J’apres Papa, j’apres!” His father eventually turns and lifts him too, placing him next to his brother atop the hay, Lauren and Gérard look at each other with wide eyes like they are the luckiest boys in France. They then look around, so high they could see for twenty miles in every direction, the green valleys of Brittany, bright vivid green. They wait for father to start the tractor engine, and hold on tight.
The memory was so pure he even managed to imagine the smell of the dry warm hay, if only for a second. This smell slowed his heart for a moment and relaxed his mind like a slow smile. Absolon mirrored his master’s comfort, and joyfully rolled on to his back on some dry grass.
Gérard then thought of watching his father hammer a nail in to the last supporting branch on the tree house over the river, again with his brother, and slowly climbing into the magnificent structure, watching the cold stream below bubble and flow through the cracks in the wood. His mother, watching her boys with pride from the river bank. He could smell the sweet sap of the Copper Beech. Gérard closed his eyes and inhaled with pride at the glorious memory.
Then he thought of grass by the aqueduct, he tried to remember it while it was still beautiful. He remembered drinking wine with the philosophers there, in the gardens of one of the follies of Montpellier. The sun had gone down; the dew had started to form. He still felt embarrassed at how they thought they could change the world. Young students with wide eyes, and egos to match. Aceline was probably the smartest of them all. She was the first to suggest they were inconsequential, that their thoughts and ideas were just repetitions, reheated theories that long dead men had gifted to the world years before. She would declare to the group – We are no more important than worms or wasps, in fact we are worse! Our pretensions of wisdom give nothing more to the world than urine to the river. The philosophers didn’t like to be told that their thoughts were meaningless so they tried to ignore her, but it gnawed away at them all, and of course, everybody understood that she was right.
She jumped off the aqueduct. Now they lived their lives humbly across the world, each of them alone.
In Gérard’s memory they were all still together, drinking wine by the river. In his memory it was a Sunday night, and people had to go home sadly and slowly to sleep to be ready for lectures on Monday morning. He disliked that his memory had to end so abruptly, so he moved the memory to a Saturday night where there would be no curfew, where his friends could sit up by the river all night and talk, and watch the dawn. But there was always a curfew, Gérard thought, remember how kind your mother was? Yes, but this turns to only seeing her sadness. Remember how your father was always there to protect you? Yes, but you can only see the fear in his eyes, as he never had anyone to stand up for him. Gérard knew that there is never a perfect memory without a shadow, and he knew he could never separate from his shadow.
Why did Aceline have to be so smart? She was such a humble girl. He felt his eyes grow moist and tried to quell the tears by giving Absolon a scratch on the back, but this only escalated the melancholy like a punch to the stomach. He remembered them drinking wine under the sun, back when they were the most intelligent people in the world, before she killed everything. It’s easier to leave than to be left behind.
Absolon was a French Sheepdog, a breed reared over the years to chase animals across the steep green fields of Brittany. Gérard had picked out the puppy from the San Francisco dog pound as it reminded him of his childhood farm dog back home. He called it Absolon, which was also the name of his childhood dog. This dog had never known how it felt to run for miles across streams and through hedgerows. Instead, Absolon jumped at every car horn and shook relentlessly when crossing the street, as if trying to rid his coat of the exhaust fumes and city dirt. Gérard hoped Absolon could be happy when let off the leash in the park.
Gérard watched a group young people practicing Tai Chi in front of the old Victorian houses. He decided to award the prestigious The Thing I Miss Most about France honor to sitting atop the warm dry hay with Lauren. He then tried to decide on The Most Perfect Thing in the World, reveling in his own quixotic pretensions. He knew it was a broad title, but he adored the simplicity of it, and also liked that it was impersonal so he wouldn’t start thinking about the sadness of Montpellier again. His soon awarded the newly formed prize to the image in his mind of a Native American in the woods, carving a canoe, alone. Gérard was happy that this probably was the most perfect thing in the world. However, he soon started to feel sorry for the Indian’s solitude, and wanted to put some friends in the image. Then his mind drifted in to melancholy again so he pulled himself into reality and tried once more to stop Absolon from slurping at a pool of oily water.
He thought of her and the way the she walked up the hill to the aqueduct. They watched her from the meadow – Aceline! Don’t leave us wasps behind! Jean-Pierre had laughed out to the dying day, before gulping directly from the carafe.
As they left the grove of trees and stepped into the open grass of Alamo Square, Gérard bent down and released Absolon from his leash. Rather than sprint toward the open grass, Absolon turned to look at his owner in confusion. “Allez!” Gérard instructed enthusiastically and sure enough, on this signal, Absolon turned and ran towards an imaginary herd of sheep, and Gérard smiled to himself.
