In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway writes about a writer feeling that his time has passed, even as he’s dying on a cot in Africa watching the buzzards gathering, drawn by the smell of his gangrenous leg. He’s angry and bitter that he’s going to die, and muses about all the things he’s never going to write, the things he’d saved up to write about until he knew more. And now, when he finally had resigned himself to the last, biggest and most awful thing there is for any of us to know, he never would. He felt a failure.
Knowing how Hemingway ended by blowing his own brains out, in a black dog despair that had chased him his whole life, the story wasn’t surprising.
But it did get the man’s mind turning. He was old, too, a writer between books and living alone. The difference between him and Papa, he thought, was that he didn’t think his life was over. Oh, and he wasn’t famous.
He had lost his wife of many decades and had grieved that loss for four years. Still did, at times, and thought he might always have some business to face at times. You don’t forget a major part of your life, nor, he realized, should you even try.
There was more to it, though. There were things of his own, and about her that he hadn’t written yet. He’d put them off, not confident he was ready, or didn’t know enough. Or didn’t want to feel that loss of control again. And there were some things that were too private, just between the two of them, and would never see the light of day by his hand. Just out of respect.
But how long to be alone? Having someone else in the house, even the sweetest breath of femininity in the world, was a potential fatal distraction from this. Maybe he’d be strong enough to work and have a woman floating nearby and sharing her energy fields someday, someone who wasn’t jealous of the Muse. It was a pleasant thought. And he had recently met someone who showed every sign of being partner in crime, and also lover and protector of his Muse.
Re-reading “Snows of Kilimanjaro” led him to think about the past again, though. His long walk with death brought back a family memory, something that happened 22 years before his birth. An echo that hadn’t quite died away, like a gunshot bouncing down a canyon made of years. Something that had become part of his story, too.
Now in his mind he saw a barren, stubble-covered farm field in the mid-afternoon of November 16 in 1929. Wooden fence posts made from a roughly split hickory wood, grey with age and lined with deep fissures from years of snow, rain and wind. A wire fence stapled to them, sagging in spots. Tall brown grass running along it, good nesting spots for rabbits and field mice. A couple hunting with a nephew not yet 8, everyone excited to be out in the country, after lunch, the boy thrilled to be on one of his first hunts. A festive mood.
The aunt, married to the brother of the boy’s mother, carries a small bore .410 shotgun.
A rabbit bolts from cover in the tall grass. His aunt fires, realizing too late that the little boy, who turned seven in June, runs after the rabbit, darting into the frame of her vision from the side, toward her.
The blast takes the boy in the chest. He’s close to it, and his little body takes the full force. He dies almost immediately. The echo bounces off nearby woods and the uncle can only make a guttural sound. He throws his shotgun to the side and kneels, scooping the boy in his arms. His wife cannot move, drops the gun and screams and falls to her knees.
This is her sister-in-law’s boy she’s killed. The two would never speak as sisters again.
The uncle, cradling the limp body, walks back toward the house and meets one of the boy’s other brothers, who yells for someone to call the doctor.
The older brother scoops up the little body from his uncle’s useless arms, tells another brother who’s running up the hill,. to go get Dad. Dad has heard the scream and the yelling and somehow knows.
“Is it one of my boys?” he asks.
The doctor comes to the house, where the body has been lain on the sofa. The whole family had gathered there after Thanksgiving. It was the room where they’d opened presents the Christmas before. His mother sits on the floor beside him, sobbing, holding his cold, tiny hand. Time of death listed on the official certificate as 3:03 p.m. It is ruled a hunting accident.
The uncle and aunt stay outside, by their car. She’s still crying; his cheeks are wet and his face is grim. Everything has changed. Everything. The doctor has talked with them, for the facts, for the death certificate, for the official record. They don’t know what to do. After a time, they realize they’re not welcome, and drive away, never to return.
The man’s mind returned to the present, to why he was still satisfied to be alone after his own encounter with Death brushing too near.
