Gods

Here is what I see in your eyes right now: rainy night, narrow street, streetlamps gliding away into the distance. The water runs down the drainpipes from steeply sloping roofs.

Under the snake’s-mouth of each pipe stands a green-hooped bucket. Rows of buckets line the black walls on either side of the street. I watch as they fill with cold mercury. The pluvial mercury swells and overflows. The bareheaded lamps float in the distance, their rays standing on end in the rainy murk. The water in the buckets is overflowing.

Thus I gain entry to your overcast eyes, to a narrow alley of black glimmer where the nocturnal rain gurgles and rustles. Give me a smile. Why do you look at me so balefully and darkly? It’s morning. All night the stars shrieked with infant voices and, on the roof, someone lacerated and caressed a violin with a sharp bow. Look, the sun slowly crossed the wall like a blazing sail. You emanate an enveloping smoky haze. Dust starts swirling in your eyes, millions of golden worlds. You smiled!

We go out on the balcony. It’s spring. Below, in the middle of the street, a yellow-curled boy works lickety-split, sketching a god. The god stretches from one sidewalk to the other. The boy is clutching a piece of chalk in his hand, a little piece of white charcoal and he’s squatting, circling, drawing with broad strokes. This white god has large white buttons and turned-out feet. Crucified on the asphalt, he looks skyward with round eyes. He has a white arc for a mouth. A log-sized cigar has appeared in his mouth. With helical jabs the boy makes spirals representing smoke. Arms akimbo, he contemplates his work. He adds another button. . . . A window frame clanked across the way; a female voice, enormous and happy, rang out summoning him. The boy gave the chalk a punt and dashed inside. On the purplish asphalt remained the white geometric god, gazing skyward.

Your eyes again grew murky. I realized, of course, what you were remembering. In a corner of our bedroom, under the icon, there is a colored rubber ball. Sometimes it hops softly and sadly from the table and rolls gently on the floor.

Put it back in its place under the icon, and then why don’t we go take a walk?

Spring air. A little downy. See those lindens lining the street? Black boughs covered with wet green spangles. All the trees in the world are journeying somewhere. Perpetual pilgrimage. Remember, when we were on our way here, to this city, the trees traveling past the windows of our railroad car? Remember the twelve poplars conferring about how to cross the river? Earlier, still, in the Crimea, I once saw a cypress bending over an almond tree in bloom. Once upon a time the cypress had been a big, tall chimney sweep with a brush on a wire and a ladder under his arm. Head over heels in love, poor fellow, with a little laundry maid, pink as almond petals. Now they have met at last, and are on their way somewhere together. Her pink apron balloons in the breeze; he bends toward her timidly, as if still worried he might get some soot on her. First-rate fable.

All trees are pilgrims. They have their Messiah, whom they seek. Their Messiah is a regal Lebanese cedar, or perhaps he is quite small, some totally inconspicuous little shrub in the tundra. . . .

Today some lindens are passing through town. There was an attempt to restrain them. Circular fencing was erected around their trunks. But they move all the same. . . .

The roofs blaze like oblique, sun-blinded mirrors. A winged woman stands on a windowsill washing the panes. She bends over, pouts, brushes a strand of flaming hair from her face. The air is faintly redolent of gasoline and lindens. Who can tell, today, just what emanations gently greeted a guest entering a Pompeian atrium? A half-century from now no one will know the smells that prevailed in our streets and rooms. They will excavate some military hero of stone, of which there are hundreds in every city, and heave a sigh for Phidias of yore. Everything in the world is beautiful, but Man only recognizes beauty if he sees it either seldom or from afar. . . . Listen . . . today, we are gods! Our blue shadows are enormous. We move in a gigantic, joyous world. A tall pillar on the corner is tightly swathed in wet canvases, across which a paintbrush has scattered colored whirlwinds. The old woman who sells papers has curling gray hairs on her chin, and mad light-blue eyes. Unruly newspapers stick chaotically out of her pouch. Their large type makes me think of flying zebras. A bus stops at its signpost. Upstairs the conductor ba-bangs with his palm on the iron gunwale. The helmsman gives his huge wheel a mighty turn. A mounting, labored moan, a brief grinding sound. The wide tires have left silver imprints on the asphalt. Today, on this sunny day, anything is possible. Look—a man has jumped from a roof onto a wire and is walking on it, splitting with laughter, his arms wide-spread, high over the rocking street. Look—two buildings have just had a harmonious game of leapfrog; number three ended up between one and two; it did not fully settle right away—I saw a gap below it, a narrow band of sunlight. And a woman stopped in the middle of a square, threw back her head, and started singing; a crowd gathered around her, then surged back: an empty dress lies on the asphalt, and up in the sky there’s a transparent cloudlet.

You’re laughing. When you laugh, I want to transform the entire world so it will mirror you. But your eyes are instantly extinguished. You say, passionately, fearfully, “Would you like to go . . . there? Would you? It’s lovely there today, everything’s in bloom. . . .”

Certainly it’s all in bloom, certainly we’ll go. For aren’t you and I gods? . . . I sense in my blood the rotation of unexplorable universes. . . .

