Second-Hand Blue

By James Greer

I'm going to meet my death on the Rue du Nil, in Paris, in exactly one hundred days. The Rue du Nil is more an alley than a street, and dead-ends at a brick wall. There are no windows or doors at street level anywhere near the wall. It's the perfect place to trap someone. To trap myself. To die.

You might reasonably ask, "Why such measures? Yes, you drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl decades ago, but those were crazy days, there were mitigating factors, and in the years before and since, your contributions to world culture have been of such magnitude that they overwhelm that grievous lapse. Do you really feel so guilty, even now, that you want to die?"

I don't want to die; and I don't feel guilty. Not for that incident, anyway. As for the arguments regarding extenuating circumstances and the value of my work, these are things lawyers and critics, or to be more and less precise, judges, must consider, but not me. I am going to die because I have to die, and I will die in the Rue de Nil because that is where my destiny waits, impatiently, and one cannot outwit destiny.

My biography is incredible, even to me. The things I saw as a child, the things I did as an adult: horrible, wonderful, horrible, but useless. Perhaps inevitable, perhaps even necessary, but useless, all the same.  Because in the end I am going to die, in a cobblestoned alley in Paris, in the small hours of the morning, at the hands of an imaginary mob. Should they carry torches? I haven't decided. Torches might be a bit much, but the lighting would produce a nice effect. Shadows on the wall, marching inexorably closer. Shot correctly, edited properly, the scene could be marvelously suspenseful.

But then it would not be true, and death must always be true. Quick, merciless, and banal. I will crouch in a fetal position, bunching my tiny frame in what will look like infantile terror, wearing borrowed jeans and a sea-blue windbreaker with a broken zipper, and pray for a painless demise. I don't believe in God, but I predict that I will pray, nonetheless.

I'm not telling you my fate to elicit pity, nor do I want anyone to try to talk me out of going to the Rue du Nil on the appointed day. I'd be especially miffed if someone were to try to intervene and prevent my death. Inutile, anyway, because you don't know when I'm writing this, so you can't know when my hundred days are up. Could be tomorrow. Could be a hundred days from now. Or any day in between. Could, quite obviously, have already happened. My advice: leave me and my death alone. It's a personal matter. It doesn't concern anyone else.

I will share with you a story that will help you understand. It's a story no less for being true, and it's true no less for being set far in the future. The closer I get to death, the clearer the future becomes. I've always had a knack for seeing ahead, as well as for seeing behind. But I've never before seen ahead with such clarity, whereas my view of the past has become distorted by the stained glass of memory. Have you noticed that if you stare at anything long enough it loses its apparent quiddity, and transforms into a mirror?

*

There are one hundred varieties of love, and five hundred varieties of hate. These are exact numbers. I've spent my life calculating and tabulating these varieties, so you can be assured of the accuracy of my headcount. Do you know the song "Thin Line Between Love and Hate"? Beautiful song, except: wrong. There's no line between love and hate. It's like crossing the border from France into Switzerland by train. No one checks your passport, there are no customs officials to search your luggage, but you are in fact changing countries. Whole sets of laws and regulations and cultural mores and even languages alter invisibly, and if you put one foot wrong you end up in jail, or in a spacious and comfortably-appointed chalet.

It's the same with love and hate. You cross the border from one to another unaware that anything's happened, and nothing, really, has happened, except that everything you say and do is now governed by a completely different set of rules, and enforced by a different authority. This can be bewildering, and just as with my entirely fictitious France / Switzerland example, you can end up in a kind of jail for no sensible offense.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse! How many times has this bromide been repeated by a sententious robed figure sitting on a high bench above a cowering culprit whose so-called crime was having once, years ago, picked a small flower with delicate blue petals that grew in abundance in his own country but which was, all unknown to him, a rare and protected species in this foreign place. No matter that he picked the flower out of love, and gave it as a gesture of love to a dear friend. The friend had been mortified, had blown the whistle (in this country everyone carries whistles), and he had been forced to run from an angry mob bearing pitchforks (it was daylight, so torches would be absurd).

