I was polishing glasses that day, eavesdropping into and out of conversation as a bartender is privileged to do. It was late afternoon in that time of the year when our windows, smoke cured and ancient, would catch fire sometimes and spin out such gold they transformed the Tavern.
The windows would glow and begin to smolder like great eyes of desire stirred to heat by the sunset. Gathering brilliance, the glass seemed to swell and inhale until finally, overfull, the soundless rupture, a shattering of light scattering colors like pent-up mischief new released from prism.
For these few weeks the Tavern traditionally shed its torpid vapors, its fitful raptures and philosophic gloom. Instead, dazzling choreography and optic pranksters dancing about, glancing off, prancing on bottles and glasses.
Rainbow romp and fever, yes, but first it was cold, aye, bitter cold in those brittle autumn windows. Then, that flash, that bright burning light. The very spirit of fire it seemed; spark enough to ignite the dancing dust motes and set them blazing; stars like God’s own stellar fires drifting thru the Tavern darkness.
It’s a moment of beauty like no other. Strange, that someone passing thru would see it first, but so it was, a pilgrim who described it for us. And we saw! Now it’s ours. It’s been our pleasure, our keepsake, our treasure ever since. Coming up is our Season of the Holidays (more like our season of the parties), but this is special. This is our Season of the Crystal Fire.
As fate would have it, the Poet, too, was there. Now he was an odd one, pleasant enough, but an outsider who confused our small town ways. He listened mostly and spoke rarely, so he had that difficult, uneasy reputation of being both ‘sage’ and ‘fool’ by way of local gossip. More unsettling, his talent for nagging phrases that would rise out of memory and summon you, call you back like thorns in the pillow of sleep.
Yes, he was peculiar (more imagination than illumination we thought), yet we fell to the draw of his curious patience. He seemed to be waiting, always listening for that turn of phrase, or one of those moments of understanding he once said he lived for. He had a shy, almost anonymous air about him, yet he never went unnoticed and seemed to be there for all our special occasions. He was our scribe, our silent witness, and present again as one such moment was about to begin.
He stood in his usual place at the shadow end of the bar, meditating on bottles as he was given to do. Every bottle was a temple, he believed, each one a body, the house of a spirit, a crystal cathedral in a mosaic of spirits. Variously brewed, differently flavored, lavish or simple labels, he loved them all. For spirits they were (so he said), essential waters imbued with the fire of life.
A man of simple taste, he never judged one better, less or more, raw or refined, good or bad. He could taste the differences, he said, all of them; but it was the differences he loved. “People are cheating yourselves,” he was heard to mutter. Demented, naive, a fool by choice ... who knew? One thing we could see, tho. He took real delight in his feast of the spirits. Thirsting for difference he encompassed them all.
And so he would drink, one short bottle per sitting, never the same twice running. He would cradle the bottle, embrace it with his hands, with his eyes, reading every word, finding significance where only labels existed for others. He spoke of harvests, of ferment and fire; of aging, and mixing, and the branding of spirits; of life poured out, of spirit consumed. Oh, we smiled at his little fables (of course we did), because the Poet was quite mad, really. But we listened when he spoke.
“Excuse me,” a voice interrupted, “a pint of your bitters, please.” Without turning, I knew it was a voice from the Road. The accent was there, of course, pronounced but untraceable. The sound of it, the rhythm of it so alien, so utterly free of place that even his silences spoke of exile.
It sounded the voice of childhood legend, of auld lyrics and epic stories. It rumbled from within, world-weary, homesick, remote. Steeped in dust and years of smoke and whisky, it was a voice from the edge, with echoes from the age of ruin. It was the voice of an outlaw, intriguing, teasing with knowledge; ’twas a rogue’s tongue that caressed the ear. You knew instantly that whatever the words, they would leave you hungry. Like seasoned salt, they would leave you wanting more.
And he matched the image promised by the voice. Turning, I faced him, a man of medium height covered with road, dressed in coarse linen and leathers. The face was lined and lived-in, and commanded attention (as I knew it would), but it was the eyes, the eyes that possessed you. To say they were blue is to admit, what, the sky is up? Words fail.
Even so, imagine a saturated Caribbean blue illuminated from behind and sun bleached, as if from arid isolation and a lifetime spent crossing the bleak Sahara. Imagine overwhelming pools of sadness, and imagine the taste of every pleasure distilled to that bastard blue ~ then give it a diamond for its canvas. Imagine eyes that spoke as eloquently as a poet’s tongue. Imagine eyes that listened, and followed every nuance as closely as a father confessor’s ear. Imagine eyes that never expected to see heaven, eyes that were ancient, eyes that understood. Imagine eyes that held you, that refused to let you go:
Captivating eyes, but apart from hair that was whiter and more unruly than any I’ve ever seen, by face or feature, I couldn’t begin to describe him.
