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Reflections

by on April 14, 2013

Reflections

Marco M. Pardi 1973

                A baby lay in its cradle, placed upon a sunlit terrace in the cool blue of the morning.  Gazing into the blue mist, seeing clouds as reference points among the hues, the child felt, without knowing, the rim of the cradle sun shade, the clouds, the hues of sky and deep sky as a plane upon which he existed; a point lying within what was at first glance, merely out there.  By turning his head he could see the crystalline shatter of the sun’s light coming through the black silk of the shade.  And in the same, but a different way, the hues, the intensity, which took meaning only by their relationship with all else.  And he knew his body as being.  He knew his being in the warmth of sun-drenched blankets and the cool shade of the deep, deep sky; the blackness which was the balance of the sun.  Too black to see, too bright to see, but holding him in the joined love and harmony of essence, of oneness.  And it was as it was for all things at that moment.

          Many moments… and a small boy in a military uniform ran and walked and ran down a long slope of thick green grass.  To his left was a line of tall trees.  The leaves intertwined to form a solid barrier to eyes that looked but did not see.  They waved and chattered in the gentle breeze of the sunlit afternoon.  In winter they stood mute and quivered in the thrill of the silent, cold, and white shrouded landscape.  The boy’s destination lay several hundred yards ahead.  It was a creek.  Not a special creek.  It twisted and bobbed up and down as creeks do.  It came from nowhere and went nowhere, as creeks are. 

          Every afternoon, unless the rain was so heavy that he was kept inside, the little boy, who was the youngest and smallest in the military academy, ran unhesitatingly from the asphalt playground outside the school building down the hill to the creek.  In winter he could dive onto his sled and streak through the crackling snow like a swallow swooping low over the tops of tall grass.  He never went to the creek; he always came back to it.  He sat in classrooms in the main building; he learned atop the rounded boulders in and around the creek.

          As he walked down the slope the squeaking swing chains, the banging of seesaws on asphalt, and the shouts of children living in games merged and faded behind him.  He watched the ground, the grass, the bugs, the trees, the sky.  Not looking for anything, just watching.  In the fall the creek was just beginning to show life.  Cooler weather and storms brought it forth.  The water gurgled and gushed by, seemingly enjoying itself, but without guilt.  As the days grew shorter the trees grew orange and brown and red.  Stronger winds carried leaves into the water and they spun by atop the waves and bubbles.  But there was something there.  There was an undefinable balance.  A celebration of the course of nature; the separation from the mother tree.  And the vague and murky concern for what is to happen.  Where will the leaves go?  It was the sour joy of being in time.

          As winter came quietly closer the leaves became fewer, and delicate layers of crystalline ice formed along the edges of the creek.  All nature slowly hushed as the vibrant greens, yellows, and reds evolved into browns, greys, and an increasingly large mantle of white.  A cold sun shone through the nude, brown patches in deep sleep.  The creek was covered by ice now, but it was there.  It was always there.  Now the bright colors of nature were to be seen by joyously diving into glistening snowdrifts until the melting snow dropped dozens of watery prisms from young eyelashes into eyes that could see.  And the biting cold was a friendly reminder, a lesson from nature, a hint of that which balances what we call life.  And without sorrow or joy.  With simple and open forthrightness for those who see.  There was unspeakable excitement in courting the cold.  In wondering where one would go, and what one would be.  Winter froze life in the tracks left in the snow and gradually shifted those tracks until they were gone.

          And then the snow lost its strength.  It sagged and dripped before an oncoming sun.  The world of white was growing increasingly brown with living mud.  The creek was running now with melted snow.  This was where the snow went.  This was what it was then.  And soon the last of the ice would give way to the gushing, roaring tumult of life bursting forth in the creek, in the trees, in the air itself.  The muffled presence of winter was overcome by songbirds, insects and gushing water.  One could almost hear the sap bubbling through the trees and bursting out as leaves bright and green and joyous.  The rites of Spring were being celebrated all around.