Because there are five times as many varieties of hate as there are of love, it would seem to follow that it is easier to go astray in that vastly dark country than in the relatively small, sun-dappled land of love. However: no. Hate, a product of misapplied reason, is a lawless and anarchic state, whereas love, ruled by rigorous passion, has had to develop a complex and even contradictory set of regulations, and its borders are not clearly marked. And because it's a much envied and sought after destination, it is strictly policed. Let me illustrate.

*

1. The Country of Love, Part One

As Anna drew close to the earthberg certain features became clear. Giant scars along its face, vertical rakes as if by talons of an impossible bird. Evidence of great impact along the shore. This was no easy landing, thought Anna. We felt the shudder in the village. The Elders knew what the shudder meant, though to most they did not explain, or gave some other explanation. There was a secret vote. I was elected. The election was presented as a choice, but I had no choice. Not inside me, where the choice had been made long before I was elected. I had a sense of: finally. She may count herself lucky who just once has contracted the purposefulness that makes life and death worth bearing.

Nearer the earthberg Anna lost perspective and could not gauge its mass, though more details emerged. Trailing ropes. Ladders hammered into jutting rock. A horizontal maple. Here and there, the glow of some kind of light from within some kind of cave. Wondrous beyond imagining. A hive thrumming with unseen activity.

Anna approached a semi-circle of poles on which had been hung lanterns, signaling the end of a long, similarly-lit boardwalk that led to a small entrance at the foot of the earthberg. Three men stood in the pool of lantern-light, their shadows long and inconstant.

"I'm Anna," she said, upon reaching them. The men had unreadable expressions, neither hostile nor friendly nor exactly neutral.

"Most likely," replied the largest of the three, in a thick accent Anna had never heard.

"I’ve come from the village through the woods," she said.

"Does the village have a name?" asked the large one. "We were just discussing, Pyotr and Nikolai and me, what part of the world we might have stumbled upon."

"We've always just called it the village. But I have heard some of the Elders use the word Norfolk for the larger area."

The large one snorted. "Norfolk. That’s of no use. There’s a thousand Norfolks, and most of them aren’t even in the north. Not anymore, at least."

"Please, sir, might I ask, how many are in your company?"

"You speak a kind of Anglo," the large one mused. "Which means, as I was telling Pyotr, we might be anywhere."

"Sure enough we’re somewhere," interposed the one who must be Pyotr.

"I am called John," said the large one. "We travel with one hundred souls, though we started with five hundred. Many of us are sick, and we are in sore need of fresh supplies."

"Might I come on board your ship?"

The three men began to laugh.

"Ship!"

Anna smiled, perplexed.

"This hunk of rock’s no ship, kid, we cannot steer nor guide her. We call her Quoi qu'il en soit."

"Then you are Franks."

"No, we are Rus. Quoi qu'il en soit is Frankish, yes. Its name in our native language... I don’t even remember. Anyway."

"Is there water here, and food?" asked the one who must be Nikolai.

Anna did not answer. Instead, she turned to look at the boardwalk. "Might I come on board?" she repeated.

"Where are my manners?" said the one called John. "We may be scavengers, but we’re still men. Follow the lights to old Tom. He’ll take you topside."

A mountain is most impressive from its base, thought Anna. At its height you lose the majesty. And the threat, however ridiculous, of being crushed.

At the end of the boardwalk was a metal door with a small window, lighted from the inside. A man’s face appeared in the lighted window, startling Anna. The door slid open, heavily, and she found herself staring at a small, thin man with a heavily creased forehead. He wore jeans and a faded blue windbreaker with a broken zipper, and was covered in dust from the crown of his dusty curls to the scuffed leather of his dusty workboots. When he smiled his skin cracked, and in the cracks was more dust, and dust between the gaps in his brown teeth.

"Going up?" he asked.

