It’s become a bit like a dream to me now, despite having so much footage, but maybe you can remember this. It was a week in early May, a few years back. We’d gone into the Algoma region, along Meakins’s road for about 80 miles, then humped in up Vacher Creek to the Bathawana, to clean up your grandfolks’ graves, shoot some stuff for your film, and to bury those guns. There’d been an enormous early blackfly hatch and it was buggy, so buggy we were building a fire every time we stopped walking, to stand in the smoke for respite.
(Years ago in Moosonee I met a bush pilot who told me how he once overflew a man on a hilltop who seemed to be signaling to him with long black streamers. These were really blackflies in their thousands, using the man for a windbreak while they attacked him, rising and falling in eerie concordance with his frantic arms, veiling his face with whining hungry blackness. It is usually difficult to apprehend the concept of an ocean by analogy with a single drop of water, but in the case of these unpleasant creatures, one will fall upon you with sufficient vampirish alacrity to represent the whole swarm, unlike a dewdrop which lies so docile in the palm as to seem altogether alien to riptides and shipwrecks.)
You took me on a walk about a mile and a half through the bush to that spot you thought might be good for a cabin someday. I forget the name of the lake. The woods were vibrant, vibrating. We were having a smoke and you told me a little story, a “real stinger, baby” as you’d say, just a brief thing, no more than a couple of minutes in the telling, and it moved me, I was pricked by it, but now my aging brain can’t bring back any of the details. I do remembering thinking at the time that I wanted to use it in a film someday, and now the day’s upon me and I find myself at a loss.
“I find myself” is an odd way of putting it, I guess, with respect to loss, to being at a loss. To being lost. Back in those days, those long ago days when you were dying, I felt lost. Foundered. Capsized. Disastered, you might say. In the etymological sense: cut off from the star that ought to guide me.
I want to say “no, don’t worry, I haven’t made you into my ego-ideal.” But maybe I can’t say that, can’t know whether or not that was true. It seems that it was more like a kind of symbiosis, a mutual registration of bearing (of getting one’s bearings), a reciprocal exchange, but I can’t be sure. There are a number of things that would support that idea: the more or less immediate recognition so many years ago now, the talking and the scribbling, the books, the jazz, baseball and fishing, the North, the wine lore, and the cooking, all those stupefying stupendous meals.
(It’s funny that sex wasn’t much a part of it, given my obsessions.) All the same, I can’t shake the suspicion that I was getting the better end of the stick, that perhaps I was bleeding you, vampiric. Bleeding you dry. Even in your dying, and despite my state of wreckage, I was accruing benefits, coming closer than I had ever been to death, your death, watching you sink from the safety of the shore, and soaking up the knowledge to be had, the macabre poetry of it. In a way, I wanted to make your death my own. I wanted to own your death.
Montaigne has a story, in the crypt of one of his essays, about a venture outdoors to get some fresh air by taking a ride on horseback. Struck from behind by “a powerful warhorse” assaulting his smaller horse at the rear, he is suddenly unsaddled, falls, strikes the ground and swoons. Taken for dead, paralyzed, unable to make the slightest sign to the people huddled around him, he is carried home by his companions. He later awakens in a somnolent state of bliss. Witnessing his own rebirth, Montaigne undergoes excruciating pain in the return to life. The softness of the narcotic sleep in which he had been bathing slowly disappears. After having regained consciousness, his “first feelings seemed much closer to death than to life.” He sums up this famous moment that will soon become the project of self-portraiture: But for a long time afterward, and the following day, when my memory happened to jar open and represent to me the state in which I had found myself at the instant when I had glimpsed this horse barreling down on me (for I had seen it on my heels and took myself for dead, but this thought had been so sudden that fear never had leisure enough to be generated), it seemed to me that it was a bolt of lightning that struck my soul with a shock that I was returning from the other world. This tale of so slight an event is rather vain, were it not for the lesson I have drawn from it for myself, for in truth, to practice death I find that we only to brush up against it. He begins to fathom what in the following sentences he calls the thorny business, greater than it may appear, of following an allure as vagabond as our mind; to penetrate the opaque depths of its inner folds, to choose and arrest so many of its slightest variations. And it’s a new and extraordinary pleasure that draws us away from the common dealings with the world.
I guess, in this way, your death was the event against which I brushed up. I tried to practice death by brushing up against you, and found myself (that odd wording again) at a loss. Brushing up against your death, which I did not and could not own, was like brushing up against a void. Like so many twigs and leaves and brambles and branches that plague us when we’re in the bush, wondering if we’re lost. When it’s as if the woods have folded in upon us, darkening our spirits, veiling our faces in blackness, setting us adrift.
Midway upon the journey of our life, I found that I was in a dusky wood; for the right path, whence I had strayed, was lost.
And then one day you stopped dying. It was a stunning miracle of relief. You would go on, and I could go on, and we could hump the Vacher, clean the graves, bury the guns, and I could hear the story, be stung by it, baby, and consign it to oblivion. One day, over a pig of a Duero and a nice woodland risotto, you’ll tell it me again. Do you see me now? I’m that guy on the hilltop this fine day in May. Signaling you with the long black streamers. Do you see me?