Only the Watchman

Credit: Serge Brunier (2008)


Scene: rooftop at night. There stands the Watchman, looking east.


Beyond the horizon, a wooden horse is mantled in flame, and a baby, beautiful as a star, tumbles through space.


“Will this never end?” he asks. He means the watching.


No answer from the gods. No answer from the darkness.


Beneath his feet, the palace sleeps. Around it sleeps the city. In the countryside, farmers and their wives are sleeping. Their oxen sleep, their sheep and goats, too. All the trees are sleeping, and in them sleep birds. Hill and dale, river and bay: fast asleep. The fragrant air itself is drowsy with sleep. Only the Watchman is awake. He and the vigilant stars, those cold fires in heaven. Each night, in perfect silence, they describe their perfect arcs, and in their fairy light, the Watchman is a shadow in a dream.


Across the sea, a headless corpse lies upon the shore, a body without a name. Seeds of fire swirl and drift across a great plain. Women, in their terror, clutch at a mute icon and pray for a swift death.


Loneliness, he thinks, is a death-in-life. A motionless vortex. Once when he was a child, he woke from sleep into a seeming paralysis. He willed his arms and legs to move. For a moment, until they answered, his mind was trapped in its own body. He rose and went straight to his mother. She held him as he breathed in her familiar unfamiliar smell. Heart thudding, eyes shut tight, he saw stars like glowing embers. They flared into life, danced, faded. “Shh, shh,” she said, stroking his hair.


At the foot of the palace wall grows an ancient olive tree. From above, its leafy crown is the purest black. Starlight pours into it and disappears forever, leaving no trace. It’s the mouth of a cave, he imagines, a branching cavern of countless rooms. In every room is a memory. Every memory is both true and false. Discern the truth and pass into the next room. Prefer the lie and pass into the next room. It doesn’t matter. Each memory is the god of its own underground chamber, and you are just a tendril of mist, floating through the labyrinth.


The chill on the rooftop deepens. It’s the hour of night when he straddles yesterday and tomorrow, past and future. In these moments, he sees the membrane thinning almost into nothingness, the impassable barrier, that is, between him and Everything Else (even himself). Always, pity rises in him. He feels tender toward the doomed world. “Lovely, lovely,” he thinks, those terraced fields clinging to the hillside. Beautiful, those trembling hands as the girl ties back her hair. Unforgettable, those unnoticed acts of individual courage — one person’s “I refuse” in the face of ravening despair.


Four seasons. Four seasons have wheeled round since he first climbed to the roof, sent here by a woman who thinks like a man. “Watch,” the queen said. And so. Short naps on his arms like a dog. Fear of discovery flapping its soft wings against his face. Doubt. Time passing and passing and passing like a shuttle drawing a sable thread through a warp of solid black. And more than once, tears. Tears for what once was and can never be again.


In any case, a watchman must watch. Some night soon, he hopes and he dreads, will offer up that bonfire on the horizon, signaling that they have done what they sailed away to do: to end history, and to begin it.



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