ON A DARK NIGHT (Three Canticles )
by Richard Bankowsky

                                              You may think that in these Canticles there are
                                              some things which could have been said other-
                                              wise. Our dullness being what it is, I should not
                                              be surprised if you did: I have heard some people
                                              say that they actually tried not to listen to them.
                                                                                                 ST. TERESA OF AVILA



IN THE END THE FLESH WAS MADE WORD and the Professor tossed himself into the fire just as he might have any  other badly botched translation of the real thing.  For from the beginning the Professor had been a lover of words, a kind of thrall of philology who even asleep after a long hard night over his lexicons would go right on courting his lady logos in dreams, dreams that were always nothing but words, words appearing on no page, in no language he had ever seen or heard or could possibly ever have imagined, words palpable as heart beats and cryptic as breath--his own untranslatable discarnate self.

And so it was no wonder that sometimes, as though to offset the incorporeal cerebrations of his nights, he would catch himself during the day dreaming rather more voluptuously than he knew was good for a man his age, dreams which until that final year he had never even dared dream might come true--the drama student across the alley during his morning coffee at the pantry window, stretching in her night gown like Aphrodite rising from a sea of sleep; or the young apartment-house matrons wheeling their baby carriages down the ribbon of park along the river completely unaware of their Sabine abduction into his secret tower twelve stories above Riverside Drive; or the sun-tanned Diana in her white skirts on the tennis courts during his noon stroll; or the aproned Circe in her Broadway delicatessen drugging his dinner every evening so that just looking at her turned his thoughts swinish despite himself; or most often, the blond bespectacled Athena ensconced in the back row of his Culture of the Western World lectures every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening who unknowingly allowed herself to be conjured back to his scholar's tower high up in the clouds above Manhattan, where she graciously indulged him in his most enchanting fantasies-- fantasies begun at the drop of a hat or, as on the afternoon of his naturalization, a handkerchief.

He had awakened that morning at his worktable, his head in his arms and his pipe grown cold in his fist, and after a quick soaping and several strokes of the straight razor, and with nothing more than his usual cup of black coffee and pipe for breakfast, had hurried off downtown to the Bureau of Immigration Office, where in a kind of nightmare of mindlessness, his head stuffed with soggy bits of newspaper like a doll's and his stomach fluttering away inside him, he stumbled over questions as simple as naming the father of our country, and on the shuttle back across town with his final naturalization papers in his pocket--the train rocking and roaring away in the dark inside his head, and his jaws aching, and the flutterings in his stomach beginning to grip him like a hand--despite his plainly seeing his handkerchief come away clean every time he daubed it to his moustache, he could not put aside the feeling that his nose must be bleeding all down the front of his beard.

He was not at all concerned with the intestinal spasms or the papier-mache mindlessness; they were merely stations of a cross of overwork, as familiar to him as the local subway stops on his trip downtown. The imaginary nosebleed, however, was another matter entirely--an unsuspected and unfamiliar station flashing by the window of a mistakenly boarded express hurtling him non stop down to the end of the line. And so instead of simply changing trains at Columbus Circle, he stumbled up the ramp and through the turnstile and up the stairs into the street where the tower clock had just begun to strike the hour and the pigeons crooned above the traffic noises and spattered the drowned sailors adorning the fountain at the Circle entrance to the Park, and just stood there at the fountain edge looking up at himself through the cool clear water, his bloodless face drowned in an improbably blue sky, out of which, almost before he had time to turn around (as though there amid the wheeling of the doves above the drowned sailors, the world of his imagination and the real world--two worlds which had always seemed to him so very much more than just worlds apart--suddenly in some improbable transubstantiation had become one), a handkerchief was thrust upon him, a man's handkerchief very much like the one he had just finished stuffing back into his pocket, content that he was not really bleeding after all, and he found himself standing there holding it up to his nose like some humiliated schoolboy watching the prettiest girl in the class running off across the pavement, her heels clicking and the noon sun curving beautifully over the back of her stooping into a waiting taxi, and her words still there hanging in the air about him, "Why, you're bleeding, Professor, sir .Don't you know you're bleeding?"

On the fifty-seven-block walk back uptown to his flat--a concessionary gesture to the dying and rebellious old animal he was imprisoned in, for an afternoon away from his worktable walking in the air was probably all he needed to feel as good as new again, he told himself--he discovered the handkerchief was full of lip paint as well as nosebleed, and when he arrived back at his flat, despite her having betrayed him with whoever the fellow was who owned the handkerchief, off whose face she had no doubt wiped her lip paint, he actually thought of folding the handkerchief away just as it was, lip paint and nosebleed intermingled, pressed forever within some old volume of troubadour love lyrics perhaps, like a flower, something to dream on. But instead, he simply smiled at himself and ran some cold water into the bathroom sink and scrubbed his prize clean with a bar of hand soap, thinking, "Here is your chance to stop merely dreaming like a schoolboy, eh, Professor?"

(to be continued)

return to Home Page