          One day, while running to the creek, Tonio felt the tree line calling.  His footsteps slowly waivered, then definitely followed him to the base of a particular tree.  There was something to be known there.  As he drew closer he became aware that, as if in slow motion, he was at once looking at a cat and gliding down into a relaxed sitting position by the cat.  The cat was too relaxed.  It lay on its side; legs and neck outstretched as if in sleep.  Its face was almost tucked into the crook of a gnarled root from the great tree which was hovering over its students.  Ribs showed through the fluffed fur.  Fur that had been cared for by the winds and rain.  Milky, sagging eyes gazed out beyond the root and into the deepening hues of the blue sky.  Fleeting images.  The earth and blue.  Clouds and a root.  There were no sounds within the boy.  A sky, a tree, a cat, a boy were wordlessly one.  No joy, no sorrow.  In being.  And there was a gurgling from the creek.

          Toward the end of the school year the late spring rains meant spending recess in the gym.  While others played “battle ball” or some such game, Tonio caressed, and reluctantly threw a basketball at one of the baskets in the far corner of the gym.  The ball had been a Christmas gift from his family.  Faces were hard to remember, but he could always recall the voice that he heard on an occasional Friday afternoon telephone call.  He knew they were far away.  The ball was there though.  He was reluctant to throw it at the basket; it felt good in his arms.

          Suddenly the ball was wrenched from him and as he turned he saw a much older boy dancing and grinning, taunting him with the ball.  Tonio stood transfixed with shock which quickly turned to horror.  This older boy had led the others in dancing around him and taunting him by singing the song, “Baby Face.”  He was the bully who would punch boys in the stomach or kick them during close order drills.  The old Army captain never saw him do it.  He often saw a boy bent over or kicking back and gave the bully’s victim an additional thrashing.  The deepest despair became strongest resolution to destroy the monster.  The young boy was only two steps from the rack in which the wooden practice rifles were kept.  In a move undefined by time he perceived the back of the older boy as he had turned to run.  The young boy knew that his arms were bringing a rifle, stock first, in full swing toward the fleeting back.  In an instant the rifle crashed against the older boy.  The force sent half a broken rifle skittering across the gym floor, and the large boy slamming to his face.  The ball was no longer in sight, no longer in mind.  The barrel end disappeared from the young boy’s hands, and, as quickly, a new rifle appeared.  Again his body knew itself in full swing as the butt end of the rifle went streaking through a high arc over his head.  As the older boy rolled over on his back, blood streaming from his nose, a second rifle butt smashed into the gym floor where his head had been.  The older boy was showered with splinters from a second broken rifle.  Hands grasped and arms clenched Tonio until, in his rage, his captors held only his body.  he could not see through his tears, he could not hear through his sobs; he was totally alone.

          The next morning, in that same gym, the student body was mustered in full military formation.  A dusty looking old captain stood stiffly in front of the cadets and read off the charges against the young boy.  There had been no hearing.  A kindly nun had sat with him a while during the night.  But this was the day of infamy.  As the captain droned on, the boy watched the sun filter through the metal grates over the gym windows.  For the first time he saw in them another meaning.  Then he heard the command to “Front and Center.”  Having so intensely seen himself as front and center up until then, he had no idea why it took so many steps to get there.  He gazed at the silver bars on the captain’s coat as the older man solemnly pronounced him stripped of his rank and confined to the dormitories.  He watched quietly as scissors clipped away his one black stripe from each arm of the gray uniform.  They fell onto the gym floor.  And were barely visible any longer.  The captain ordered him dismissed from the assembled corps to begin his confinement.  As he marched through the companies of faceless boys he knew he should be sorry, he should feel badly.  But his arms were actually lighter.  In singling him out as a failure, the captain had freed him from this nameless mass.  He had an identity.  The voice on the phone changed after that.  It was never the same.  But the bubbling creek knew.  And it laughed with him in wordless love.  The young boy felt old.  He felt trapped in a little body but aware of so much more than even the bigger bodies were aware of.  He wondered what he was to become. 

