The days have fled, and I have been deeply surprised by their fleetness.
It has become early December.
Gone is the newly risen sun casting its cloak of gold upon the silky flatness of the surface of the Seine.
That joyous sight has been replaced by the gray and lowering mornings of November. The Seine has reflected that grayness and has assumed the look of a chilled and troubled being.
Now even those transitionally unpleasant, but endurable, days of November have been replaced by the even grayer rain soaked, or dismal wet snowed, mornings of December.
Today commenced with one of those December mornings.
I was walking down Quai Voltaire, having crossed to the mainland at Pont Saint Michel. Several interim, I can-never-remember-their-names, quais, had preceded Voltaire.
I was amusing myself in transit by looking for pigeon droppers. I could almost smell them. Since I arrived at the first of October, and after which I immediately began being accosted by a surprisingly large number of the pigeon drop clan, I have made it a practice to try to sense their presence prior to the commencement of their gambit.
I am now almost always able to recognize one of them long before he or she goes into his or her slithering approach to my field of view, and before they perform the – I am really beginning to believe – almost patentable characteristic bow to the pavement that always precedes their “amazing discovery” of a gold ring, which they then pick up and immediately present to their mark and say something like “monsieur, monsieur, bon chance, bon chance”.
But today there were no pigeon droppers.
In fact – I gradually became aware – there was no one. I was alone on the quai. As far as I could see there was no one.
And that was a state of existence that I have never experienced in Paris.
The feeling of being in an envelope of silence and aloneness could not be denied.
That envelope had certain characteristics.
There was no wind.
The temperature had seemed to go into neutral. I was unable to say that I felt it to be warm or that I felt it to be cold. I very quickly realized that I felt it to be nothing.
I felt it to be nothing except that there was me and there was the quai, and there was the river, and there was the moon.
It took me moments to take my eyes off the moon. It was an absolutely beautiful crescent.
It took me moments to ask myself why I was seeing the moon. When I had started my walk, it had been fairly early morning. And the sky had been nothing but a lowering gloom. And there had been rain. And there had been intermittent snow.
And it had been windy.
Now things seemed as if I had entered into the eye of a hurricane. I was in a sector of quiet and calmness that seemed to match descriptions I have read of a hurricane’s eye. It was a place of an amber calm, blue-darkening sky, with a new crescent hung in its left quadrant. Maybe it was early morning.
And the quai had disappeared. The river hadn’t disappeared. But instead of the quai I was on a primitive river bank.
The size of the river hadn’t seemed to have changed. But its location in relation to the surface of the earth was totally different from where it had been moments before.
In that previous place the river was generally located down a level from the quais. There were many locations where it was possible to take steps down from the city level cobbles and get down to a river level set of cobbles, and that descent, where taken, made it possible to walk right along the river, with the river a foot or two or three below the level of those lower level cobbles.
But the river whose bank I was on was not down from where I stood. It was at land level. In the segment that I could see, before it snaked off into a massive tangle of trees and brush, the flow level was low enough that there was left behind a fairly extensive expanse sandy beach between me and the glittering, fast flowing current. The sand appeared to be mostly finely ground up limestone. But mixed into the surface were frequent larger pieces of flint. And there were sandpipers, or something like sandpipers, darting in zigs and zags along down to the water’s edge, then back up toward the vegetation that marked the edge of the beach.
Beyond the beach was wilderness.
Except for the river and its sandy beach, the whole place was an absolute tangle of wilderness.
I was straddling the beginning of the vegetation – the sparse early signs of the more robust plant life that took hold once sand had given way to soil - and the ending of the sand.
As unreal as the transition that had occurred might have been, the composition of where I found myself was as real could possibly be. As I stood there pondering what my first move might be going to be, a low flying flock of cormorants flashed by, riding as cormorants always do, the ground effect just off the surface of the water. They looked as if they were sledding the waves. They wheeled and came back and splashed to the surface, becoming floating, long necked, long beaked little boat-like craft, riding the current away from me. They were quite flashy. They had a kind of gold orange coloring along their cheeks and into the start of their necks.
As I watched them float away from me, off toward the massive tangle of trees and brush in the distance I noticed something. There was a wisp of smoke coming from inside that tangle. The pale bluish tendril snaked itself out of the tops of the trees. The breeze, dispersed the tendril at some elevation, but at tree top level it was clearly smoke.
