He is an older man walking in winter. And he knows this. There is white
everywhere and a peculiar, almost acidic smell that those who have passed
through childhood in a northern country associate with new, freshly fallen snow.
He recognizes the smell but cannot bring to mind the word acidic. Snow, walking,
and winter are the best he can come up with these few words and then the
word older, which is associated with effort. Effort is what he is making; the
effort to place one foot in front of the other, the effort required to keep
moving, to keep moving toward the island.
It might have been more than an hour ago that he remembered, and then forgot, the word island. But even now, even though the word for island has gone, he believes he is walking toward a known place. He has a map of the shoreline in his brain; its docks and rundown wooden buildings, a few trees grown in the last century. Does he have the word for trees? Sometimes yes, but mostly no. He is better with landforms. Island though it is gone at this moment is a word that stays longer than most; island, peninsula, hill, valley, moraine, escarpment, shoreline, river, lake are all words that have passed in and out of his mind in the course of the morning, along with the odd hesitant, fragmented attempt at his name, which has come to him only partially, once as what he previously would have called the article An, then later as the conjunction And.
Tears are sliding over the bones of his face, but these are tears caused by the dazzle of the sun in front of him, not by sorrow.
Sorrow and the word for sorrow disappeared some months ago. Terror is the only emotion that visits him now, often accompanied by a transparent curtain of blinding gold, but even this is mercifully fleeting, often gone before he fully recognizes it. He does not remember the word gold. He does not remember that in the past he saw the real colors of the world.
He senses an unusually cluttered form in his immediate vicinity: a fence, he once would have called it. It would have brought to mind the path-masters and surveyors of the past, but now he knows it only as something that has not grown out of the earth, something that is impeding his progress. As he stands bewildered near the fence, he looks at the intricate shadows of the wire created by sunlight on the snow in front of him and the word tangle slips into his mind. He walks right through the tangle of the shadow, but is not able to gain passage through the wires themselves.
He does not remember what to do with a fence, how to get over it, through it, past it, but his body makes a decision to run, to charge headlong into the confusion, and in fact this appears to have been the correct decision, for he has catapulted to the opposite side and has landed first on one shoulder, then on his stomach so that his face is in the snow. Snow, he thinks, and then, walking, which is what he must do to reach the island. He gropes for the word island, and has almost conquered it by the time he is back on his feet. But the shape and sound of it slips away again before he can grasp the meaning, slips away and is replaced by a phrase, and the phrase is the place the water touches all around.
He knows the island was the beginning knows this in a vague way, not having the words for either island or beginning.
He must get to the place that water touches all around because without the beginning he cannot understand this point in time, this walk in the snow, the breath that comes into his mouth and then departs in small clouds like the ghosts of all the words he can no longer recall. If he can arrive at this beginning, he believes he will remember what was born there, and what came into being later, and later again, and later again a theorem that might lead him to the now of effort and snow.
He begins once again to move forward. Often he bumps against trees, but this does not worry him because he knows they are meant to be there, and will remain after he has passed by them. Like an animal, he is stepping by instinct through the trees, branch by branch, the smell of the destination on the edge of his consciousness. While he is among pines, an image of an enormous raft made of timber floats through his imagination and connects somehow, for an instant, with the word glass, which, in turn, connects again, for just an instant, with the word ballroom.
From A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart. Copyright Jane Urquhart 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of MacAdam/Cage Publishing.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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