Saber Slashes of Light, by Gaither Stewart

Saber Slashes of Light

By Gaither Stewart

                                          

5391

         

           These things should be played only in certain important and notable circumstances, and when certain important acts need to be executed in conformity with this music. [Tolstoy, Kreutzer Sonata].

 

     For many decades two great American writers had lain under the gray tombstones in the landmark cemetery on the hill. Concealed behind a vine-covered stonewall, in a historic district of the mountain town, the cemetery sprawled down a steep slope toward a river. It was filled with tall straight and rather nonchalant trees, flower gardens, and narrow twisting roads covered in fine white gravel.

      We descended gradually, unhurriedly, winding back and forth, passing under row after row of silent tombstones. As quiet as the tombstones themselves, Govar wanted to give me a tour of the beloved hillside - “a jewel lost in a residential jungle,” he defined it. Insecure young magnolias with thin, moss-spotted trunks leaning toward steep embankments breathed silently in the late afternoon air. Abandoned and immobile potted flowers, white and blue and green, observed us from their appointed stations in front of the tombstones.

     You could see it was an exclusive resting place. Govar explained that important families had bought up all the sites in the specific space delimited by the surrounding wall and the still invisible river down below. Merit and goodness had nothing to do with it, he said. Only old money counted here. And fame. It was a surprise to all when Thomas Wolfe’s family, despised and looked down on in life, got a choice site at the summit, naturally after the writer, also despised and hated by the town’s pious citizens, became a famous author.

     It was autumn. The weather was perfect. From surrounding mountain heights hushed breezes carried down exotic pungent resin-scents into the car. Through the spruces and birches I began to perceive rather than see the river he said was down below. Yet since he had so wanted to come, I suspected the tranquility, simplicity, and perfect order here must be deceptive. Tourism was no motivation at all for this mystical maniac. And anyone who sat back and let himself be led by him would also most likely step into a crowded elevator during an earthquake.

     I ignored his furtive interrogative glances toward me. Since I had let him convince me to join him on another pilgrimage, he felt obligated to offer me detailed explanations. I was here chiefly out of gratitude for it was thanks to him that the magazines had grabbed up my photo reportage on the crop circles in the Shenandoah Valley. With a serious mein he’d said he knew my avariciousness and my ambition to become important would overshadow my skeptical Tuscan self at the mention of Blue Ridge dolmens. Govar was very naďve.

     Admittedly, to my European mind, American Indians and dolmens in the Smoky Mountains seemed anachronistic…. Totems, yes, but dolmens? Anyway, he was footing the bills and promised introductions to some special local women. And like the good Tuscan I am I would go to hell and back if the promised rewards justified it. 

     Back in Brooklyn I didn’t understand when I asked him about reading materials on the area and he gave me a book on Caravaggio. What could the 16th century master of light and shadow have to do with it? But who cares, I thought? If it means another good reportage, I’m game. 

     When I had asked about “shadow and light,” he answered enigmatically with an expression he’d recently come to love and used indiscriminately:  “Like saber slashes,” he said, and showed me a photo of a Blue Ridge dolmen. I was already convinced but didn’t tell him so right away.

     “I’m still looking for light!” I now shouted as he maneuvered another hairpin curve, my voice exploding louder than I expected in the mountain silence. He’d never believed, or he’d never made the effort to understand, that I’m always looking for light.

     “Light is God,” I cried and clapped him hard on his bone-thin shoulder.

     “You know about light,” he admitted, looking at me with a sly grin on his pale emaciated face and nodding toward my cameras on the back seat. People like him, always involved with their metaphysical selves, find it hard to accept that others too experience similar emotions. I doubt if he believed I too had to deal with my interior self.

     I held my breath and grabbed the strap when he veered recklessly toward the chasm to our left. “Light is us,” I said excitedly and yanked the steering wheel to the right. “In its rays light carries to my cameras a universal power - condensed and zipped. That’s why I love black and white.”

    “It fertilizes the earth,” he murmured seraphically and nodded to the west as if he had to tell me the sunset was beautiful. “Venus will soon be over there. But wasn’t she born in the sea? You should know about that. If my shadow is my other I, then I am Light. Light like God, you say. Does that mean that I am God-like? Or, am I too God?”

