The plot of land on which he has pinned hopes for a final sink down is not large—80 feet by 110 feet. Sitting in the middle of it, in the shadows of bamboo, with his eyes closed and listening to the sound of the small river and roar of the dam’s water-spill that bordered the narrow easterly part, he muses upon the relative nature of shapes and what lives within them; certainly there is not enough space to keep an elephant contented. Yet there is plenty to provide or continue to provide homes for a variety of creatures—mice and mosquitoes, snakes, lizards, the gentle gecko, beetles and birds, squirrels and the ever present and not at all friendly modkunfai, those voracious Thai fire ants that rule their kingdom with toxins potent enough to kill a lizard in less than sixty seconds. Surely he can make a comfortable home here without disrupting the original inhabitants or the balance that exists between them and him
All of his life he has been somewhat of a nomad, often solitary, colliding periodically into human relationships from which he draws tentative sustenance; relationships more finite than the duration of his living. The cycles of his comings and goings are undoubtedly charted from a childhood of impermanence, constantly being uprooted then replanted in alien environments. It had always been so. It is no great discomfort and he is at peace with his history as it ebbs and sloughs into the ever-present moment, propelling him forward.
Sitting in the ant’s sunlight, he ponders upon his childhood. Even at sixty-five, the memories are fresh and startling—a flash of color, the neon-red bathing suit vibrating in the morning light, his six-year old legs, brown as tobacco from the Georgia sun, treading beneath the emerald-green water. He remembers how, when he was moved north, he carried with him the scent of the island, the sea and sand, the pink blossoms of oleander—a kaleidoscopic ball of memories endlessly spooling out. He would be somewhere far away from his boyhood and it would all come rushing back. Indeed, he remembers, years later, sitting in a cafe in the frozen tundra of Alaska entering his second decade, when a waitress had walked by. With her came the wafting smell of his dark sea against silver dunes. He had stopped her and had asked what perfume she was wearing. She smiled and told him Shalimar. He laughed and later learned that shalimar meant ‘temple of love’ in Sanskrit and that it had been his mother’s favorite perfume when he was that small child on the island ringed by a shallow surf, and thick with scrub palmettos and ancient live oaks .
He smiles at the wondrous weaving of it all. Here, now, another settling, another place in another foreign land. Is not the challenge greater and possibly the risk as well? He wonders. He knew he was old; perhaps not truly old, not as he might come to be. Is there comfort there? And yet, curiously, the traces of his youth readily surface—the distant but potent memories of youth, the pangs of adolescence, the chemical persuasion of love and, for him, the artifacts of yearning left as art. He holds a thought: the inseparability of spirit, mind and body. The he releases it. Do not the cells of the brain enjoy their own constancy: death and rebirth, endlessly transferring historical data in near perfect replication, cell to cell, such that age is merely an enigma. How easily and naturally he inspects the small purple islands floating in the desiccating folds of his skin with the imperturbable curiosity of a child.
He sets out on a brisk pace around the perimeter reciting Buddha’s Five Remembrances, reflecting on the inescapability of old age, of illness, of the loss of all that is dear and especially the idea that ones only real possessions are ones actions, the consequences of which he knows he cannot escape; they are this ground on which he stands.
He re-shuffles his thoughts with a shift in the wind.
“It is here and now I must turn to the ideas of a dwelling, and, dare I say, possibly my last carapace of comfort.” he says with a bit of irony and an image of himself as a tortoise burrowing into the cool earth.
“One must consider all the ingredients like preparing a marvelous Bouillabaisse.” He now feels the subterranean rumble of hunger pangs. “Nothing is simple in this life.” He turns to the Jackfruit tree for confirmation. “But simplicity must be the fiber of the blueprint and balance must guide the roots of intention. “ Between the two is what I am and what I am not.” Though in truth he knows that nothing really separates anything. Everything is a seamless web. His eyes blink from a passing shard of sunlight. The tree is silent.
Yet for all his fanciful ruminations and romanticism, he is generally a practical man. Above everything, the disposition of his finances, which are slim, will ultimately steer the direction of what his new home is to be. He doesn’t at all feel this a restriction, however. He has been an artist too long to sink into ‘what-ifs’. He knows creativity is more often excited by limitations than surplus.
The artist sits in a chair in the middle of this small plot of land. He takes out paper and pen and begins to make a list of all the elements that must be added into the recipe—the heat and rain, occasional flooding, the bugs, certainly the proper place for the studio and always that which falls into the practicalities of age
After a while, growing a bit weary with the constant slapping at mosquitoes, he stops.
“This is enough of a list,” he whispers. “At least for now.” He signs it and rolls it into a tight pipe of paper. It is still a wish list. The artist, who is not as old as he will come to be and who once, in another form in another life, when the continents were just beginning to crawl away from one another and who surely once rode upon the stellar winds, brought out an old wine bottle, empty of wine but still full of pleasant memories. Inserting the rolled-up list into the bottle, stoppering it tightly with the cork, he tosses it playfully but mightily through the air, clear across the land into the river.
It plops and bobs up and down, setting off with the course of the water, meandering southward. He lies back upon the ground, his thoughts rolled up inside the bottle along with the message he imagines will find its way from small river to larger, down into the coastal bays into the vast oceans, drifting over sunken, iridescent reefs. He imagines it being frequently visited by passing inhabitants—small seabirds who come and rest on the rafting glass; even curious whales, seals and floating crustaceans are drawn up to their curved images thrown back from the spinning reflection. And the bottle is constantly etched from relentless winds and particles of sands that have come from deserts and mountains, the Great Steppes of Mongolia, and, yes, the bright beach sand of his childhood. Even the red clay from his long-dead grandmother’s garden he imagines being lifted up by the winds of south Georgia, rolled in the eddies of oceans, the very same dirt that had clung to roots of weeds. And, too, he thinks of the small particles of his brother’s beautiful ashes he sent out into the straits of Juan de Fuca on a small flotilla of roses twenty-one years ago...they too would have moved through the currents into the mouths of small fish, then larger ones, and how easy to imagine his brother now a bird crossing the great oceans, aloft in the lungs of the earth.
The journey, the bottle, the paper, the stopper, the message, and the dream; everything one necklace of stars—exploding jewels across the dark emptiness of space.
Then one day, on a continent far to the Northwest, the bottle is nudged onto a rocky shore by shallow currents. A man, buffeted by cold winds, is walking along the beach, carefully treading the slippery rocks and Bullwhip kelp that lie tangled in great snaky masses. His eye catches a glint of sky ensnared in the giant seagrass. He bends over and fishes out a corked bottle, tinted brownish-green, the color of the kelp. With a small pocketknife he pries it open. A swooshing sound. The faint scent of pale pink oleander blossoms escapes out into the air. Quickly he replaces the cork and carefully carries the bottle in his hands; he resumes his walk along the shore. He savors the idea of patiently waiting to discover someone's message. Not now, he thinks. Perhaps it isn’t just the message in the bottle. Like the dying kelp, each man is entwined in the roux of age. He turns toward home astonished at the mystery and weight of the bottle’s journey, its texture and symmetry, its architecture and possibility.