          Many moments later… and a young man in a camouflage fatigue uniform walked slowly along a trail between rows of ammunition bunkers.  He had volunteered for assignment to a secret army installation in Central Africa.  During the time when Sub-Saharan African nations were gaining independence dozens of factions roamed the countryside in power struggles for control of the emerging governments.  United Nations “peace keepers” were sent into the more troublesome areas.  One of these was the Belgian Congo.

          The main base was on the coast of North Africa, situated where the right hand of the Sahara touched the Mediterranean Sea.  A few miles to the east of Tripoli, it was a perfect setting for an old Burt Lancaster film.  Tripoli was an unofficially divided city.  Separated by a high wall, the original city wall, were the Old City and the New City.  The New City was built mainly during Italian and British occupation.  The blend of these cultures was reflected in the architecture and the racing traffic; the honking donkeys and Fiats.  In the Old City no streets were wide enough for cars.  Traffic was almost exclusively pedestrian, except for an occasional donkey or Moto Guzzi motorcycle.  Here the streets were named for the occupations of the shopkeepers who filled them with the din of their workmanship and the excitement of their bartering.  Although one had to be extremely careful to avert one’s eyes from occasional “Fatimas,” or Moslem women, one could always expect to be sincerely engaged in friendly greetings and small talk with shopkeepers who spent much of their time in the cool of the shaded streets.  In marked contrast to the New City, the people of the Old City dressed exclusively in the traditional robes.  An outsider was immediately obvious, even in the near total darkness, by the profile of his clothing.  The Old City was “off limits” to all American and British personnel after dark.  Too many G.I.’s mistakenly believed their dollars could buy them anything.  Their bodies floated mutely about the harbour in the early mornings. 

          The young man squatted to the side of the trail, eyes sweeping the horizon for silhouettes, ears straining for unusual noises, or unusual stillness.  While he waited in the blackness for the other three strike team members to catch up to him he thought of the many nights he had spent wandering the Old City alone.  He had no fear of being caught by the Town Patrol.  Being in Special Security was something of a stigma.  The rest of the base personnel knew who these men were by their camouflage uniforms and the distinctive hardware on their web belts.  The young man had noticed that people on base always gave him and the others more room on the sidewalk than they needed.  And it was hard to get more than a passing glance out of fellow pedestrians.  He often wanted to stop someone on the street and ask them why.

          He heard his team long before they saw them.  As usual, they were gossiping about all the other men in the unit.  Assignment to particular teams varied.  But one thing didn’t; each group cut hell of everyone not on it, all night long.  Although a team leader, Tonio’s strong dislike for the gossip drove him to take point alone rather than assign someone the dangerous job.  The others seemed to think he was just “gung-ho.”  He used to wonder what they said about him, but he long since ceased to care.  Whether in the jungle or on the desert he loved the chance to wander quietly and blend with the night environment.  But the trails were terrible risky.  On a moonlight night one could see, or be seen, clearly for several hundred yards.  The ammunition bunkers themselves made perfect ambush sites.  To lessen the risk of blowing themselves up and increase the chances of hitting their targets, the teams carried short barrel twelve gauge shotguns.  As team leader, the young man didn’t bother with one; he carried a .45 automatic and case knife instead.

          As the others drew closer, he let out his characteristic whistle before stepping out on the path.  They were only about 100 yards from a large ammo bunker which had been restocked earlier that week.  Stacked all about the place were empty Conex boxes; five foot steel cubes with hinged doors.  On rainy nights the teams would often sit it out in the boxes.  The attitude generally was that if anyone wanted the ammo badly enough to come for it in the rain, they could have it.  Unfortunately, the noise of a rainstorm on one of these boxes could get so extreme that every tribe in Africa could walk up at once without being heard.  If one were careful, he got soaked.

          The team moved slowly as they approached the bunker.  Conversation dropped to curt business commands as maliciousness gave way to caution.  Carelessly slung shotguns came up at the ready a few paces from the boxes as silent hand signals from the team leader dispersed the group into the bunker.  The sounds of feet, clothing, and breathing grew fainter as the shadows slipped among the stacks of ammunition.