It was a very clear November evening. Gérard walked slowly up the path and saw the city over the old brightly painted houses. It was dusk, the city’s hills and rooftops in the dying light looked too beautiful to comprehend. Gérard saw tourists taking photos of each other in front of the downtown skyline. He briefly remembered the excitement he felt when he first came to the city only months ago, before it all caught up with him. The humming engines, car horns and life down on the street were almost muted from his lofty viewpoint. The small red lights of cargo ships floating into the bay from the Pacific silently blinked under the setting sun. The north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge was just visible in front of the dark distant Marin headlands. The purr of an invisible aircraft softly came in waves through the sparse pink clouds. Absolon had found a stick and he gnawed at it fervently, ignoring the other dogs.
A pretty young mother and child were walking. Absolon dropped his stick, ran toward the infant and started to bark aggressively, bringing the child to loud tears. Gérard ran through the grass towards them. The mother screamed and wailed, and kicked Absolon sharply in the stomach. Absolon yelped. Gérard cried out, grabbed Absolon’s collar, and rolled onto the grass with the dog, hugging him close to his chest. Absolon yelped again in pain. The mother dragged her crying child away. After publicly disciplining Absolon, in front of the passersby that had stopped to watch the scene, Gérard took him back to the safety of the trees and replaced his leash. He gave him a rub behind the ears and stroked his stomach softly, as if to say, I know you don’t know any better boy, I know where you’re from there are no cars and spoilt children, just leaves and wind and fresh running water and simple sheep and simple grass.
Gérard watched a cormorant dip through the dusk as a low fog horn reverberated through all of San Francisco; he suddenly realized everything in a sharp moment of ultimate clarity. He finally understood that the more a man understood the nature of human life, the origin of the species, and the endless coincidences and absurdity of life, the more he was likely to end his own life through despair and hopelessness. If this was true, and Gérard was perfectly sure that it was, then a lower intellect would lead to a higher survival rate within the species. This simple thought scared the life out of Gérard. He looked for a bench to lie under. For every living and breathing moment of his life he now knew that the human race must devolve intellectually to survive. How was he supposed to carry that weight? Maybe this is what Aceline discovered that evening by the folly. She was always one step ahead. He looked to Absolon with jealousy. Ignorance was not bliss, but it surely was a lighter load. He tried to find some beauty in the lost, lonely diving cormorant but only found fear. He imagined that if people gathered enough intelligence, when the population finally refused religion, and came to understand the true pointlessness to their lives, to understand that blood is just seawater with red corpuscles added for flavor, to understand that we will just return to the waves, then we must all end our lives together in a short sad moment of mass relief. The clarity was painful. He tried to distract himself and played a simple and timeless blues song through his headphones. The singer sang the melody so slowly and perfectly to Gérard he almost fell to his knees. The unstoppable sadness overwhelmed him and he sat on a dead fallen cypress trunk, deliberately placed for passersby to rest. Gérard wondered why such perfect beauty should make a man so sad as to cry alone at the dark pink twilight sky.
Maybe she saw something in the light that night.
Surely there must be something wrong in how we are wired, for such beauty to hurt? He knew he had no choice but to stop the song to prevent a breakdown, but he wanted to wallow in the blues for another few moments. The minor and 9th chords rose as he released Absolon’s leash, so he could play with the other dogs. Absolon stopped and looked back to his owner as if he sensed something was wrong, and came back to his side. Gérard looked up and scanned all the lit rooms where people were living around the park. He saw couples in their kitchens, and imagined that they were listening to the same song as he, as they prepared dinner. He saw family living rooms with oak bookshelves covering the walls, and in these rooms he saw dinner parties with laughing and wine and deep conversation and jealousy and relief and anxiety and joy. Over the rooftops a gentle westerly wind blew and Gérard could see the fog crawling in from the ocean. And the orange pink light was magnificent. There could be no more perfect color. And everything was so naturally framed by the ascending chords with the gentle echoing arpeggios and baritone melody, softly sung, almost spoken. Gérard thought that there was no way the song could have been written without this precise moment in mind. Then he thought that maybe one hundred people were thinking the same thing right now across America, France and the world. He looked at Absolon again, chewing at a paper bag by his side, and he felt so much joy he cried, and immediately he felt so sad he abruptly ripped the headphones out of his ears.
He wiped his eye expecting to dry a tear but either he hadn’t cried, or the tear had already dried itself. He unknowingly sat on the grass and removed his shoes and socks. He pulled his sweatshirt off, over his head and unbuttoned his shirt. The air was cool on his skin. Absolon licked at his naked toes which tickled and made him smile. He thought that maybe she was wrong, and maybe he was wrong, maybe our lives are more than just random absurdities walking toward the water. And even if they were right, and thiswas just a violent, godless universe, why not make the most of life before the sad migration? He lay back, using his sweatshirt as a pillow, closed his eyes and dreamt of ninety-nine thousand wildebeest following the rain to find their grass. His thoughts disintegrated in seconds and all memories and expectations were gone. Absolon ran to a clear stream running over some rocks nearby, and slurped up the clean water before running off to play with the other animals.