"I think so," said Anna.

"There is only up." He stepped back from the door and motioned Anna inside. "My name is Tom."

Anna walked through the doorway, into a very small, dimly-lit metal room. "I’m Anna," she said.

"Anna," repeated Tom. "Hello, Anna." He pushed a button on a panel near the entrance and the heavy door slid closed with a satisfying clunk.

"Hold on," said Tom, pressing another button on the panel. There was a loud creaking noise, and the whirring of gyros, and the room lurched upwards at a frightening speed. Anna cried out and ducked to the pimpled metal floor, clutching a handrail. She pulled the hood of her blue cloak, borrowed from her sister, over her head.

 

2. The Country of Hate, Part One

Darkness inside the muted light of sunset: when you stand in front of the window and stare at the far hills. Hidden in the dark are bad angels, gathering in gloomy bunches like poisonous grapes, heavy with blood. The leafless trees scratch with upstretched arms at scudding clouds, and in the growing mist barn owls perch on lower branches, scanning the radio air for the slow heartbeat of approaching doom. The bad angels grasp in their grasping claws the agenda of nightmares, larded with entrails of dead shrubs and bits of styrofoam and brick. You roll the heavy door across its track and fasten tight the locks. You know that nothing made of something can stop the angels, who are nothing. You've looked them in the eye and seen the end of time, and the end of time was a mirror. And still you roll the door, and still you light the fat candle, and the wax drips forest green on polished marble floor: you turn and find yourself inside a tomb, which is where you keep the rain, for safety.

But you are not safe. The rain cannot keep you bright for long, and your tears will only fall, unseen. There are corridors in this place that lead to holy places, but all the holy places have been destroyed, out of love, out of a desire to love that burns without burning — a plague of love, a cholera of kindness. Dig a ditch and wait for pistol shot in back of neck. Or is that too romantic? Would you prefer a meaner death? Shriveling for years in the data basement, in an old hard drive, dispersing bit by bit on the ocean floor of knowledge, frozen, unexplored, blind, pressed flat by calamitous gravity.

The Periplus and Rhapta. Arab and Indian traders looking for gold in the first of twenty long centuries. Is this what you mean by Africa? The devil is no fool. Why fear the means of grace, expel yourself from your own garden? Difficult to till, ravaged by bad angels, daily exposed to the secrets of flight. You think because everything has roots that nothing can fly? The last thing out of the chest, children, was a very fragile creature, its tiny hairs still slick with afterbirth. You must do your best to keep it alive.

 

3. The Country of Love, Part Two

The elevator shuddered to a halt, and the heavy door slid open. Tom gestured for her to exit, and Anna stepped onto a flat, barren surface, mostly red dirt, cratered in places, sparsely grassed, with a few sickly ash trees. Under one of these, a hundred paces away, gathered twenty or thirty men, women, and children, listening to an Elder with a scarred and wrinkled face, long white hair, and a scraggly, untamed beard. She went closer, in order to hear.

"In with the good, out with the bad," the Elder was saying. "But it’s not air of which the teacher speaks. Something more valuable. Essence. Out with ignorance, in with wisdom. Knowledge of the self means knowledge of things hidden in plain sight. When you can see what’s in front of you, these hidden things will be revealed. When you let out what is in you, that is creative. Held inside, these uncreated forms living in darkness will consume you like the fires of hell.

"The aspirant must work in solitude, because only then comes the ability to know yourself. Without distraction. Without guidance, except that which answers the bell of the mind. The two words which interest us most are therefore gnosis and logos. Gnosis translated as insight or vision, and logos, as proclaimed by the teacher, who reserves the term for himself, represents the highest form of being: truth.

"Did we create the sun or did the sun create us? Or did something else create both, or have we always existed, but in different, possibly less cumbrous, form and content? Or — do we exist in different form even now but lack the means to see? If you do not know the manner of your coming you cannot know how to go."