     Govar was always talking about God and man and how we’re closely linked. He could go on for hours in that vein. Forever the dreamer, for him the dream was more important than its object. He liked to dress up his dreams, and line them with bright lights. Since I had finally accepted the difference between us, our relationship had found a certain balance that I thought of as a metaphysical equilibrium – he was so concerned with immortality and his search for fantasy that he couldn’t enjoy real life, while I was so busy living everyday life that I didn’t give one shit about immortality and anything I couldn’t photograph.  I had accepted that trips with him were always a search for the unexplainable, a series of as yet unloosed things that may well happen. And something usually did happen. But with Govar, you had to be alert. With him, doors opened and closed quickly; you had to be fast on your feet to step through in time. Often I tried to say esoteric but, I thought, rather silly things to make myself more interesting to him, which he usually saw through easily. The terms of our travel together had nonetheless somehow clarified - though he’s too philosophic for my photographer’s mind, he’s a great but curious travel companion. And besides, I somehow feel I’m destined to protect him from himself.

     “It’s a mystery, you know,” he said, a puzzled expression on his face. “Light and God, I mean. The finite and the infinite. I now see light like saber slashes. The Mexican gods first made light – then man. Man was light but the gods themselves stayed in the shadows and looked at their creation in their smoking mirrors, only occasionally descending among men….Uh, Thomas Wolfe by the way is just up there.” He pointed toward a knoll to our right. “And many of his maligned Ashevillians too. O’Henry is right behind him.” He’d told me that on each visit to the town, he came here to give his regards to Tom and Billy. That’s how he calls them.

    He slowed and stared at me. I stared back. His look said I was arrogant as most Italians. That I was irreverent like most Tuscans. He lifted his hand for a moment as if he would like to backhand me. Instead he continued fixing me in his crazy hallucinated way.

     “You must have Arab blood in your veins,” he said, suddenly disconcerted, and slammed on the brakes.

     I started, and then grinned at his moody distraction. I still didn’t know if his absentmindedness was real or simulated. In that moment a shadow swept over us. We both looked up. A mass of stone hung over us.

     “When I was a boy the men called the forests of birches and beeches and red oaks of these parts, ‘orchards,’” he said. I preferred his telling me facts like that about the region, about things that really happened, rather than hallucinating. He often said I had too little imagination. Too often he preferred preaching to me about his obsessions of his sacred self. Or, he might change tactics and try to transform the past into implausible Edens. Disillusion, I had decided, always hovered above him, threatening like death.

    “Looks like the Coliseum during restoration,” I said. “Where’ve you brought me? To Stonehenge?” It was a fantastic vision, all the stones piled one atop the other. As he said, it was a veritable orchard. An orchard of stone. He was always so poetic.

     “Solid stone,” I said, just to tease him. “You can trust it. Unlike fickle wood.

     “Stone, stone, stone! Just because you’re Italian! Italians don’t understand wood…. It looks like an apparition to me too. It’s because night will soon fall. Or because of the shadows.  So much stone in this wood country of mountains and meadowlands is confusing. It’s like you’re a pilot aiming for La Guardia and landing in Guam.”

    I reached for a camera. I myself, the photographer, believed that a photograph was anyway an optical illusion. I was convinced there was always something hidden inside a photograph as in the reflected image in a mirror. That’s what I was looking for, the hidden part. The orchard of menhirs and dolmens stared obliviously toward the west, straight into the sinking sun. Sparkles of light from the inflamed horizon reflected off golden specks in their stone.

     “Cromlech!” Govar suddenly exclaimed. “They were never here before. People don’t comment on them. Only by chance a free-lance reporter of the Citizen-Times photographed them one evening and mailed the black and white to a girl from here living in my building in Manhattan. I wonder why people haven’t noted the stone orchard. They wouldn’t even publish the photograph in the newspaper! ‘Who cares?’ the local news editor said.”

     “Chiaroscuro,” I said and looked at him triumphantly, as if debunking our whole mission. “People see what they’re looking for. I’m a Tuscan. I should know. They don’t believe it’s here. It’s an illusion! Or maybe kids or shepherds playing a trick piled up the stones. Maybe the truth will come out in the photos!”

     “Shepherds!” he exclaimed, an offended look on his face, and stopped the car on the white gravel road on the bank of the muddy river. “There’re no sheep here. Nor lambs either!” He grinned an impish grin and again pushed a strand of his long dark hair out of his eyes.

     “You know, this was Cherokee country. And the word Cherokee means ‘cavemen.’ They were sedentary, had a capital town, and a legal system – natural communists, they were, communal land and all that. But we massacred most of them. My best friend in school here was an Indian. John Rainwater was his name. It was all smoke and mirrors with him….”

     I thought the name “rainwater” was delicate, softer-sounding than Anglo-Saxon names. It had just the right visual aspect. A quality you could touch. But I didn’t say that.

     After a moment of staring at the sun, he whispered “Tezcatlipoca!”