He had hugged the pain and grief of the loss tight, determined to be honest about it all, to squeeze every bit of meaning from it, rather than hiding from it. He sensed hiding from it would only drag things out. But it still took a long time. And he learned the truth of the old Zen saying, “you can’t push the river.” The heart lives by it’s own rhythms.
Then there were the memories that flooded back, his sophomore year in college.
Most of it was just a blur, a kind of background mural scrolling behind his eyes. The roommates in the old farmhouse they rented from old man Harper near the campus his second year. Two beefy lumps from farms 60 miles north. Likable enough, but already rough shaped into the men they’d become. Aggressive. Stupid. Cunning. Cruel. Aimless. The kind the Army likes. Midwestern farm boys make good killers. I wonder if they ever ended up in Vietnam. I doubt they’d have handled it well, if they survived at all. The place wasn’t at all like the black and white simplicity their world had told them should be.
There was the English guy, wry and sardonic and worldly, who seemed to be able to sleep with any woman who wandered through the vicinity. The black guy, a musician like the Brit, guarded and cagey. Played the drums in the impromptu sessions he, the Brit and a couple of others played in the living room.
But all of that was a blur, really. Children lurching into adulthood, propelled to do something, anything, experimenting, encouraged to recklessness by others like them, strangers, really. Some who were already circling some dark whirlpools in their lives, drugs and drunken binges providing the lubricants. It was the late 60’s, man, that shit was in the very air, the water. A ride down the rapids in leaky boats with no oars, no way to stop, no way, it seemed, to get off, even if you wanted to. A blur, even as some went off to war and came back hollow-eyed, shattered, addicted; some flung themselves onto the rocks along the faster stretches with more, and harder, drugs. Some simply disappeared. He wondered what happened to them, but not for long. It was too common a story. Oh, an there were the ones who took the paths into things like Scientology and were swallowed up, too; or the Jesus people; or the HariKrishna cults. Just more drugs, but they thought it was different.
A blur. He stayed on the fringes, mesmerized, wanting to belong, but instinctively knowing there were monsters feeding on the innocent there, too.
What mattered, though, was the girl he met at a party. One of his roommates invited him and his best friend from high school, who also lived in the farmhouse-cum-bachelor den. The roommate, who they didn’t know, knew two girls who had an apartment in town with some other girls. Come to the party, he said. So they did. Simple as that.
It turned out to be the most important accident in his life. He just pretended he made plans.
This time was one of the good ones.
The girls’ place was on the second floor of what had been a mansion 60 or 70 years before. High ceilings, solid wood doors, hardwood floors, big windows. But run down and battered and turned into ghetto housing for college students. A cash cow for the landlord, a sour man in his late 50s, early 60s (which meant he was probably born before WWI), who didn’t like the 60s college crowd all that much and limited interactions to collecting rent and lecturing them about keeping the stairs to the attic clear. Fire code, he said. To the kids, though, it didn’t matter. It was a place to party and gather. He was of an age, or older than most of their parents and they were a little afraid of him.
His memory of when he first saw her lasted the rest of his life, even after she had been dead for a while and he’d met other women, loved one or two. It was that old cliche´. A lightening bolt hit him and welded him to that moment in time. She was pretty, sure, but then most girls are pretty at that age. Prime time in the mating game. But she just had something extra. A natural grace and dignity? He didn’t have words for it. He just remembered the corduroy man’s shirt she wore, sleeves rolled up. And the curve of a swan-like neck rising out of the collar. She was circulating with a tray of snacks and took no notice of him, playing hostess. She was, he found out, already attached to a guy who wasn’t there that night.
He instantly hated that guy. Implacably.
But she didn’t notice him. For the first time in his life he had no doubts about something. He loved her, instantly, totally. He knew only that he must try, that with luck, he would have her. And he did, mostly happily, until she died 50 years later. She finally noticed him. And selected him. Became the mother of his children. For that alone, it would stand as the best decision he had made, who would be mother to his children.