That gave me pause. When I finally took my first, still untaken, step, should I let the tendril of smoke control the direction of that step? Should I assume friendly human type people were making that smoke? Or what alternate assumption would it be rational to make? And what action would that alternate assumption be likely to drive?
The whole situation was becoming much too real. It was already laced with decision and quandary.
But I couldn’t just stand there straddling the littoral hoping that Paris would reappear. I was going to have to move sometime. I was going to have to move in some direction.
I decided that what was good enough for the cormorants was good enough for me. “Aren’t cormorants supposed to be good luck?” I said into the air, half expecting an answer from some cosmic voice – a voice that never came – so I started moving in the direction taken by the floating golden-cheeked cormorants.
That happened to be in the direction of the wisp of smoke.
I started to trudge off down the sand.
The direction that I was taking was in the direction of - off in the distance, maybe a mile or so, I wasn’t sure - the place where the curve of the sandy beach met the wilderness.
The walk was initially easy. The sand was firmly packed and made a wonderful surface for walking. And the walking was punctuated by a series of interesting things. There were the shells, and there were many of them, of what appeared to be fresh water clams. Perhaps they had been meals for the cormorants. Or perhaps there were seagulls that made the trip from the sea for an occasional dinner of fresh water clams. The shells were scattered with a disorganized abandon – not in piles as would have been the case if they had been a midden – so they must have been the random leftovers from the repasts of some non-human creatures.
I was in the midst of really enjoying my thoughts about the clams, and generally enjoying the beauty of a totally unspoiled stretch of sandy shore when a sort of glint caught my eye. It had sparkled from the sand not far in front of me. And that spark sparked a distant memory.
When I was in college I studied Geology. In the spring quarter the class took the Memorial Day weekend and all of us – Professors and students alike – in our cars, went to Central Oregon in search of fossils. One of the stops was the John Day fossil beds. This area is a mass of mounds and cliffs and swales of some kind of sedimentary rock that is alive with the fossils of creatures that go back as long ago as 44 million years. The most plentiful fossils are from mammals that lived there 7 or so million years back.
When we got to the beds we all were issued little rock picks, like the one used by Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption and were told to go forth and find fossils.
I went forth and found nothing.
After an hour or so of futile picking and poking I was standing disconsolately gazing in the general direction of one of the rather large mounds of whatever the slightly greenish tinged stuff that abounded in the area was, and in which there were supposed to be fossils. One of the faculty saw me and came over and asked what was causing my apparently obvious discontent. I told him that I wasn’t finding anything. He said that he wasn’t surprised because no one had told us the secret of finding anything. He said that the trick was to stand back – pretty much as I was doing – but to look at the pile or cliff in which fossils were thought to be as a de-focused whole. Don’t look at specifics, and for sure don’t go picking away at the rock hoping to find something. Just de-focus and look for glints. I asked him what glints were and he looked for a few moments at the pile that I had been staring at. “There is one” he said. “Just look” and he gave me some directions on where to look. “There. Do you see it?” And I saw it. “Go pick that out and let’s see what it is.” It was a bone fragment from some kind of carnivorous cat.
I found a lot more fossils that day.
The glint I had seen ahead of me on the beach was of that sort – the fossil sort – of glint.
It was immediately ahead of me in the sand. I knelt down for a look. It appeared to be a kind of point of something, but not much was showing. Most of it was buried below the surface of the sand.
Thoughts of how absurd this whole experience was becoming coursed through my head. But I was where I was, I decided, and, dream, hallucination or out of body experience – whatever – I would play the game as if it were real. I decided to carefully excavate the periphery of the thing far enough away from the thing itself to be able to get whatever it was – the assumption being that the point that I had seen glinting from the sand had at least some more, if not a lot more to it – out of the sand.
All I had to dig with were my hands. But I had dug with my hands in sand many times previous in my life so didn’t think that would be a problem.
I dug a circular trench about two feet in diameter, the pointed glint being the center of the circle. I dug it down to about a foot in depth. That left the glint still totally protected by a large volume of sand but with an outward access channel from which I could work my way inward. I hoped that that channel and its inward working would allow the thing that was below the point to be unearthed totally intact.
