Robert Walser Goes on a Walk, Herisau Sanitorium,
Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Switzerland, Christmas Morning, 1956
Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Switzerland, Christmas Morning, 1956
As always I set out with eyes unclouded, so that the world may offer itself. A walk is a plotless story in which I seek comfort and delight. To you, indeed to all, I may present a bad impression, heedless and negligent, devoid of achievement or evidence of worthwhile labor. I can only assure you of my close attention and devotion to the infinitesimal, so dense with responsibility I sink often into the almost metaphorical ground. Rich vagabond I am, possessed of golden teaching, private complaints abandoned with each step.
On the path ahead a woman waits for me, within embracing branches. The shadows that enfold her antique shawl suggest a faded majesty. She has invited me to lunch. She wishes to stuff me with delicacies, to nurture me without obligation, which infuses my being with suspicion and terror. The invitation is longstanding. As I approach, she disappears. Similarly the charming book shop I come upon a few steps down the way evaporates the moment I step in, the monkey wearing hat and gloves plays peek-a-boo, and the soldiers passing on a train are immolated by the distance.
I have lived in rooms where I could not close my eyes at night for fear.
The magpie who each morning steals crumbs from my Franzbrötchen flits from branch to branch at my back. He is a haughty fellow, of transcendent self-importance. I have nothing in my pockets to answer his hopes.
When I have fallen in love, it has always been because of music I never cease hearing. Yes I can love anything at all. Yes I can grieve anything at all. Yes something hurts but not there, or there, or anywhere anyone can find and treat. One strives to keep one’s gaze upon the practical, the paying of the rent, the accumulation of useful, trade-worthy goods, and then one fails. Meanwhile the world makes much of itself. The scene before me is convinced of its infallibility, its precipices so seductive and so proud, its trees upstanding, its hares and foxes all-knowing, its river of doubt magnetic, its flowers awaiting their moment in all virtue, its paths leading deep into pretentious mystery. I arm myself with good qualities against its mockery, and move on.
But here the snow has gripped my heart. It wishes fellowship. It calls out to be engaged. How cozy it appears, like a fallen coat, offering to wrap within a single felicity all those who no longer dream to make something different of themselves. It can do no harm to rest here for a time while I perfect my silence.
Sir Francis Drake Claims the Pacific Coast of North America
for Elizabeth I, June 17, 1579
for Elizabeth I, June 17, 1579
Someone said the dead are coming home. Soon we were all repeating it, touching one another out of fear and joy to hide the words beneath our skins. We saw the vessel on the line of sky and water where the light from this world becomes the light of another and where the dead become invisible on the first part of their journey. It was no larger than the children of flies and coming in. The waves that day sang the hidden song we only hear when we stop listening.
We settled on the sand to wait and behind us the trees and grasses and the animals waited. With time the sun walked upward and the tiny thing became a boat the size of a hundred of ours, far too big to float but floating, with wings made of clouds. On its back the dead stood dressed in shining clothes. They descended into smaller boats and landed on the sand. At first we fell back into the trees but they had seen us and they called us to them in the language of the other world. The space between ourselves and the dead had seemed impossible, but now it had closed. For six nights they walked among us.
We searched their bodies and their ways for signs of those we had lost, but the transformations were complete. They were discolored and they smelled unclean. There was nothing left to recognize. What else could we expect? We gave them arrows, crows’ feathers, and the skins of fawns. They gave us strangely patterned clothing such as they wore but we were afraid of it. One of us put on a cap made from the hair of an animal we didn’t know, and he went mad.
They brought a dead shaman who gestured to us of the four directions. Some of us presented them our sickness and our injuries, and some were healed, though the healings didn’t last. Their chief held a talking stick and spoke to the gods. He left a board harder than our wood, harder than stone, marked with a story no one could understand, well above the place where waters reach.
When they made ready to leave us and return to their boat we wept and dug blood from our skins. We made fires on the hills for them to remember. We don’t know why they came or why they left again. We only know this world will never be the same.