     “Tez… what?” Here we go again, I thought.

     “The Aztec god of the Here and Now, as one Aztec specialist called him. He was ubiquitous and as ungraspable as the night wind. And as fickle as a colibri. Tezcatlipoca would come to earth wreathed in smiles, then wreck havoc left and right, and then roar with laughter. He was an evil powerful clown.”

    To avoid Govar’s irritating absent expression, I kept aiming my camera up and down the hill and unnecessarily adjusting the light meter. And he kept on talking, I don’t know to who.

     “Tezcatlipoca! Means Smoking Mirror. An obsidian mirror. Their mirrors were sacred. His name fascinates me. It reminds me of Rainwater. The thing about Rainwater was that for him - well, more for his father - the sacred could erupt at any time into their human world. I think that was the subconscious of the Cherokee nation speaking.… Of course their cousins, the Olmecs and the Aztecs, were the same way.”

     “Also the Greeks and Etruscans,” I said and stepped out onto the road with my camera. With the sinking sun at our backs we kept looking upwards at the orchard of stone.

     “The thing about my stupid shadow is that it is dependent on me,” Govar said, kicking at the shadows on the gravel. “It hangs onto me. Then I, as light, can enter my shadow when I please. "Cristopher," he said excitedly, "aren’t you comforted that light and dark involve the spirit as much as the eye?”

     I didn’t answer and snapped a few random shots straight up at the stone orchard.

     “You speak of pinpointing the tiny figures inside the cosmos of your photographs,” Govar insisted. “What are they, those tiny figures?”

     “How can I know?” I lowered the camera and gazed into his dilated eyes. “Most of them are still invisible but any good photographer will tell you that they are there. They’re always there. In every single photograph. We just don’t see them with the naked eye. Tiny, imperceptible things, jumping around and dancing … and maybe signaling to me.”

     “But why can’t we see them?” He smiled at me and patted my arm as if pleased that I was thinking like him. “Scratch an Italian and anthroposophy leaps out,” he added.

     “Aha! Aha! Now that’s the question. We can’t see them because they’re in the impenetrable shadows. Little gods, you might call them. They used to say that we see only as through a glass, darkly. That’s what it’s all about, photography.”

     “Real reality is somewhere else,” Govar said, that unworldly look again in his eyes, bizarre and mystical. He was always looking for the arcane. He was one of those who believe you can wrap your arms firmly around a tree and capture its energy. 

     “No, it’s there in the glass,” I tried to explain. “In the refracted light. Like double refraction produces two distinct images, I think I need multiple refractions. It’s all reflected through the lenses. There is nowhere else.”

     For a moment he looked at me with a puzzled expression in his eyes, before turning to the river.

     We stood by the muddy water and scrutinized the illuminated western horizon. In the distance, the barking of a dog. An agitated canoe passed as if headed for rapids. “Look!” Govar exclaimed. He spread his arms toward the west in a royal gesture as if offering me the river and the mountains and the meadowlands beyond. As if regarding the Lord of the River. Then he raised one hand over his eyes like a visor to block the blinding light.

     “At night, under the clair de lune,” he said, “we used to vault the wall and come here to romp and dance – entrechats and caprioles to defy the light of day…. It’s all smoke and mirrors, our vision,” he said, his arms now akimbo, a momentary look of intolerable bliss on his face. “You have to look with stars in your eyes. Through the zigzag lightning. And pierce the glass, darkly.”

     “When you look at yourself in a mirror, what do you hope to see?” I ventured.

     “My self,” he said. “My unfettered self. But it’s no joy. Maybe it’s hell.”

     “No worry,” I said in Tuscan, “we go to Hades just to take a piss.” In reality I feared his words were a trap to delve again into the metaphysical. “Besides,” I said to trap him in turn, “did you know that in a reflection in a good mirror you see at most 95% of reality - of the original. It’s like looking at colors in a chromatrope, you don’t know which ones you miss. ”

     “Where is the rest, then, do you think?”

     “That’s what I want to know. That’s what I look for in every photo, the other 5%. That’s maybe the secret of life, my curious friend.” I started to mention parallel worlds, but thought better of it.

   Govar grinned. I knew he’d never been so pleased with me. We walked a few meters along the grassy riverbank. There were several fruit trees. Some had glossy limbs glimmering in the now orange sun. I imagined there were black water snakes entangled tenderly and crucially intimate in the mud in the underbrush. A photograph might reveal a tribe of grasshoppers camouflaged in the deep grass. Or even a chameleon on a little green branch. That hidden world would be the phantarealistic photo I strove for.

