The Church of Sound

Poet and translator, W. S. MERWINwas born in New York City in 1927, graduated from Princeton, and worked as a tutor in France, Portugal, and Majorca from 1949 to 1951. His first book of poems, A MASK FOR JANUS, was published in 1952; his most recent volume, THE MOVING TARGET,appeared last year.

A Story by W. S. Merwin

IT WAS always late when they were together. He started as soon as he could, in the same clothes in spite of the heat, but whenever he was crossing the dry upland the sun was already going down. The black inherited coat was of some use, he realized, saving his arms and shoulders from the needles of the juniper thickets while he went on as fast as he could over the thin red ground among white rocks. But in the afternoon heat the sleeves and what was left of the lining and the flaps of ironed serge were oppressive. If anything, the coat was too big for him, but at every movement it stuck to him for an instant like a thumb counting money, and it had its own breath, He would never be naked enough. At the thought of her lying with her head on his body, the dark hair drifting across him, the musky skin over her collarbone, the thighs within reach, and the softness of the palms of her hands just inside the base of her thumb, he was stricken as often before with the knowledge that no nudity would ever be enough when he was with her. His skin itself would be in the way, and no laying bare would ever entirely banish from between them the tragedy of garments. He would lie in the dusk watching her, and hear feathers in the shadows, and think that no way of touching her was complete enough, which was why time continued and would separate them again. There were no paths over the upland. If there were birds, they kept to the shade. Locusts shot up in front of him and whirred aside. In some places he ran. As he crossed a stream bed the sun was going down.

One time they had stood in the dusk by the stream, further along the bank where the trees were taller and there was grass. They were still naked. The warm night was ahead of them. As they watched the glassy water he described to her its devious journeys before it reached them — the underground pools, the connecting chambers in the limestone, the little ferns flickering up where a crevice let in the sunlight. When he had turned to look at her, she had vanished.

But on the upland itself it was hard to imagine the flowing of water, a season that was not summer, or a time of day that was not rocked with heat and lit by the descending sun. It was through colors of leather and bone that he went to find her, to be with her before dark and be able to see her.

He had even pled with her, he remembered, as they had stood by the stream. He had wanted her to understand the descent of the water. He had begged her to see that it had come to them from places that had nothing to do with them, and that it could not be otherwise. He had described them carefully. She never argued. She fell silent. And when he had turned to her, realizing that he had failed to persuade her and had raised a ghost between them, she had gone, and his eyes had been dazzled as though he had been staring at the sun, and what he had seen was a dark organ loft and the back of an organ at which a figure was seated with its head slumped forward into the keyboard but its hands still playing. Then already he had known what it would be like to come to the bank of the same stream, on his way to her, when the rains had begun.

He would have grown certain by then that she would be there every time and that nothing would change, and one afternoon as he crossed the upland the red would have gone from everything and it would be turning cold. When he came to the bank, the water would have risen to the foot of the yellow ledge, a sinewy gray current. He would jump down but find that it was already too deep, and that he had no choice but to snatch at a root and heave himself out again and beat his way further along the stream, looking for shallows, wondering whether she would really be there at such a season, and whether he would be able to explain to her. The banks would grow no gentler, and the stream would broaden as he went. The ledge, as he made his way along it, would become steeper and smoother, until it was as regular as the wall of a canal. And by then it would be too late to turn back.

HE at the table on the sidewalk retracing in his mind the anguish on the bank, trying once again to isolate the exact moment at which he had lost hope, so that he could be sure whether he had had any choice. There was scarcely any traffic on the avenue. The few other marble tables were empty, as were the other chairs at his own. The bright table umbrellas were folded after a long warm day. The sun was going down.

In front of the closed real estate agency next door three or four little girls were practicing walking on stilts. He watched them out of the corner of his eye. They were showing off, and their voices were pitched high and shrill to attract attention. They took turns trying to outdo each other, teetering out into the brick avenue on their stilts, doing handstands and acrobatics. They did them well. Their bodies looked as light as the curtains blowing out of the upper windows. Behind him in the restaurant the meal was being served.

The black serge coat was good for sitting in at such times. It had its own history and reminded him silently of parts of it. He had never paid much attention to its fit, and it would not have occurred to him, once he had worn it a few times, that it might have been a bit narrower here or a bit more rounded there in order to comply with some general view of the way a coat should be shaped to a person. It fitted him in its own way, rather loosely, which was an advantage in many situations. It was somewhat longer than most coats you saw around, if you happened to notice, though the evening was too warm and there were too few passersby to provide much immediate comparison. Plainly, it had been made for someone taller. And its cut was rather more formal than his circumstances usually warranted, but it made up for occasional clumsiness with an overall copiousness and convenience. The lapels could be turned up high and buttoned across the front, and the pockets were deep and solidly made.