Listen—I want to run all my life, screaming at the top of my lungs. Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting the gladiator.

Don’t stop to think, don’t interrupt the scream, exhale, release life’s rapture. Everything is blooming. Everything is flying. Everything is screaming, choking on its screams. Laughter. Running. Let-down hair. That is all there is to life.

They are leading camels along the street, on the way from the circus to the zoo. Their plump humps list and sway. Their long, gentle faces are turned up a little, dreamily. How can death exist when they lead camels along a springtime street? At the corner, an unexpected whiff of Russian foliage; a beggar, a divine monstrosity, turned all inside out, feet growing out of armpits, proffers, with a wet, shaggy paw, a bunch of greenish lilies-of-the-val . . . I bump a passerby with my shoulder. . . . Momentary collision of two giants. Merrily, magnificently, he swings at me with his lacquered cane. The tip, on the backswing, breaks a shopwindow behind him. Zigzags shoot across the shiny glass. No—it’s only the splash of mirrored sunlight in my eyes. Butterfly, butterfly! Black with scarlet bands. . . . A scrap of velvet. . . . It swoops above the asphalt, soars over a speeding car and a tall building, into the humid azure of the April sky. Another, identical butterfly once settled on the white border of an arena; Lesbia, senator’s daughter, gracile, dark-eyed, with a gold ribbon on her forehead, entranced by the palpitating wings, missed the split second, the whirlwind of blinding dust, in which the bull-like neck of one combatant crunched under the other’s naked knee.

Today my soul is filled with gladiators, sunlight, the world’s din. . . .

We descend a wide staircase into a long, dim underground chamber. Flagstones resound vibrantly under our steps. Representations of burning sinners adorn the gray walls. Black thunder, in the distance, swells in velvet folds. It bursts forth all around us. We rush headlong, as if awaiting a god. We are packed inside a glassy glitter. We gather momentum. We hurtle into a black chasm and speed with a hollow din far underground, hanging on to leather straps. With a pop the amber lamps are extinguished for an instant, during which flimsy globules burn with a hot light in the dark—the bulging eyes of demons, or perhaps our fellow passengers’ cigars.

The lights come back on. Look, over there—the tall man in a black overcoat standing by the car’s glass door. I faintly recognize that narrow, yellowish face, the bony hump of his nose. Thin lips compressed, attentive furrow between heavy brows, he listens to something being explained by another man, pale as a plaster mask, with a small, circular, sculpted beard. I am certain they are speaking in terza rima. And your neighbor, that lady in the pale-yellow coat sitting with lowered lashes—could that be Dante’s Beatrice? Out of the dank nether world we emerge anew into the sunlight. The cemetery is on the distant outskirts. Edifices have grown sparser. Greenish voids. I recall how this same capital looked on an old print.

We walk against the wind along imposing fences. On the same kind of sunny, tremulous day as this we’ll head back north, to Russia. There will be very few flowers, only the yellow stars of dandelions along the ditches. The dove-gray telegraph poles will hum at our approach. When, beyond the curve, my heart is jabbed by the firs, the red sand, the corner of the house, I shall totter and fall prone.

Look! Above the vacant green expanses, high in the sky, an airplane progresses with a bassy ring like an aeolian harp. Its glass wings are glinting. Beautiful, no? Oh, listen—here is something that happened in Paris, about 150 years ago. Early one morning—it was autumn, and the trees floated in soft orange masses along the boulevards into the tender sky—early one morning, the merchants had assembled in the marketplace; the stands filled with moist, glistening apples; there were whiffs of honey and damp hay. An old fellow with white down in his auricles was unhurriedly setting up cages containing various birds that fidgeted in the chilly air; then he sleepily reclined on a mat, for the auroral fog still obscured the gilt hands on the town hall’s black dial. He had scarcely gone to sleep when someone started tugging at his shoulder. Up jumped the oldster, and saw before him an out-of-breath young man. He was lanky, skinny, with a small head and a pointed little nose. His waistcoat—silvery with black stripes—was buttoned askew, the ribbon on his pigtail had come undone, one of his white stockings was sagging in bunched wrinkles. “I need a bird, any bird—a chicken will do,” said the young man, having given the cages a cursory, agitated glance. The old man gingerly extracted a small white hen, which put up a fluffy struggle in his swarthy hands. “What’s wrong—is it sick?” asked the young man, as if discussing a cow. “Sick? My little fish’s belly!” mildly swore the oldster.

The young man flung him a shiny coin and ran off amid the stands, the hen pressed to his bosom. Then he stopped, turned abruptly with a whip of his pigtail, and ran back to the old vendor. “I need the cage too,” he said.

When he went off at last, holding the chicken with the cage in his outstretched hand and swinging the other arm, as if he were carrying a bucket, the old man gave a snort and lay back down on his mat. How business went that day and what happened to him afterwards is of no concern to us at all.

As for the young man, he was none other than the son of the renowned physicist Charles. Charles glanced over his spectacles at the little hen, gave the cage a flick of his yellow fingernail, and said, “Fine—now we have a passenger as well.” Then, with a severe glint of his eyeglasses, he added, “As for you and me, my boy, we’ll take our time. God only knows what the air is like up there in the clouds.”

