ATLEYíS SYSTEM OF MNEMONICS
(translated by Nicholas Luker)
A sad event has the advantage over other events in life that it casts over manís monotonous exixtence an elusive shadow of the beautiful, for which all moved by sorrow then begin to yearn.
So it happened that after many years, when we had nearly forgotten about the grief of the young woman who bore the strange name of Zella, the whole episode of her husbandís disappearance had acquired in our eyes an irresistible fascination Ė an impression based essentially on our memory of that summer evening when Planer sang in the oak grove his best song ďThe Count in ExileĒ. It began with these words:
The earth does not acept my footprints,
Too light, too† carefree, too hurtful are they for her
Who has grown used to jouneymenís heavy boots,
To the palpable tracks made by a life
That does not need itself.
When he finished, the sun was setting and the wind stirring the leaves brocaded with the bewitching, somnolent glow of sunset. After this Planer vanished. Perhaps it was just as unexpected for him as it was for us, because no one had time to notice the moment he disappeared. In everyoneís memory, both then and now, there remained his tall, errect figure, with his hand shading his eyes. He sang in this pose, and then he was gone. A week later, when searches by police and volunteers proved unsuccessful, Zella passed from paroxysms of acute grief to quiet despair.
Everything the human mind can set against fate in the shape of questions and awkward conjectures was produced by us, everything was examined, rejected, then forgotten. But around the manís disappearance there remained an aura of mysterious charm that rose from the terrible yet alluring abyss of profound shock. All of us who had been there that evening were closely linked by something stronger than our own will, making of us a group of people dispersed by life yet bound tightly together by one and the same feeling of melancholy.
In June of last year, excactly ten years after Planerís disappearance, when I was busy in the garden one morning with my experiments to inoculate some plants with certain harmless diseases capable of altering their colouring, my brother, Dibakh, came in through the side gate accompanied by a middle-aged stranger who stopped some distance away from the flower-bed. I did not notice my brotherís excited face to begin with; I remember it was only his nervous laaugh that made me look intently at both of them. I wiped my hands which were covered with soil and bid them good morning.
ďAtley,Ē said my brother, turning towards the stranger, itís Planer.Ē
The blood must have rushed to my head at these words, because for just a moment the clear sky grew cloudy and quivered before my eyes. I remember that when I began to speak, my voice sounded weak and indistinct. I said:
ďThereís a joker for you. Just think, Planer, what heís saying!! Is it possible? How are you?Ē
I think this nonsense nevertheless conveyed to him some idea of my state. Planer smiled uncertainly but said nothing; he may have considered his position somewhat delicate and odd.
I examined him three times while he stood on the reddish sand, lit up by the sun and the green reflections of the acacias. Planer had changed, as a man may change who has turned his life upside down. Grey streaks showed in his thick, dark hair, and his face had lost its feminine softness of skin; dark and drawn but with cheerful creases round the eyes, it reminded one of a portrait by some old master. In a light-coloured travelling suit, stately and powerful-looking, he stood before me Ė it was he, Planer, for all that.
We were silent. I am amaized I did not shower him with the questions that are usual on such occasions. Dibakh said:
ďIím going, Atley, Zellaís laughing and crying at the same time and she canít be left alone. Weíllíí remember today for the rest of our lives.Ē
He made his way towards the gate and for the first time in my life I saw how a stout family man can fly skipping through the air.
That instant of miraculous tenseness when we were left alone together, sat down on the bench and began to speak Ė even now it seems to me pervaded by the intense heat of a summerís morning; fairy-tale flocks of ideas roamed through my head, and I could only smile and nod. Planer said:
ďNo need for questions, Atley; theyíll be useless in the strict sense of the word. I donít know a thing, but Iíll try to tell you the beginning of the story all the same.
ďAs you recall, I was singing in the grove not far from the railway bridge where the picnic was. As a matter of fact, the beginning of my recollections serves as the end of them too.
ďIt seems to me that these past ten years havenít been, at least thereís no trace of them whatsoever in my memory. At the next moment which words can convey I saw myself as a second class passenger two hundred miles from here; I was coming home.