          Suddenly, a shout and a shotgun blast triggered an insane symphony of roaring guns and voices.  In one movement Tonio dove on his face and pulled out his pistol.  But a smashing force landed flat atop him and began to scramble all over him.  In a convulsive jerk he spun over on his back only to feel a hammer-like object slam into his right forehead.  As if in a dream, he recalled prep school and Van Gogh.  He almost laughed as the urgency of the moment brought his now empty hands up to protect himself and to grab at anything that he could.  Crouched atop him, and poised for another blow, was a large torso.  In a single effort he pushed up with his hands and snapped up his knee.  As a groan and slight weakening of the torso encouraged him, he grabbed for its neck.  His fingers clamped on and his thumbs interlocked over cartilage.  Only then, when two steel hands clamped his wrists, did he realize his opponent was also unarmed.  He thought of his knife but it lay under him.  And now those hands were clawing his face, searching for his throat.  He pushed away and clamped tighter, his legs scrambling in the dirt like a giant lizard thrown on its back.  There was no time.  There were no sounds other than the gasping, grating, gurgling of two men locked in struggle.  The young man was adrift on a sea of green, in a field, some trees, the sky.  His hands, the sounds, the dripping and spitting saliva falling in his eyes, now falling from his mouth.  His gasping turned to sobbing, his arms and hands moved automatically as his thumbs crushed into a broken throat and his hands slammed a lifeless head against hard, parched ground.  His tears hid the torso he now sat astride.  He did not comprehend that its chest heaved only from the force he gave it.  And still he slammed the head with a dull thudding sound. 

          Arms closed around him.  Friendly hands took his hands and carefully unlocked them.  He fell against two chests and sobbed as a feeling of nausea grew stronger within him.  His whole body trembled violently as he felt his hands and arms grow filthy.  His tears became a screen upon which played images of a bloody boy lying face up on a gym floor.  And a clean, cool creek whose holy water would wash away his sins, his memories, the blood no one could see.  He cried, for there was no creek. 

          Many years later, by someone’s count, an old man walked slowly through a field.  There was no sign of human life in any direction.  He had left his car where a dirt road ended several miles away.  Behind him, through the years, he had left a trail of humanity:  a wife, a daughter, a son, their mates, two grandchildren.  To each he had felt a singular kind of closeness.  He was always amused by the cultural rules and plans for appropriate closeness in relationships.  During twenty-five years of teaching college students about humanity he often wondered why he spent time answering questions they would have never cared to ask.

          As he slowly wandered through the knee-high grass he remembered the night his daughter was born.  He remembered the bittersweet feeling of being, as the doctor told him he was the father of a little girl.  She lay peacefully in her hospital crib, unmistakably “his,” but not even dimly aware of how alone she was.

          Many nights he would slip into her room to watch her sleep, to listen to her precious breath.  As she grew older and came to know him he agonized over his intense desire to clutch her to him, to protect her; but he knew he must make her confident in her aloneness as well.  He sometimes wished he did not know so much about personality development; he was always figuring out what was best to do, and finding that things worked out anyway.

          Over the years his wife had come to understand and accept his strange ways; above all, his intense need to be alone.  At first she thought this was rejection of her.  Perhaps another woman.  But after a time she came to know, if not understand, that the “other woman” was a quest for wholeness, a holy grail, a journey which could only be traveled alone.  In fact, she saw him quickly develop the ability to be very appealing to crowds of students and colleagues, but close only to a handful.  Even in that closeness, he was to everyone, alone.  Not unkindly so.  Just alone.  Sometimes the fact that he saw this ultimate principle in everyone else was disturbing to people.  There are certain unpleasantries in life that go untalked about. 