The Next Life of the Duke of Bourbon, Grandes Écuries,
Château de Chantilly, January 27, 1741
Château de Chantilly, January 27, 1741
It was more thrilling than anything that had happened when he was a human. He waited twelve months in the womb of his dam, growing toward his moment. He emerged with the front hooves extended and the noble face following, as if he were flying. At first he thought he would not survive the terrible squeezing and the smothering impulse to breathe and all he saw ahead was a whitish blur. He was half-tugged, half-pushed onto a shore. The cold air struck him. Hands came in, attendants clearing off the filmy sack that covered him, peeling it from his nostrils and his eyes, shaking it off of their fingers. Someone said Bonjour in a soft, baby-talking voice. The first breath, the invocation, flowed in. Dust, fermented chlorophyll, a spoor of distance. They had turned him around, pulling him as he flew, and through a mist he watched the mountains of his dam revolving, drawing in and heaving out a gale. The first thing that came to focus was her sex, dilated and cardinal, a bit of hay stuck against it, a rolling topography of hay between them.
The attendants moved back to give him room and he struggled, stood upright an instant, stumbled, came up again, looked down on the range of his dam from a high peak. There was some applause and a whistle. Soon enough he had the trick of his long-limbed bearing. He walked a jagged circle, tried a stamp and then a kick which almost knocked him down. For a time the vast stables reared and pitched, but as they settled he could sense his power gathering.
He felt then the ghost lodged inside him.
By that night, in heavy sleep, time flowed through in swirling eddies, swamping the ghost until it abided on the floor of a deep lake inside, inaccessible but safe there. The Duke had walked, tall and stooped, not alive, into a cave, or it had swallowed him, and in the depths he first sensed the dark and roiling river with the noxious smell. He heard the barking of a pack of dogs and felt a light, the almost light of a night forest under clouds, soak him, make him shiver. He passed a tree with visions written on its leaves and reached a shore where a filthy, quarrelsome old man stood poling a long boat. A common crowd pressed in on him, that could not be seen. Had they treated him with deference, those invisible ones? Had he been Louis Henri, Duke of Bourbon, Prince of Condé, to them? A tour guide offered him a drink. He could choose one of the two pools there before him but could not have them both. He drank from the dark waters that caused him to forget. The option, the bright pool, would have caused remembering and resulted in omniscience. The Duke chose forgetting because omniscience seemed like too much trouble.
In daylight he gambols on the paddock, pampered and observed, remembering nothing.
The Buddha Vanishes, Big Stacy Park, Austin, Texas,
Various Seasons, 2016-2020
Various Seasons, 2016-2020
I owe a story to a yellow house concerning how its owners died just as they wished: together. I keep watch on the house from a bench above a creek. The plaque on the bench says In memory of Alton and Dorothea. Flowering trees have been planted and a stone altar with a Buddha placed on top has been erected near the creek bank.
The Buddha’s silence is ceramic at any moment it may break into more silence.
I find an obituary that says the honorees were high school sweethearts lifelong best friends lovers more passionate than their neighbors might expect of a silver-haired couple so intimate with time. It says they passed from this plane in a head-on. That their life quest was for truth and communion. In lieu of flowers donations are requested to establish a garden in a local park.
While strangers come and go at the estate sale a town of sparrows overtakes a fallen limb twittering their news pecking for position dominating and submitting. The birds stay like a restlessness can stay until the light leaps from the house tears over the trees and the hills. I walk as a ghost in the yellow house touch the china on their table stand beside the bed they sailed in buy one of their many books on theosophy. I fall in love with the lovers and their old-fashioned names take up my place on their bench watching their house for its story.
The Buddha watches emptiness. He is unemployed a beggar possibly crazy. He lives outside the law on public land against the principle that state and church are separate. No wonder he keeps getting arrested and removed.
The Buddha vanishes and within days returns in different forms this time corpulent and joyful as a cherub next time starved thin and dancing. It is clear from the way the rocks that support him hold themselves that he is present in his absence the same way that the creek bed when dry holds firm in a channel in love with flowing water.