Since I had no idea what might be there in addition to the glinting point, I went slowly and carefully on my inward scooping.
It wasn’t until I was within three or four inches of the exposed glint that I thought that I felt something. I carefully wiggled my fingers laterally inward. There was something. It was not very large. But it felt larger than the exposed point which was about a quarter inch or less. I kept wiggling my fingers below the surface in the direction of the glint. I wiggled them down from the thing that I had felt. I was very careful. I wiggled them up a little occasionally. I removed sand in a backward motion from the point, underneath it and outward and upward. At last the point began to settle a little downward. That seemed to me to indicate that whatever the rest of the point might be was becoming free of the totality of its sand encasement but still held by its immediately surrounding cloak of sand.
A few more careful scoops and removals and the point and its surrounding encasement settled down in the newly excavated hole with an almost audible sigh.
The sigh was probably mine.
I looked briefly at what I had almost exhumed. And then I reached down with a jeweler’s light touch and felt for where the edges of whatever it was might be. It felt like it was a kind of branch off some small bush.
I plunged both hands, at the outer edges of the thing as best I could estimate those edges, and felt as best I could underneath to establish the fact that I was not missing anything below, and I daintily brought it to the surface.
The sand that surrounded whatever it was was a thing about the size and shape of a small can of coffee.
It sat there in front of me in a kind of lump of brown limestone sand. Its point that had glinted to alert me to its existence and some not very meaningful side protrusions from the lump were all that I could see of whatever it was going to turn out to be.
I started to brush the sand away.
Little by little the thing appeared. And, even as it became apparent what it was, I chose to not believe that what I was beginning to see was what I was beginning to see.
It was the skeleton of a hand.
And in the hand was a piece of something. Closer examination showed it to be a piece of flint. The shore upon which I had been walking was strewn with them. They were the only things more numerous than the shells of long gone clams. But this one was in the grip of the skeleton of a hand.
The hand had the flint held in it. The fingers of the skeleton were wrapped around it in a manner in which the fingers and the thumb were all vertically aligned rather than clenched in a fist. The flint protruded just slightly above the finger tips and the tip of the thumb. The glint had been that protruding flint.
For no reason that I could have given if I had been asked, I had an overwhelming desire to take possession of that piece of flint.
I took hold of the longest of the skeletal fingers and tried to bend it out to release the flint from the hand’s grip.
It did not yield.
I had an almost beyond bearable pain in the middle finger of my left hand.
I think I may have screamed. At least, I thought that I heard an – I don’t have words for it – “other” scream. I may not have heard it; I may have sensed it; or I may have imagined it; but it seemed to have been there and it was a like a flash of heat from an opened oven.
I sat down on the beach.
I was holding the skeleton with the flint in my lap and I was staring at it as if it could tell me something I that needed to know.
Nothing was told.
Cormorants flashed by. I idly wondered if they were the same ones I had seen previously or if they were of a different tribe.
The appearance of something active – the golden cheeked birds - brought me out of the nearly catatonic state into which I had sunk: bones; flint; birds; river; strand.
What had any of this to do with what I thought to be the case of my existence?
I was, after all, a resident of the Twenty First Century. I was in one of the major cities of that Century and I was a citizen of one of the most powerful nations in the history of nations. Or I had been not long before.
Why would I be squatting on some unknown beach looking at a skeletal hand with a piece of flint in its necromantic grip?
No answers came.
I again took hold of the middle finger, the one used to make statements of displeasure while driving, and bent it back.
It crumbled. A pain that is beyond any I have known flashed through the middle finger of my left hand.
But it freed the piece of flint.
I sat fighting off waves of pain induced nausea. The nausea faded. I looked at the piece of flint. I thought I saw an inner glow but then I saw that it was just like any of the other pieces that I had been picking up and discarding since being in Paris.
It was at least as pretty as the prettiest ones that I had picked up. But it wasn’t unique, I thought. But I had gone to a lot of trouble so I decided to keep it.
I put it in my pocket and set off down the beach.
The beach was smooth and hard and easy to walk upon.
