Fragments Before the Fall
The Literary Review (Summer, 1971)
I WALK a tightrope between two mountain tops over the Valley of the Waters of Fire. The waters are rising and all too soon the flames will disengage the embracing strands of fiber which hold me up, casting me to my fate below — incineration. I stand very still. To move would be to lose my balance and become cinder too soon.
I RECOGNIZE the voice: "Mummy, can I take this magazine to school? It has a story in it that is full of symbols, and Mr. Walker just loves symbols."
YOU, my friend, have not believed me from the beginning. But you say you do. And that makes you a phony.
THE MOUNTAIN from which I come is called the Mountain of the Sun. There I lived for many years, happy in my employment as an Accountant, happy with my wife Rose and with our two children, Fred (the boy) and Sally (the girl). My specialty in Accounting was figures. I added them, subtracted them and strung them in long columns in ledger books. It was as a result of such figuring, especially the adding of figures (and the figuring of adding), that I decided to begin the journey to the Mountain of the Moon across the valley. Whence the present.
IF YOU must think of me as a character in a work of fiction, I wish you would stop reading immediately. Ditto if you think of yourself as a reader of anything but the most literal truth.
WE, of course, had knowledge of the Mountain of the Moon. On clear days we could see it. Although I personally knew no one who had been across the valley, my analyst claimed to have a number of patients who had made the journey. They returned insane. In this context my analyst's reasons for discouraging my own journey become clear enough. Yet the figures pointed the way, and I obeyed them. My respect for mathematics, I must admit, is greater than my respect for psychology. As disciplines, you understand. As disciplines.
I MUST rest now. I'm allowed as much from time to time. Five minutes should do it. Keep your eyes fixed here.
(WELL, if you're reading this before the five minutes are up, then I simply cannot trust you. Please stop reading. Call me what you like, but stop).
THE HARD PART was telling Rose. Although she is an attractive women, she had an adolescent complexion problem the camouflage of which gave her the habit of putting the flesh of her face behind a measurable thickness of powder, upon which she then could draw eyebrows, eyes, nose, lips and facial shadows in an attempt to pass herself off as being real. I anticipated Rose's anger upon hearing of my plans, and when she is angry her face cracks like putty or, in cases of rage, shatters like pottery. In either instance I do not enjoy witnessing what occurs. It rather would be like watching Van Gogh cut off his ear. Watching self-inflicted pain and so on. I mean, no one had to cut off Van Gogh's ear for him. He did it himself. And Rose powders her own face.
IF AT this very moment you took out a match and burned this page, do you think I would turn to cinder? But I know I shall become cinder. Though not quite yet. And under different circumstances.
ON HANDS and knees we picked up the pieces of her face and talked.
"I could make a joke and say, Because it is there."
"Is that why?"
"No. No, it is because the figures lead there. Because the net profit totals $131,515.14, which is 13-15-15-14, which is M-O-O-N if the letters of the alphabet are counted in order."
"That's no reason."
"It is the reason."
ROSE FAVORED my hospitalization, my analyst favored hospitalization but the children were against it and they won.
IT IS difficult to breathe, only to breathe. Breath is the movement of the lungs, the movement of the lungs is the movement of the body, whence the swaying, the slipping of rope underfoot, and the ensuing fall to the flames below, which consume.
ONE NEEDS special equipment for the journey. Special shoes. Special food. Special ability to keep one's balance and to sleep on one's feet. Soon I could use special heat-resistant fabrics with which to insulate my smoldering body but they neglected to tell me this while there still was time.
THE PROBLEM, which my analyst claims is mine and not his, is that I do not relate to reality. Hence my fabrications, as he calls them. Hence the situation I presently find myself in, which is called a story by readers I do not trust.
WHEN I am immobile, my mind wanders. And my present situation, I suppose, is the final immobility, the immobility before the fall. It is appropriate, under the circumstances, to think of a parting gesture, something to suit the occasion. A valedictorian for every class.
I TOLD my analyst, Nothing relates to anything that doesn't relate to anything that doesn't relate to something. In other words, reality doesn't relate to me.