     We rounded a bush and stopped short in front of a small boat tied at the end of a short mole. An old man in a straw hat was sitting in the boat reading an orange colored newspaper. He put down the paper and said, “Git in!”

     We sat down facing the west. Still as stone Govar clamped his hands on each side of the narrow boat. I sat behind him. The old man put wide dark glasses over his eyeglasses and, his back to the other shore, rowed methodically across the river against a strong downstream current, skillfully dodging rocks and shallows. No other boats were in sight.

     “What’s your name?” Govar asked the old man.

     “Chris.”

     “So’s his,” Govar said, nodding over his shoulder at me. I thought he was about to tell him the origin of my name he had studied at length. According to the fifth century legend, Govar told me, Reprobo lived on the banks of a river and helped people across. Once a child asked him to carry him across the river to the other side. He put the boy on his shoulders and walked into the water. The farther he walked, the heavier the child became. When on the other side he asked the child about the phenomenon, the boy said he was Jesus Christ, the creator of the world. From that moment Reprobo took the name Cristoforo, the carrier of Christ, and later became Saint Christopher, the protector of voyagers. And through the centuries the masters have painted the image of the saint with the boy on his shoulders. Thus my name was immortalized.

     “When I was a boy there were no boats on this old river,” Govar was saying dreamily. “Not since the Indians, my father said.”

     The old man nodded as if in concurrence. “It’s over there,” he said, pointing over his shoulder toward a commercial area on the other bank a short distance downstream.

     “What? What’s over there?” I asked, turning and aiming my camera back toward the knoll and the stone orchard we were abandoning. It was already beginning to resemble just a mass of trees and rocks.

     “They form a perfect enneagon …up on the hill,” the old man said.

     “What?” I said.

     “The dolmens. They form a perfect nine-sided figure.”

     Govar grinned. “Charon here sees them too,” he whispered to me.

     “I meant on the other side,” I said. “Why are we going there?”

     “The exhibition,” my homonym said. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”

     “I don’t know.” Govar looked speculatively back at me still busy snapping black and white, shadow and light, and hoping for the right image. I couldn’t have cared less why we were crossing the Styx. I smiled into my camera and kept my thoughts to myself. I hoped for secrets in the photos.

     When I turned back to the west the river was inflamed. Cars and trucks raced along the riverside freeway on the other side. On the high grasslands across the river cattle grazed under the dark silhouettes of a barn superimposed on the red sky. High above the barn, above the cattle, white fences zigzagged through the shadows on the slopes. To the northwest man seemed to have let nature go its own way. To the southwest blinked weakly in the fading sunrays blue and orange neon signs of a mammoth shopping center.

     “The Swannanoa River, you can hear it,” a mesmerized Govar whispered as if not to disturb it, and trailed a hand just under the surface of the muddy water. “Did you know that the Maya conception of the beginning of all things was aural? First, there was a murmurous hush which gradually defined itself into the rippling of water and shifting winds, then sounds of tiny insects, and the sounds of the world separated and came into being.”

     “That’s beautiful,” I said. “That’s what I believe too.”   

     Charon looked at him curiously. “You from here?” he asked.

 

     “Just follow the railroad,” Charon called out behind us as we stepped out of the boat onto an identical wooden mole. “It will carry you straight to the exhibition.”

     When we reached the rocky terrain of the western shore, Govar slapped a few times at his neck, looked around like an expatriate, and said:

     “Thank God, my shoes are dry anyway.”

      “For Christ’s sake, what do you care?” His fastidiousness was disconcerting. He could worry and whine over a mosquito or a fly for hours on end, forgetting all his preoccupations about the paranormal and immortality. Incredible, I thought, how shallow our supposedly deep thoughts are.

     Jumping from one nearly black crosstie to another, over charred weeds, dried stalks, rusted beer cans, jagged broken bottles, and assorted junk, we moved south along the railroad long since abandoned to the ugly side of nature. The parking areas around the shopping center looked like Shea Stadium on a late summer Saturday afternoon. Light was fading. The sun had vanished behind the hills to the west. We could have been in limbo.

     “Where’re we going?” I asked. Not that I cared much but at that point I seemed to have very little new material in my camera.

     “How should I know?” Govar said in his irritating way, as if none of this concerned him. “Charon said we were naturally going to the exhibition.”

     “Only Christ Carrier Christopher knows what that means,” I said, examining the suddenly darkening skies. I shrugged and looked at Govar counting the old crossties and involuntarily began trying to avoid stepping on those inexplicably painted white.