The sky above the house is milky barbarous orchestral ocular a narrowing road a periscope. The sky makes a code of the light. The house goes bright dark bright.
Say the lovers are out for a drive to call on a sick friend. They are jolted from their bodies by a produce truck driven by a homesick immigrant from Macedonia drunk in his despair. They are briefly disoriented but their sympathies are with the immigrant and soon they join him in the ambulance and take up places by his gurney in the hospital. The man is only lightly injured—drunks never do get hurt the spirits hear a cop say—sleeps it off dreaming he is seated at the table back home in Prilep with a slice of his mother’s musaka in front of him. While one spirit lays hands on his head and the other touches his feet the immigrant bends to inhale the aroma of the food and then devours it. He will remember nothing of the accident nor of the dream.
Everything tells me this story will never survive if set free in the world. The world is made of stone and the story of feathers.
Say the spirits close their eyes hold tight to one another travel past the edge of things. Say their hopes are not false. It is nothing new for them to leave their bodies. They remember making love the times their bodies become branches from which they come and go.
Say they live outside our time. Say their time is made of memories and never stops.
Say they are given to enthusiasms. They board a Pullman sleeper and cross half the country to attend the national convention of The Theosophical Society in Hollywood. Inside the stately building at the corner of Primrose and Vista Del Mar the star-struck couple glimpses Mary Astor and Charlie Chaplin who look very much like other people except for the jittery twinkle that adheres to them and cannot be separated from their movements.
Long before their deaths the lovers make the great discovery of their lives which is themselves. By this they do not mean those fretting selves who converse with survival and traffic in all fears but the impassive Sentinel who travels with them in all times and places with no apparent interest other than to observe the changes thoughts and actions of all the selves they may manufacture with the serene indifference of a mirror.
Dorothea comes into a modest inheritance. She and Alton buy the pecan-shaded yellow house with bright white shutters across the street from a park. A particular delight is the daily feeding of the birds. There are many varieties of birds and several feeders stationed to provide the sustenance each species prefers but the favorite is the humble troop of sparrows who wait in the hedges loud with simple joy and social commerce as their feeder is reloaded in the yellow house and hung again where it may be observed. A communion develops with these sparrows in which the birds participate as a single organism one made of many that moves as time moves in all directions.
During a flirtation with the Jains the lovers consume only one-sensed beings and discuss the possibility that God may love beetles as much as little girls and boys. Say it does not matter if they live within another time or what we call ours or in serene indifference outside time entirely.
The Buddha is invisible. Restlessness stays in the water. The garden flowers and the petals fall away. The water carries on its narrow back a flock of yellow leaves. Paths come and go. All around the park the beetles make babies the bluejays eat the babies the souls are beasts hungry for another minute in this world.
The lovers see it coming the wobbling truck on the horizon or is it the Sentinel who sees.
I keep watch from my place on the bench. A new family lives in the house with small children who play in a swing. A bearded postman comes and goes in a safari hat. This may be as close as I will ever come to it and still the story is unbelievable for starters. A couple who never quarrels a dreaming Macedonian communing sparrows a magic figurine. The Buddha may simply have gone shopping.
But say the lovers now invisible are of our time exactly. Say they witness the earth sickening its waters throwing up plastic its air asthmatic its darkness troubled in its sleep and those who have squandered the earth electing thieves and fools to power. As the news grows worse the lovers become distressed about the changes in the light. The light of this time is neither brighter nor dimmer but mixed with some unknown ingredient an all-new blend emulsified upon the blades of an unthinkably vast machine and poured out on the world with a flat quality a hint of somber coloration they can’t describe to anyone no matter how they try. They wonder if the light is really different now or only different for them because they grow older and the time of their collision moves toward them. Sometimes in the new light the whole world looks artificial even their bodies tell them if they touched each other the skin would feel like fabric.
Soon others begin to notice the light congealed and heavy begin to hear sounds beneath the ordinary sounds of life mournful exhausted sounds that have traveled from far places and never sleep. The sounds suggest garbled or reshuffled voices speaking in code. Only those who turn voluntarily insensible can miss it.