The same day, at the appointed hour on the Champs de Mars, before an astonished crowd, an enormous, lightweight dome, embroidered with Chinese arabesques, with a gilded gondola attached by silken cords, slowly swelled as it filled with hydrogen. Charles and his son busied themselves amid streams of smoke blown sideways by the wind. The hen peered through the wire netting of her cage with one beady eye, her head tilted to one side. All around moved colorful, spangled caftans, airy women’s dresses, straw hats; and, when the sphere lurched upward, the old physicist followed it with his gaze, then broke into tears on his son’s shoulder, and a hundred hands on every side began waving handkerchiefs and ribbons. Fragile clouds floated through the tender, sunny sky. The earth receded, quivery, light-green, covered with scudding shadows and the fiery splashes of trees. Far below some toy horsemen hurtled past—but soon the sphere rose out of sight. The hen kept peering downward with one little eye.

The flight lasted all day. The day concluded with an ample, vivid sunset. When night fell, the sphere began slowly descending. Once upon a time, in a village on the shore of the Loire, there lived a gentle, wily-eyed peasant. Out he goes into the field at dawn. In the middle of the field he sees a marvel: an immense heap of motley silk. Nearby, overturned, lay a little cage. A chicken, all white, as if modeled out of snow, was thrusting its head through mesh and intermittently moving its beak, as it searched for small insects in the grass. At first the peasant had a fright, but then he realized that it was simply a present from the Virgin Mary, whose hair floated through the air like autumn spider-webs. The silk his wife sold off piecemeal in the nearby town, the little gilded gondola became a crib for their tightly swaddled firstborn, and the chicken was dispatched to the backyard. Listen on.

Some time elapsed, and then one fine day, as he passed a hillock of chaff at the barn gate, the peasant heard a happy clucking. He stooped. The hen popped out of the green dust and hawked at the sun as she waddled rapidly and not without some pride. While, amid the chaff, hot and sleek, glowed four golden eggs. And no wonder. At the wind’s mercy, the hen had traversed the entire flush of the sunset, and the sun, a fiery cock with a crimson crest, had done some fluttering over her.

I don’t know if the peasant understood. For a long time he stood motionless, blinking and squinting from the brilliance and holding in his palms the still warm, whole, golden eggs. Then, his sabots rattling, he rushed across the yard with such a howl that his hired hand thought he must have lopped off a finger with his axe. . . .

Of course all this happened a long, long time ago, long before the aviator Latham, having crashed in mid-Channel, sat, if you will, on the dragonfly tail of his submerging Antoinette, smoking a yellowed cigarette in the wind, and watching as, high in the sky, in his little stubby-winged machine, his rival Bleriot flew for the first time from Calais to England’s sugary shores.

But I cannot overcome your anguish. Why have your eyes again filled with darkness? No, don’t say anything. I know everything. You mustn’t cry. He can hear my fable, there’s no doubt at all he can hear it. It is to him that it’s addressed. Words have no borders. Try to understand! You look at me so balefully and darkly. I recollect the night after the funeral. You were unable to stay home. You and I went out into the glossy slush. Lost our way. Ended up in some strange, narrow street. I did not make out its name, but could see it was inverted, mirrorlike, in the glass of a streetlamp. The lamps were floating off into the distance. Water dripped from the roofs. The buckets lining both sides of the street, along black walls, were filling with cold mercury. Filling and overflowing. And suddenly, helplessly spreading your hands, you spoke:

“But he was so little, and so warm. . . .”

Forgive me if I am incapable of weeping, of simple human weeping, but instead keep singing and running somewhere, clutching at whatever wings fly past, tall, disheveled, with a wave of suntan on my forehead. Forgive me. That’s how it must be.

We walk slowly along the fences. The cemetery is already near. There it is, an islet of vernal white and green amid some dusty vacant land. Now you go on alone. I’ll wait for you here. Your eyes gave a quick, embarrassed smile. You know me well. . . . The wicket-gate squeaked, then banged shut. I sit alone on the sparse grass. A short way off there is a vegetable garden with some purple cabbage. Beyond the vacant lot, factory buildings, buoyant brick behemoths, float in the azure mist. At my feet, a squashed tin glints rustily inside a funnel of sand. Around me, silence and a kind of spring emptiness. There is no death. The wind comes tumbling upon me from behind like a limp doll and tickles my neck with its downy paw. There can be no death.

My heart, too, has soared through the dawn. You and I shall have a new, golden son, a creation of your tears and my fables. Today I understood the beauty of intersecting wires in the sky, and the hazy mosaic of factory chimneys, and this rusty tin with its inside-out, semidetached, serrated lid. The wan grass hurries, hurries somewhere along the dusty billows of

the vacant lot. I raise my arms. The sunlight glides across my skin. My skin is covered with multicolored sparkles.

And I want to rise up, throw my arms open for a vast embrace, address an ample, luminous discourse to the invisible crowds. I would start like this: “O rainbow-colored gods . . .”

—Vladimir Nabokov