The Elder caught sight of Anna lurking on the fringe, and stopped talking. Everyone turned to look at her. A murmur of curiosity spread through the crowd.

The Elder held up one hand for silence.

"A guest! Welcome! By what name are you called?"

Anna was disconcerted to be addressed directly, but stepped forward.

"My name is Anna. But I'm afraid you're mistaken. I'm not a guest."

"What, then?"

Anna opened her borrowed cloak to reveal a heavy vest of some explosive, wired together and attached to a detonator, which she now held in her right hand.

"I was elected by the Elders of my village."

No one moved, or seemed particularly alarmed. The Elder sighed.

"I see. May I ask why?"

"We have a book," replied Anna. "It contains our laws, and prescribes certain actions that we must take to preserve ourselves."

The Elder nodded thoughtfully. "We, too, have a book, which foretold your coming. It's called The Book of Life. Does your book have a name?"

"Usually we just call it the Book. But I've also heard it called the Book of Love."

She shut her eyes and pressed the detonator.

 

4. The Country of Hate, Part Two

Everybody wants my blood. The helicopters shooting diamonds into the bluffs at night, the Russian nurses, the white-coats, the sloppy sailors with buckets of fish guts, preening on the wharf. Or perhaps I should say: there’s no one who does not want my blood. Not the inmates downtown in their leather cell, sitting side by side by side by side, not the loser seagulls, not the seeing-eye toadies who peer through slats at time of day. Not one of these does not want my blood. That is why I'm covered in bruises, from constant poking with needles. That's why I am so anemic.

Thomas Quin has pig snot for brains. What runs through his arteries I wouldn’t want to guess, but nothing good. Once I saw him pricked with a dagger and something green spurted from the wound. (I will admit that I pricked him.)

To what purpose he does the ravaging and so forth? To what purpose at all? The countryside is stupid, infested with stupidities, plied every day with more stupidities, by various means, some popular and open and free. Thomas Quin knows all that, but he doesn’t care a damn except for the well-being of his flowers. In the meantime I am running short on blood, and there are only so many stupidities I can reasonably stand.

I need to stop Thomas Quin. Well, not stop him but instead turn his attention to the stupidities. From the flowers to the stupidities, which are like flowers in that there is no end to their blooming. Thomas Quin, his warlike spirit properly directed, could stop the stupidities. Could attack them with his curved sword — there’s an exact word for the type of sword Thomas Quin uses, perhaps the word is scimitar, perhaps not — and decollate the stupidities, blood spurting in rufous fountains over land and sea and high into the oxygenated sky, past gravity’s pull, through the atmosphere and gathered in ruby globules by the flexibly inflexible rules of physics, floating forever in vast: space.

But a man who bends his mind to flowers is not easily swayed. Il n’existe pas un homme qui can resist the lure of botany — the sweetest science, super-succulent and dangerous to the sanity. Jag älskar dig, spoke Karl The Father. Who, contrary to expectations, lived a mostly placid and self-satisfied life, crowned with crowns, and in addition had interests outside botany extending even to anthropology — the science of cartoons.

The one does not contradict the other: existence and non-existence. These are complementary ideas, albeit frivolous and entirely beside the point of what Thomas Quin would call "bleeding." Everything about Quin is a hybrid. The man himself — his ridiculous name — blends seeds of meaning and matter into new, unimproved forms, because he can’t leave well enough alone. And yet he searches restlessly for a perfection in nature that he cannot find in his artifice; will kill anything that tries to block the pursuit of his silly blooms.

In this way death came to our town.

*

I hope that my brief sketch of your future — which could just as easily be your past, I'm no longer convinced there's a useful distinction — shows you why I have to go to the Rue du Nil in one hundred days and meet my destiny. Everyone deserves to die, and everyone will die. It’s a question of when, that’s all. I've lost track of how many of the one hundred varieties of love and five hundred varieties of hate I have tasted, and in tasting violated; but what's the difference? It only takes one.

 

About James Greer