Joseph Stalin Awaits the Confession of Nikolai Bukharin, Moscow, June 2, 1937
He couldn’t sleep until Bukharin had confessed. Anyway his legs hurt and kept him awake. He got up and pulled on the comfortable boots and paced around. He poured a glass of Kakheti and sat down in the chair and smoked. Then he was back on his feet. There were always documents to sign but he couldn’t hold still.
He knew there were sick jokes about the Great Purge laughed at them in private had anyone who told them shot in the street.
Finally he heard footsteps in the hall. The knock of a fly. He made the messenger quiver a little longer and knock again. He jerked the door open and grabbed the stack of paper. How many fucking pages did it take? But that was Bukharin. He had sent a long letter in December that began Dear Koba. Denied everything. Proclaimed his love and pleaded. Now he was guilty. The best ones took a while to break. The confessions might be so ruined with blood he had to hold them with his fingertips. But this one would run for a pen the first time they waved a strap at him or showed him a basin of water or rested a fist against his nose.
The messenger stood in the doorway needing to be told to go away. He threw the glass of Kakheti at the idiot and watched how far he jumped.
He settled in the chair and tried to read. The words curled and blew like ash in the wind. They only proved it’s possible to say something and not say it at the same time.
They all are told they and their families will be safe when they confess. None of them believe it anymore. Bukharin has begged to be poisoned in his cell where no one will see.
He dropped the pages on the floor and as they fell the right thing came to him. Bukharin would be shot with the others but would wait ‘til last. Sitting in a chair and watching.
Cabeza de Vaca in Texas, 1528-1533
The Province of Pánuco—a Governor, an army, churches and priests, abundant food, even books—was a story we repeated to ourselves. Spain was something imaginary nuns had taught us. One by one we died.
Most took the path from this world to the next wasting through hunger but some through drowning or attack and some through unrelenting weathers. The living dried the flesh of the dead and fed on it.
In the time on the coast we were enslaved, naked more than not. Twice a year we shed our skins like serpents. We bled from our feet, our hands, from every rupture that our labors gave us. We froze in winter and in summer we burned. The people who kept us were brutal not only to us but to their own. They beat us with sticks and shot arrows into our arms. They believed in dreams. Once, instructed by a dream, they killed three of our number. Some killed their own children and bought new children from others with such possessions as they had. Though we were among those possessions, our owners fared little better than we did. Injuries through wars on other groups were constant. All suffered the torment of great clouds of mosquitos. All went without food between feasts in those seasons when nature provided, walnuts in one time of the year and the pear of a cactus, vermillion and black in color, the size of a hen’s egg and of an agreeable flavor, in another. Rarely there were bits of fish or deer meat, but we did not share in these luxuries. The cattle, great wool-headed beasts with sharply arcing horns, were no more than legend as they ranged further inland, where these people could not go for fear of destruction by their enemies.
We implored the sand, the pathless sky, the creatures attendant only to their own survival, and faced a great disinterest. None could spare a thimble of concern to ease our suffering or to tease us with the smallest hopes. We were arrested on all sides by expanse of water, the ocean at our backs and broad rivers in our way. When opportunities arose we contrived to escape, though some were killed in the attempt, and others badly beaten. One who felt too weak to go and could not swim and feared the rivers stayed behind. We never heard from him again. We who made it through were taken up by other groups before we made much progress toward imagined safety in Pánuco.
Among these people our treatment gradually improved. Sometimes we were set to scrape and dress the skins of animals, and the meager scraps that came free from the hide sustained us for a day or two. When a piece of meat was given us we ate it raw. It was already winter, and we resolved to stay in this place until the weather better favored travel. As we waited the people shared their stories with us. They told of a man who lived in a fissure in the earth, one of small stature who wore a beard like ours, with indistinct features that were always changing. He would appear at the door of their houses in the night, carrying a blazing torch. Speaking of him made their bodies tremble and their hair stand on end. He would enter the dwelling and seize a person and give him three great gashes in the side with a very sharp flint, stick his hand into the wound and bring out the man’s entrails, cut off a piece from them and throw it in the fire. Then he would sever an arm. But his victims did not die. The man repaired the damage he had done by touching with his hands, and the wounds were healed that instant. We laughed at these stories. But then they brought us people the man had thus attacked, and showed us their scars in exactly the places they had described. We were afterward less easy in the night.