ďThat moment wasnít alarming or startling. I was surprised, and that was all. At times it seemed to me that Iíd left only the day before on some business Iíd forgotten.
ďThe train went racing along; the languor in my heart gave way to a profound feeling of distraction and drowsiness; before evening I looked in the mirror and turned round, my eyes searching for the other passenger, but I was alone in the compartment. The unexpectedness of what I saw disturbed me and I looked in the mirror again. It was I, much changed and with hair that had turned grey, the same man that sits before you now.Ē
Planer fell silent and smiled shyly. No less moved than he, I could only express my sympathy and surprise in gestures.
ďMy meeting with Zella,Ē he went on, ďwas irrefutable proof of my long absence, and Iíve finally taken it in. To tell all this means to experience once more that strange blend of joyous terror and melancholy. I shanít be up to it, and Iíll burst out sobbing. By the way, Iíve been here three days now. Iím tormented by a new feeling Ė the morbid desire to recall everything Iíve lived through these mysterious ten years; a desire that becomes an hallucination, a vast game of the imagination. You know, it seems to me that if I can succeed in doing this, my life will be illumined with such a great light against which the joy at having saved my life will be like the gleam of a metallic disc beside the sun. Itís a lucid, firm, melodious sensation of forgotten beauty.Ē
He was quiet once more, and I did not dare to break his painful silence. The sincerity of his tone dispelled any doubts in me. The extraordinariness of the situation almost overwhelmed me; the garden, the familiar avenues, the flower-beds Ė everything that till then had possessed a workday colouring seemed solemn and strange now, like this man who had returned from a forgotten world.
ďI tried to remember,Ē he went on, ďbut it was all in vain. The oak grove and the train, the train and the grove Ė thatís all I know.Ē
I donít know why, but at that moment I decided to try an experiment which another time would have seemed amusing, but just then in my eyes it was of key importance. I said:
ďPlaner, can you imagine the oak grove as it looked that evening?Ē
ďYes,Ē he said, closing his eyes, ďI can see it clearly. Low branches; the river shining through them. I was standing by the big tree facing the water.Ē
ďThatís right,Ē I remarked, getting up. ďYou were shading your eyes with your right hand. Could I ask you to stand in that position?Ē
He followed my movements intently, inclining his head doubtfully, then suddenly, as if inwardly agreeing with me, went and stood in the middle of the clearing. His right hand rose hesitantly and shielded the upper part of his face.
ďPlaner,Ē I said, ďbehind you, on the trampled grass, sits Zella. A little further away are Dibakh, I and the others. Your saddle-horse is wandering by the stream, to the left. So.Ē
Silently he nodded, without taking his hand away. Now he understood what I was trying to do.
ďYou were singing about ĎThe Count in Exileí,Ē I went on. ďI suggest you begin with the first line. Come on then, Planer, dear fellow!Ē
He began to sing, and his voice quivered as it did then, in the grove:
The earth does not accept my footprints,
The song grew stronger and rang out so mightily that I was afraid to stir. The tension in me was too great, I expected a miracle.
The separate moments of this scene merge in my memory into a feeling of strange, agonising gladness. When he reached the line:
ďYouíll recall my anguish Ė and youíll bless itÖĒ he went on, to the final words:
I forsake sad smiles Ė
For the fullness of triumph
Over those whose regret is worthless Ė
And whose rule is faint-heartedÖ
His face turned towards me. He laughed a long, happy laugh, shuddering with the muffled sobs brought forth by his sudden, vivid recollection.
About a month later, one fine night, Planer told me of his forgotten, resurrected life. There was nothing special about it. He had lived under another name. He had loved and been loved, travelled and known many unusual adventures and impressions. But the day he sang in my garden he recalled only the joyful moments in the past. The shadowy side of life remained forgotten for him as before Ė and remained so forever.
If that was a failure, then may we be thankful for it. Those chosen ones able to resurrect the joys of the road they have travelled, and lavishly, like a millionaire, to forget lifeís debts Ė are few indeed. Let there be one more man like that.