Mark

Mark Saba

The Landscapes of Pater

excerpt

 

From deep in his grave under American industrial soil, feeling the clay and dirt penetrating his weathered Sardinian skin, Nicola looks up to the blanketed sky. It is the same sky. The same sky will bend forever over Sa Sardinna; the same sky will watch over him, over his son lying beside him, and over the son still living under his name.

But the sky that looked down on him as he passed his fruitful years in the new country has changed. His imaginings have changed; his expectations, and feelings about the future. Everything is now changed. Now he watches from inside the earth, the same earth. The same earth that lodged under his fingernails, the same mud that covered his boots on a winter dawn as he followed the path down, down, and found his mother’s hands already kneading dough; his father already gone to replace him in the hills. The earth has not changed. But the sky has.

The sky looks over his grandson, whom he has never met. It is a sky full of the breath of those who still live, a sky that Nicola himself has never breathed. A sky he will never know in the way he has known, and knows, the earth. The sky is full of the dreams of those who are living. These are the dreams he will never understand. And so he lies confused, dreaming the dreams of his past and the dreams of eternity, but never the dreams of his grandson.

In his dreams of the past, Nicola sees a grandson. He sees a thousand grandsons, each with a different face: a nose of his, a set of eyes, a forehead or head of hair like his. A grandson who is built like him, who laughs like him, gets angry like him. A grandson with his name. A grandson who will automatically like the same foods as he, walk like him, know the rules of living the way he does. It was a dream he’d had often.

And now there is a grandson, a grandson who is lost among the living, a grandson with a future as wide as time itself, one unencumbered by Nicola’s selfish expectations, but one who, he knows, feels lost without a past: Nicola’s past, and the past of all his fathers. For he is now lying in America, and they are lying halfway around the world. There is no one there to visit their graves. There are no great-grandsons to know their names. There is only a new sky now, and a peculiar time that belongs wholly to his unknown grandson, Nick. What will he do with it? What will he learn by it? Who will guide him and awaken in him the will that must be re-awakened with each new generation…

It was Bud’s idea that they should visit Nick before the weather turned cold. It was Ed’s idea that they should leave during Columbus Day weekend, and look at the blazing trees along the way. Bud was surprised at first that Ed should be interested in looking at the fall foliage. Then he was not surprised. He had only known Ed in the city, and forgotten that he had grown up in a smaller town in the mountains.

The trip brought other things to Bud’s mind, as Ed drove and their conversation had collapsed into silence.

What drew Bud to Nick? He had been gone for little more than a month, and already Bud was driving ten hours to see him. Ten hours driving with another friend of Nick’s who could offer a kind of friendship that Bud couldn’t: a friendship of youth, of a different kind of struggle than the kind Bud had grown accustomed to. Bud must play the mentor; a friend to Nick no less than Ed, but a mentor above all else. It was a role he’d played countless times before among his students, younger associates, and lately among fraternity members. It was a role he was not always comfortable playing. For the thing that drew him to the young was painful, a thing he had missed and could never regain—though he tried. The thing that drew him was youth itself.

 

Bud looked back on his youth as an aged housewife looks back on her high school days, wondering whether life would have been different if she hadn’t married so young, or if she’d studied, or had had a career. Bud looked back, when he allowed himself, and saw a melancholic, brooding young rebel who lived in nothing so much as the intellect, and its questions unanswered. He saw himself blistering through the crowd with a warm, secure feeling inside, a bulwark of logical philosophy against a random world.

It was his interest and eventual mastery of philosophy that provided his reason for being; and everything else—friendship, sexual attractions, frivolity, work, responsibility, love—passed first under the firm inspection of a logical order that was known only to him before they could become part of his life’s reality.

In those days Bud Harvey could mediate a family quarrel; he could eloquently explain the Ontological Argument of Saint Anselm, or hold an audience spellbound as he praised a colleague’s character. But he could not, and did not, understand what made the young familiar with moments of abandon, of unsettled emotion, of occasional recklessness that was not just intellectual. He did not look scornfully on the youth he was a part of; he simply looked around it, above it, or below it, but never to the center of it. In his aspirations to maturity he had forgotten his youth. He had let it dwindle away, and now it was like a distant, flickering light that could only be a dim reminder of things he had not known, of the youth he had missed.

Now, in middle age, Bud felt more keenly those questions that had been burning inside him since his early devotion to them. For now he was closer to his end, and remaining single had allowed him even more time to reflect on the answers, answers that had a new element of experience in them, a thing he had never sought, but which he had found himself one day possessing. And in trying again to answer the most important question (Why bother?) he felt he had at last come to a conclusion: Because without bothering there will be nothing.

It was this Nothing that must be avoided. Without bothering to live, to pursue an inkling of friendship, to know another body, to keep company all during the night as if you had just celebrated the last day; without bothering to try these things would surely result in a great, unpardonable Nothing that would usurp all memory and leave a dull, in­­de­cipherable plate as your only picture of the world. This Bud knew because he had had a glimpse of that plate. And now, in his late forties, he was out to extinguish, bury, or mummify it. He would rather paint a new picture of his world, a world that included the exultations of others, the reckless glory of others like him who must live out the answers and not just ponder them.

In place of the philosophy of his youth he would help teach others about the great Nothing that awaits them, a Nothing that they must slowly fill, drop by everlasting drop, with Something; a Nothing, then, that they would soon forget until the time it finally came for them, and they acknowledged it not, because they had beaten it back.

Bud gave to youth what it most needs: a mirror to the strength of their souls, and youth gave to Bud a second pass of their coveted cup.