Two of the little girls were able to dance on their stilts. For a few seconds they could sway in time with some slow popular tune they kept humming, and when the rhythm broke and their weight caught them again, the others would prop themselves against a wall or a parked car to laugh. The building tops were brilliant, and the red flush was deepening in the avenue. In the restaurant behind him the lights were already on, phosphorescent at that hour.

He was on the point of leaving and had stood up to go when out of the door behind him came a woman whom he did not at first recognize, but who approached him and greeted him like a dear friend while he tried ineptly to remember where he had met her, at what gathering or on what conveyance, and whose wife she was. It seemed clear at once that she was foreign, and he was able to discover that she was French, but her English was unfailing and impeccable. A prettily got-up woman in early middle age, looking younger, but when she had been younger surely she would have looked utterly different. Her prettiness would have been of another variety. No doubt there would have been a hazy frailty to her then, however deceptive, whereas now she affected a casually ironic good sense to clothe her intelligent but overwrought ambitions. She referred continually to her years spent in this city as a student, and presumably she had acquired at that time not only her command of the language but also some of the brittle unease that marked the women of the place. And still she seemed to regard it from the viewpoint of an exploring foreigner, and was as proud of her acquaintance with the metropolis as though she were still at school. She was explaining. She had already eaten, she informed him, displaying her adjustment to the odd meal hours of this country. Her yellow coat with the fur collar was scarcely what would have been expected on that block at that hour, but site went on explaining. It was a favorite haunt of hers, she said. She had been there with some name he did not catch, but she had never managed to get her husband to eat there, and he was to have met her there this evening; they had planned to go on to some function or other after they had eaten. But her husband had telephoned the restaurant to say that he must fly to Paris for a week on government business and must catch the next plane. The children were in the country. She began to put forth alternating plans for the evening, asking his opinion of them.

The little girls on stilts were clattering against the tables. As he began to think of excuses she remembered that she had had no coffee and that she would like some, and she sat down and asked him to join her.

She was talking about her maid, who was Spanish and who would have left a large cold meal in the kitchen of the apartment, to which he was welcome. He wondered what she thought she wanted. He could not believe that she was moved by physical desire. He imagined that she was made of enamel, ranged forever on a clean shelf in the middle distance, talking. He was too shabby for her to want to be seen with, and surely she must have remarked that he was a poor listener. He wondered whether after all there were parts of her curiosity, her restlessness, or her vanity which she had managed to conceal. She wanted her coffee. He looked for a waiter. He turned and slowly sat down.

As he settled into the chair a gray coat brushed against him and a head of loose dark hair turned back to gaze at him with eyes full of confusion and distress. It was to that face that he had made his way over the uplands. And now it turned from him again and was going, and a thin figure was receding up the avenue. He pushed back the wire-legged chair, to get to his feet, to go after her. The girls on stilts were swaying among the tables and got in his way. He could not risk knocking them down and being delayed. And the cultivated woman who wanted coffee stood up and asked him why and went on talking and came with him a few steps as he made his way out among the chairs and tables. He had tried to keep the dark hair and gray coat in sight, but he had lost them among the stilts and the folded umbrellas. He thought he had seen the coat turn the corner, but when he reached the place, he could not recognize it in the straggling crowd on the cross street flooded with the light of the setting sun. He turned the way he thought he had seen her go, and hurried into the light. It was pointless to run. He would be more likely to miss her that way. He could not see clearly very far ahead with the sun in his eyes.

As he went on as cautiously and as quickly as he could, like a comb with one tooth, through the growing numbers of pedestrians, he was aware that what he was doing was familiar. For one thing, it resembled his flailing along the bank of the torrent. The thought made him sweat, but the anguish itself, as he realized, meant that the true despair was gone; it was over, or it had not yet begun. But he kept uncovering another familiarity as he went. He could not place it. It was no mere reminder of similar circumstances at some time in the past. And yet it was specific enough so that before he had taken many steps he could tell how they would lead him on and on through the same slow crowd, under the cinema marquees translucent with sunlight, and would bring him out, finally, on a ridge looking across an empty expanse, gray and white, marked with patches of rubble and glittering sheets of what appeared to be water in the distance, where the sun. no longer red, was going down. As a beetle, he would bow to its yellow disk, his eyes dazzled by it and by the pallor of the bare landscape. He could see how, as he bowed, his closed eyes would be filled again with the organ loft and the back of the organ at which two figures sat playing. He could see himself bowing like a beetle, and the pallid wastes in front of him, and the colorless plate going down out of the sky taking the light with it, and he could see himself twice at the organ, once as he was, and once smaller, in white, leaning over as though to turn the pages for the other whose long lingers continued to move in the empty keyboard. And when his eyes opened again, between him and the sun and him and the earth her face would rise, inquiring.