The night was long and impassioned, ferocious with words, and the great begetter for the granddaddy of all hangovers. I have a sense that stories and great debates issued that night, flowed like wild torrential rivers in flood, but such was their power and measure that all particulars have been washed away. Sometimes the Poet will quote from that night, but for me and for others of the Village, all remembrance is lost.
No, forgive me. There was something. It seemed so odd, so wrong coming from his mouth ... I can’t forget. Until then he seemed the wild and bold, the ultimate survivor, elemental in his endurance.
In the story he was telling, he’d been wandering thru an especially effective and unnecessary war. Still deviled by the memory, he was in high animation when he let slip that he considered Death ... his ally.
“ ... and life is precious, absolutely, all we have, really”, he said. It was earnest and convincing as platitudes may sometimes be, but then he allowed as how Death was “ ... easy, actually, a friend if you need him. You’ve met, you’ve seen his work; believe me, he will come if you call. Only look and Death is never more than a few feet, a few seconds away if you want, I mean really want it.” Said he “found it comforting ... kept the bad times challenging”.
I was stunned, and this is unusual, because barmen are almost never surprised. Well, I knew what it was; sacrilege, a coward’s way out, but the Poet merely nodded.
Now, the Poet has never mentioned this part of the evening. Whether forgetting, or perhaps unwilling to revisit old pain; whether out of fear, or shame, or respect, I never knew; but from the barren soil of his silence a seed grows, and I have begun to remember.
Sadly, it returns in fits and fragments, a poor, pale copy of the original discourse. I have never wanted as I have wanted completeness in this, and clarity, but I get faint, abstract notions, and shadows that beckon as if from a receding mist. But I recall, dimly ~~~
Death is our escape, and Death is our excuse. Without it, he said, without that escape, we would be forced to wisdom. No choice. With every eye forever open, we would be compelled to see, and compelled to see completely. Condemned to know each other, eventually we would feel ... no, not feel ... condemned to become each other, endlessly.
Deathless, we would live out all the consequences, all the futures of every deed. With each kindness and every wrong that rippled out, karmic echoes would ripple back. The Golden Rule entire. A divine grace now more ignored than quoted, and more quoted than followed would be chiseled Law Eternal. And as it ruled us, so too would it reward us with our due, our fair and everlasting justice.
Then we’d know. We’d be forced to understand, then. We would know, finally know that we are one; know that we are joined as islands beneath the surface however distant our other shores.
Deathless, we would know, and we would know that we are known. Deathless together, our selves would ripple, and merge, and subside across forever. Face to face, there’d be no escaping, no hiding. We would see, and we would see that we are seen. No escape, and no excuse. No, Death is not the enemy or we’d burn forever, locked forever in the seize of shame.
Yet, Death has cheated us. It has kept us from our wisdom. More get a chance at the joys of youth than ever ripen to understanding. We learn to live, then we die. It’s a puzzle, and it is a problem, but how will we ever be worthy of life unless we’re first immortal? It’s on pain of trespass we gather understandings. Yes, we are failed, but Death is the sword point that keeps us from getting to wisdom.
The law of sovereign consequence, this the rule that bids to be our most hellish and holy school. Immortal, with no escape, our stupidity would stop soon enough. Immortal, with no excuse, we would search and search for the truth in earnest, because only the truth could set us free.
And, come the Outcome, we would finally see; truly, intimately understand that all are included: good and evil, victor, victim, all the stories and everyone. All are included, or the truth means nothing at all. We have eaten from the Tree and we have earned our knowledge, now we need our wisdom.
We’ve debated, and resisted, and some still quest for that wisdom, but to get there, for all of us to find our way home, somehow, we have to go back. We have to return to the Garden. We have to see our selves (no mercy), and accept our selves (perfect mercy), and learn how not to know good from evil. For there, in the beginning, in the innocence lies the truth, and from there ... well, the truth can set us free. But until then, until we are immortal, life is telling. And Death, old friend, Death is the reason.
The dawn was breaking, the eastern sky showing the first muted colors of morning before our conversations ended. As we gathered ourselves to leave, a voice (mine?) called out, “Who are you? What’s your name?”
“No one,” he said. “For this one night we met across the bar, and where we’ve been has no name ... let’s just call it bar talk.” With that, he turned, and disappeared into the sunrise. We never saw him again.
We’ve lost the words. Our chance is gone, and no one thought to map the back roads, the turns and alleys our conversation traveled that night. The adventure was ours but with memory forfeit. Still, we were there; we lived that moment ... and the wonder, the eternal splendor of this, our long mystery lingers. That we do not forget. Even today, when a stranger walks thru those doors and tells us stories, we all gather ’round and listen, but we never ask his name. We call him, Bartok.