That one night shaped the rest of his life. Accidentally. Just by showing up.
That kind of experience can trick us into thinking that things are more logical than they really are. “It was meant to be”. Well, maybe. But what if he’d had a cold that night, and missed all that followed? What if he’d seen her roommate (who was also a beauty), instead? Or someone else? We try to make sense of things in the rearview mirror, afraid to admit how much pure random chance shapes our lives. Lifetimes of accidents, disguised by our left-brain side, in retrospect, as intentions. Some are just accidents. Control and all things “Invictus” are illusions.
He had seen the world change. He felt it was his duty to write about it, but he hadn’t written about a lot of it, and now wondered if he ever would. He felt like a failure, or a coward, sometimes. He idolized bravery and courage, but so many times had not been brave at all, had taken the easy way, avoided too much risk. Maybe that’s what he should write about now. The moral consequences of choosing fear over courage. As if one person could have had much effect on a world that was changing. That was impossible, he knew. He watched, though, and observed, and as he got older he trusted his own judgement less, and had more and more evidence that most people are fucking idiots half the time. Good and evil, in nearly equal parts. Anyone can be a saint and a monster, sometimes on the same day. Just like that Aunt a lifetime before.
But he’d always been a civilian. He had wondered if being in real life and death moments, on a battlefield, for instance, would have given him any more insight. What would he have done? Would he have faced the bull in the ring and stood despite the fears as the horns swept past his belly, a quarter- inch from ripping him open? That moment of testing when he would know he was a man and not a boy any longer. Or would he have run? Would he have done the thing he was afraid of, in spite of the fear? That was what real courage was. He hadn’t felt the nearness of death or bullets or bull’s horns, but he had had to make hard choices, afraid, miserable, full of doubt. But made the choices and only later found out how things turned out. That’s a kind of courage, isn’t it? The kind of thing that everyone has to face along the way? He thought it was. He’d know some people who’d seen combat, who’d killed people, who’d been shot in war, and not many of them bragged about it. Most were scarred and full of ghosts. Perhaps, he’d concluded, the banging of heroic drums to glorify war was just so much bullshit propaganda to get men, mainly, to agree to kill and be killed for others who operate from the balcony.
As for the rest, he’d had his eyes opened and saw how the world changed, and the people. The changes were subtle, sometimes visible only out of the corner of your eye, or others only after 30 years, like looking through an old photo album and seeing the funny hair and clothes and something that had changed about the eyes. It could be a shock, to see the person you were then, and it was then you saw how the world had changed, had changed you along with it.
He hadn’t written about that, but he still could. He didn’t have Hemingway’s love affair with despair. But like H., he knew his days were drawing shorter, so he’d better get busy. Perhaps it was possible to capture somethings. Maybe it was possible to telescope it down, “to get it into a single paragraph, if you got it right.”
It was with this kind of thought that his heart lightened, especially when the sun came up through the fir, when the sky was that incredible blue, the air washed clean and clear after days of rain in the boundary country between a continent and a vast ocean. This was a purpose, and it didn’t matter if he was alone, or if he lived to 85, like he’d seen in a dream once—or got hit by a speeding pickup truck later today. Shit happens. It’s all, mostly, random, which is God’s way of teaching our souls some humility. And we’ll keep going round on the great wheel until we learn the lessons, and escape beyond the suffering we create by believing things that aren’t true.
That was a worthy purpose, to be the chronicler of the passing circus. It was good to step outside sometimes and be washed by the vastness of the night heavens. Standing under the bright furnaces of Orion, and the Pleiades, and Jupiter and all the rest, it gave him a proper sense of his insignificance in the grand schemes of a universe that was vast beyond comprehension. But then it was good to step back inside and take up the pen again, and see the small, daily, deadly, lustful, loving, hateful antics of his kind, if only to feel significant again. (Poet: George Bilgere, “Stargazer”)