          The bright spring sun warmed his sinewy muscles and joints.  Now that his wife had fully realized the quest there was no more demand in her.  She was happy when they were together, but not at all threatened when they were apart.  His children loved him in the same way.  He would be with them as long as they were alive.  The grandchildren were very young yet.  Like the new growth on the trees and the flowers venturing trust in the fidelity of the sun.  They too would stand on their own some day.

          The old man was glad for the sun.  He remembered nights when he was left alone in the house.  His wife and children would visit relatives while he stayed to work on lectures and papers.  On those nights, over the years, he had never been able to sleep completely until he saw the grey of dawn in the room.  He had never quite shaken a deep rooted, vague uneasiness in sleeping alone at night.  On a rational level he knew that having his wife and children in the house was of no help in an emergency.  But this dread had long since sunk beneath the clear water of reason.

          A little tired and sleepy from walking, he allowed himself to be drawn down a gentle slope in the land.  In a sudden moment of joy he realized he was just not surprised to find himself heading toward a gurgling creek.  Stopping at the bank, he sat down on ground still moist with spring rains.  He watched the industrious crayfish and impetuous minnows for a while until the afternoon sun caressed his face into a serenity it had not known for dozens of years.  He slowly lay back, using an exposed tree root as his pillow, and closed his eyes.  A gentle breeze sprinkled him with drops of shade from the tree as the blue sky glowed orange through his eyelids.  The creek whispered to him of many things, for now he knew.  And he never had to fear darkness again.

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17 Comments
  1. Dana permalink

    Marco, I’m happy you’ve shared this piece. Very few things I have read move me the way “Reflections” does. Words cannot adequately describe the profound effect it had upon me the first time I read it, and I had to stop many times for all of the tears. It is, and will likely forever remain, my best-loved and appreciated short story.

    Thank you for giving others a window into this personal and timeless world.

  2. Thank you, Dana. And thank you for your work in transcribing it for me. Knowing you as I do makes your comments so much more meaningful to me. Marco

  3. Enlightening. Especially the first paragraph and the sentence of ” By turning his head he could see the crystalline shatter of the sun’s light coming through the black silk of the shade.” as I have seen that myself but would have never thought to describe it as such. Maybe this is because I hate paperwork 🙂

  4. Glad you enjoyed it, PM. I’ve always found it easy to “goof” on something many people would not notice.

  5. My Journey Out of Darkness permalink

    Wow! This is so beautiful and moving! I am at a loss for words! I can relate to the need to be alone.

    • Thank you, MJ. I’m glad you enjoyed them, and hope you were able to fit Zep Tepi in as a chapter. Marco

      • My Journey Out of Darkness permalink

        I shared it but I think I said it is a companion piece.

  6. My Journey Out of Darkness permalink

    Reblogged this on Ethereal Beings In My Life and commented:
    This is so moving and so beautiful that I just had to share it on my blog site!

  7. No problem. It’s titled as a chapter in Reflections

  8. Quite a moving piece, Marco. I felt a mixture of emotions while reading this; some violent and painful, others peaceful and blissful.

    Interesting choice of narraring it in the third person but I guess it’s fitting and serves the story well. That last paragraph where you approach the creek reminds me a lot of Siddhartha and “The River” chapter (by Herman Hesse), which you’re probably aware of.

    A lot of evocative points sprinkled here and there which do indeed produce a myriad of reflections.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thank you, PSY. Your analysis, and reactions, make the effort worthwhile. I collected and read everything written by Hesse. Undoubtedly formative in some of my perspectives on life.

  9. Psy, it brings me deep satisfaction to know this beloved story reached you in a meaningful way. My eyes begin filling with tears the moment I begin reading it. It is impossible for me to describe how I feel, and I have read it many times.

    Thank you for sharing your experience as well. I hope it continues to touch readers.

    Dana

    • Thank you, Dana. You are sorely missed.

      • Marco, thank you. Given the incredible minds that meet here, I sometimes feel I have very little to contribute. I’m happy you are still writing, and perhaps we will one day hear more about Tonio.

      • Thank you, Dana. As you know, Tonio had a dark life. We’ll see if more can be brought to light.

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