I HAD a big sendoff the day I set out. Rose and the children waved, my analyst looked glum, and strangers gathered the way they are prone to when they discover a man sitting atop a flagpole or a young woman standing on a window ledge. When I reached the tightrope, I stepped forward uneasily. The sudden cheers behind me were so deafening that I bolted, almost managing to tumble to an end before I had begun. But farther along the way the noise no longer bothered me, and for some time now I haven't been able to hear it at all. The conditioning of an athlete, it's been called.
IF YOU still are with me, then there is hope. Trust me and keep the faith.
IT WAS late on my second day on the rope when I discovered the Valley of the Waters of Fire. Of course, we already had our own name for it, the Valley of Green Pastures, for from the Mountain of the Sun the view below is pastoral, heavenly. But midway across the valley, at the first point at which it becomes more economical to continue ahead than to return, the scene below changes. Greens become reds, and the cooling pastures of heaven become the very blast furnaces of hell. For the first time the volcanoes are visible, erupting like simultaneous wars and filling the valley with the molten rage destined to consume me.
MY POINT is that it is impolite to laugh. You could have stopped reading or, if you insisted on going on, have given me the benefit of the doubt. But you shouldn't have laughed. (To hell with your point).
I RATHER expected the television cameras to appear. Rescue, of course, was out of the question from the beginning but I confess I expected more interest in my journey than what I've received, which recently has become no interest at all. They cheer no longer. There are no cameras. There are no witnesses except yourself, which is why I am taking you so seriously.
ONE BEGINS to long for the good old days. The pre-perspiration days, as I am tempted to call them now. The office in which I worked was cool, modernly air-conditioned. On the Mountain of the Sun it frequently gets very hot but in my office it was pleasant and cool. Not so cool at home, however, and Rose often complained. I am beginning to understand what she was getting at.
HOW LONG can you hold your breath? Not until I am finished, I'll wager. I, on the other hand, have been holding my breath for several hours. The motivation is considerable, of course. That's how my analyst would put it. But I'd just say I'm damn good at holding my breath and let it go at that.
WHAT to do?
THERE IS a lot of propaganda on the market claiming that to die is easy. You'll find it in churches, in literature, on television, in ledger books, everywhere. Don't believe any of it, my friend.
DOES ROSE miss me or does she have a lover already?
IN TIME one gets impatient for the end. The mind can play its games only for so long before it, too, begins to get bored. Hence the more frequent changes of subject. Everything is a manifestation of the search for the appropriate parting gesture. Everyone wants to be valedictorian. I see that clearly enough now. (Now that it's too late and I sweat, wait, wonder if skin pops as it burns and if burning flesh can hear itself).
AND ONE gets angry. Somehow you seem to be involved in my predicament. The ones who stopped reading earlier, too, play their part. I get the impression that there are cameras here after all, only the cameras are hidden or mounted with super-lenses capable of focusing on me from the Mountain of the Sun. And are there spies on the Mountain of the Moon, too?
YOU'LL get yours.
I HAVE gone out of my way to surprise my analyst. I can admit that now. When he prompted me to admit I hated my mother, I said I loved her. When he suggested a carnal attraction to my daughter, I denied it. But when he concluded I must be sane, I gave him the works.
THERE IS, finally, at long last, nothing to do. I am done. Sshh.
AND YOU? You will follow. You must, for I have a parting gesture in mind but it depends on your following in order to make sense, and I give no value (absolutely none!) to gestures which do not make sense. You will follow and so I say, Welcome, my friend, Welcome to the Valley of the Waters of Fire, where you will be consumed. And sooner than you think, even as I will be consumed sooner than I think, since we all get tired of waiting and jump from the rope in the end. As we fall our hands trail over our heads, making the hand the last organ to go and the appropriate vehicle for whatever parting gesture can be mustered by flesh heated in agony. What do you think it will be, my friend? An erect middle finger? Perhaps you'll be surprised. I may give you the flat palm of my hand, raised horizontally to cushion your own fall, which so quickly follows mine. But hurry! For I am burning.