     Darkness itself was now creeping down from the hills behind. Drawing near the shopping area the first thing we saw was the blue light of the vertical neon sign: CARAVAGGIO.

     I raised my camera and captured it. “Caravaggio!” I said. “You knew all the time!”

     Govar grinned malevolently. “Probably a bunch of cheap prints,” he said.

     Situated between a pizza parlor and a GAP store, the street front of the art gallery was less than ten meters wide. In the pizzeria, a lone pizzaiolo flipped over a pizza with a long-handled paddle. There was no one at the plastic tables. A young man with long black hair wearing a white shirt and black tie stood inside GAP, his legs spread, his arms akimbo, and looked out at us blankly. The blue neon that nearly reached the sidewalk cast a cobalt illumination into the glass door of the gallery entrance. We pressed our faces against the windows and peered inside. It looked like a cavern. In the back, spotlights from the ceiling illuminated pictures on the walls. We saw no one.

     Govar pushed hard at the door, which opened with a bang. We stepped inside and closed the door behind us and waited for the echo of the tingling of the bell to stop. We heard something in the rear of the long corridor-like space – the screech of a chair scraping tile floor, music, and an unidentifiable human sound.

     “Now what the fuck was that,” I said, trying to crush any overtones of awe or reverence in my voice.

     “Sh-h-h!” Govar warned, suddenly tense. “There’s something back there.”

     “Something?” I said loudly and raised my camera and snapped at random several times toward the darkened rear and the illuminated pictures and the scraping sound and the operatic music. If there was anything there, I had it in my camera. I stopped when we heard the first cackling sound – “he-he-he-he.”

     Govar stepped into the light and began looking at the first pictures hanging on limewashed walls, moving from the one to the other, leaning forward to identify them. I followed on his heels. They were huge and glossy, with the names of the printers written across the bottom. The music seemed louder. I felt as if we were both drunk and looked around for the other people.

     “Just as I suspected,” Govar said, a strange note of curiosity in his voice. “Cheap prints! Not even good reproductions.”

     I didn’t bother to photograph them. We turned at the rustling of a chair or table and a soft laughing emerging from the darkness in the rear and a soprano voice singing.

     “Mozart!” Govar said, as if enchanted.

     The pictures in the center were excellent reproductions, copyrighted by the Museo Capodimonte, Napoli. I stepped back and photographed San Francesco che riceve le stigmate and Amor vincitore. Curious, I thought, to find them here in the Blue Ridge. Dolmens? Caravaggio?

     All of a sudden spotlights blazed across the back part of the gallery and the laughing soared. An old man with long gray hair was sitting on a hardback chair at a small table on which lay an orange newspaper. Unseeing he looked toward us and his laughter became louder and louder. The trilling and tralling soprano insisted.

     Le Nozze di Figaro,” Govar said. He spread his legs as if for balance and followed the spotlight leaping erratically around the room, pointing the way first to one painting, then another. “Just as I suspected,” he repeated enigmatically over the uproar. “Charon was right.”

     “Charon? Right?” I shouted.

     “These are authentic.”

     I shot Ecce Homo and Flagellazione. In the moment I clicked I noticed a black mandolin hanging from a hook between the two paintings. Total unleashed madness! The soprano voice vibrated, rose and fell, and trilled and warbled, the violins rushed crazily ahead, the laughter rose louder and louder, hysterical, unstoppable, eternal, at times as if in accompaniment of Mozart, at times its false notes flying off alone on mad solitary flights. Elegant perfection, delicate delights - and madness. 

     I turned and found Govar leaning toward the inscription of a cabaret scene. “The Concert,” he said into my ear. “From the Metropolitan Museum…. Look at his light! It illuminated Europe.”

     Now doubled over in laughter, both hands on his stomach, the old man looked up at us looking at the paintings and looking at him, threw back his head, and hiccuped through laughter and tears:

     “Out! Please get out now, and leave me to my laughter.”

     I got a clean frontal shot of him just as he looked out at us from behind his mad tears, and I wondered what other mysteries I had captured in my camera.

      “Like the gods he needs his solitude,” Govar said in his most otherworldly manner. “He wants to be alone to laugh things away.”

      He took me by the arm and led me back to the door. The laughter rising and falling in our ears, we stepped out of the suddenly darkened gallery into the saber slashes of lights along the street front.

                     

 

©2002 Gaither Stewart

Gaither Stewart is an American journalist who lives in Rome and now dedicates his writing life to fiction. His articles and fiction have appeared in many international publications. Two of his e-books are available from Southern Cross Review. See E-book Library Email: gaitherstewart@libero.it