At length the seasons turned. One day, when the promise of the spring had come, fate surprised us and our fortunes changed.
Some of the people who held us fell ill with headaches and pains in their stomachs. One of them died. Their doctor had placed stones upon their bodies in the belief that stones had virtue, but the treatment did not effect a cure. They turned to us because we came from unknown places and might know better magic. Perhaps they thought of the bearded man with the torch when they looked upon us. We felt badly for them and wanted to do what we could. We blessed the sick and breathed upon them, even on the dead man, who later rose and spoke and ate hungrily. This caused great wonder and fear and the people spoke of nothing else. Whether through faith rewarded or accident as innocent as silence, the healing saved us.
We were soon provided great baskets of the cactus pears, and skins and bows and prized flint tools, more than we could eat or use. We traded some of these provisions to buy two dogs. People began to come from far away, seeking cures or just to see and touch us. We prayed that our healings would not fail, lest we be blamed for a death and suffer for it. But all whom we treated told us they left well. Some even believed that while we remained none of them could die. As word spread we were surrounded by a larger and yet larger entourage. By then the weather had opened itself to us, the beauty of the world was present, and after eating the dogs we felt strong enough to set out again on our quest. The people who had come to us followed and more joined along the way, speaking many different tongues. Our new preeminence thus afforded us safe passage as we ventured south in relative comfort, toward reunion with our own.
I think often now of a time that final winter. Food was scarce, and the people who held us had taken us along to forage a long way from their camp. When night fell I was separated from the group and became lost. I wandered for five days, cold and starving. I thought it was the end. But then in darkness I saw a great light in the distance and moved toward it with all the strength I had, fearing it might prove to be an apparition. Finally I came to the source of the light, a majestic tree engulfed in flame. I lay down beneath it and took from it the warmth it could provide. It was all that kept me alive. I swear I spoke my gratitude to it through the hours I was there, though now that may sound mad, and it gave me to understand that I would not die in that place but would live to see my countrymen again. The next day I came upon the people and they gave me food. A tree afire in wilderness! What sustaining power it gives to hold this in your mind as you traverse your darkest hours!
A Note On SourcesVarious Walser texts including The Walk, Jakob von Gunten, and Selected Stories, all translated by Christopher Middleton, and details of Walser’s life and death found, among other places, in Middleton’s introduction to Jakob von Gunten.
“Robert Walser Goes Out on a Walk”
“Robert Walser Goes Out on a Walk”
“Sir Francis Drake Claims the Pacific Coast of North America for Elizabeth I”Relies upon reports from the point of view of the Drake party in Francis Drake (Voyage of 1577-1580), compiled by Drake’s nephew and namesake from journals of the ship’s chaplain, Frances Fletcher, and others, published 1628.
“The Next Life of the Duke of Bourbon”Based on a legend repeated at the Grandes Écuries in Chantilly regarding the Duke’s wish to be reincarnated as a horse.
“The Buddha Vanishes”Draws on the repeated confiscation and reappearance of Buddha statues in a memorial garden located in a public park, the lives and deaths of a couple who lived across the street from the memorial, and the atmospherics of the Trump years.
“Joseph Stalin Awaits the Confession of Nikolai Bukharin”Informed by texts of Bukharin’s confessions and various accounts of the Moscow Purge Trials; by Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin, by Paul R. Gregory; and by Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread.
“Cabeza de Vaca in Texas”Draws on scenes and details reported as facts in The Narrative of Alvar Nuńez Cabeça de Vaca, edited by Frederick W. Hodge, in Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States 1528-1543, Texas State Historical Association, 1984.