That didn’t last. As I approached the beginning, the outer edges, of what I have been describing as wilderness, the walking surface changed from packed sand with a mixing of scattered pieces of flint to a mixture of something more like heavy mud. And growing in it were massive numbers of what looked like horsetails. They did look like horsetails, except they were over two feet tall instead of the normal four or five inches. I smashed them down as I made my way through them. The smell that rose from the battered stems certainly smelled like horsetails. So perhaps that is what they were.
Once through the horsetails I tried to make my way through a thicket of not very tall trees that looked like stunted alders. The ground had become much more firm, after the horsetail muck so the going as far as footing had become easier. But the little trees were dense and it took effort to get through and around them. But I did get through them. Once through them, I was into an even deeper and more impenetrable thicket of hazel nuts. There was no doubt about the identity of the hazels. Around the feet of the endless clumps of bushes, piled to a depth that must have taken centuries, perhaps even millennia to accumulate were empty shells from the ages. They were the shells of nuts that had been shelled and eaten over those ages. They were the detritus left behind by whatever it was that came to the thicket over the ages and ate hazel nuts. Maybe it was squirrels.
I was really beginning to struggle. The horsetails had taken a lot out of me by their mass and height and their community thickness. Added to that, the mucky marsh from which they sprung sucked down mercilessly on my shoes. The ground from which the alders rose to the sky was easier going but their density had made forward progress a thing that was attained only with great and supremely tiring effort. And the hazels had been just about the coup de grâce, being, as they were, pretty much a vertically and horizontally latticed mesh-like barrier.
But doggedly I continued. A machete, I thought to myself, would be nice to have.
But then things began to improve. At the point that I would have been if I had wanted to intercept the river again, rather than, as was the actual case, trying to find out where the smoke was coming from and what was causing it, the river must have been running through a sort of small canyon. The reason that the going was getting easier was because the ground was gradually rising causing the thickets to begin to give away to more sparse plant life.
That rise of ground had been cut deeply by the river.
And at that point I could see something else. The place where I was at that moment was near the upper edge of an Island. I could see a second channel becoming one with the channel upon whose bank I had been walking. That unison occurred in the distance beyond the edge of the rise that I was ascending. It appeared to be open river beyond. There were blurry images that might be additional smaller islands – accumulations of soil held in place by some trees but they were too far away to discern with clarity.
As the ground rose it became clearer of brush and gradually, as it became clearer it leveled off again, becoming a small level plateau, with a small clearing on it top. And in its middle was a dwelling made of sod and furs and sticks, held in place by numerous flat stones at its base. There was a hole in its top which was the source of the tendril of smoke.
I stood there looking at the dwelling and the smoke. I started toward it. I had major misgivings about what I was doing – what had been happening to me since I had left the apartment – but I seemed to have been dealt some cards and I guessed that I had no choice but to play them.
But the scene had changed. Somehow I had gotten to what appeared to be the edge of the island where the two channels of the river met. I was looking out at unbroken river. From this position I could see that there were indeed some small accretions of silt with trees sprouting from them. I turned around to look back for the dwelling. I didn’t see it but saw instead the wide open beach that I had recently come down stretching again ahead of me. A step or two and I was mired again in the horsetails.
It took a few more moments before it came to me. I was in one of those dreams where I was trying to get somewhere but where everything keeps changing in subtle but out of control ways. Those out of control ways would fold sinuously into one another, and never allow me to get to my destination but would keep always open the tantalizing possibility of success.
It was a type of dream that would thrash along futilely until I ultimately would awaken and almost immediately recognize what had been happening and would immediately after that recognition be thankful for it having been only a dream.
I wasn’t sure that I would be particularly thankful for this dream terminating. I had felt a real sense of urgency to get to that dwelling.
I wondered how long I would be cast in the role of striving for a place that I was not meant to reach. I wondered what sort of creature might live in the dwelling. I felt that I should know what sort of creature lived there. But I had no idea why I felt that way. And I kept trying to beat the dream at its game.
As it turned out I did not awaken. At least I did not awaken in any traditional in-bed sort of way.
I found myself on the quai under a cold and lowering December sky and standing next to a bouquiniste and staring at the gray brown expanse of the river.
So I have written the occurrence down as best as I am able to recall it. It has a feeling of familiarity as I have completed the writing of it, but it is a faint feeling.
Perhaps there will be more.