I answer the phone, my hands stinging. With a pair of snips that could be a lot sharper, I've been doing battle with the blackberries in my backyard, attempting to foil their schemes for world conquest.
A muffled sob lands in my ear. The sob started in a smashed heart in a no-doubt scrungy apartment in the East Village. It has crossed rivers and mountains and all the rocking wheat of Kansas to get here, where an osprey heading home from a foray into the Pacific wheels across the sky. The fish gripped in the osprey's talons flashes in the sun. The sob shakes off its tears like a wet dog and turns into the plaintive voice of Ariadne, the daughter of a former lover.
"I'm so happy you're home. I need to talk or I'll die."
Those wires that crisscross the continent are perhaps a kind of net to catch our sobs, to prevent them from floating up into the sky and degrading what's left of the ozone.
"I've been calling everyone, but nobody else answers."
Tired of clerking at a local five-and-dime store, Ariadne herself crossed the continent at age twenty to become a ballerina. A year and a string of bit parts later, she's soaking her feet in a bath of Epsom salts and phoning her mother's ex.
"You may not be my mom's favorite ex, but you're mine."
"Can you wait a sec?" I ask.
Blood drips from one of the many thorn pricks in my flesh. A red Rorschach test forms on the paper towel I double over and wrap around my index finger.
"Yes," I say, to let her know I'm back, and begin listening.
This is Ariadne's first broken heart, the first time a perfect forever-tango partner spun her around in the air and wasn't there to catch her.
"And it felt so right," she says. "I felt so light you could've stapled a string to my scalp and lifted me up like a Chinese paper lantern."
And now, if the fish in the osprey's clutch were to change into a Ming vase, and if the vase were her heart, and the talons were to suddenly let go ... I know the feeling. I tell her that one time I had it so bad I went to the house of a friend with a television and watched the Weather Channel for thirty-six straight hours. A hurricane with a man's name was tearing the palms right out of Florida's pelt, spinning roofs like Frisbees, and washing the boats of sponge divers down the wharves of Tarpon Springs. Many, christened after popular Greek saints, ended up with splintered hulls in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket several blocks from the harbor.
"But there are no big storms right now," Ariadne says.
That's a problem with the young. Despite their natural gift for metaphor, they so often take things literally.
Another time I packed my love troubles in my old kit bag and carried them out to Dharma Farm, a Zen hippie commune in the hills beyond Comptche. I sat in the shade under the apple trees with Karate Ken, the stringiest and wisest of the dharma farmers. He suggested that the way for me to get rid of my blues was to beat him up.
I tried. I grabbed one of the pruned branches and attacked. Before I could blink, I was lying on my back. I got up and tried again, using all the feints and dodges in my repertoire. What hurt the most was that I wasn't hurt at all. Karate Ken parried all my thrusts as though he were brushing gnats away, then laid me on the ground as gently as a mother putting an infant to sleep in a cradle.
According to him, repetition is the key to martial arts. If a maneuver is practiced enough, it becomes a kind of ritual, an unconscious, stylized response, immediate and effective. Only a limited number of attack modes and postures exists. Knowing this slows time down. You don't waste time thinking about what to do, you just do. My fist came at him in slow motion, so of course he was able to flick it aside, without even working up a sweat.
"Great," groans Ariadne. "Except my problem is I want to speed things up."
Another idea Karate Ken passed on to me is what he dubbed the Flipside Theory. Everything and its opposite are part of the same whole. Yin and yang, attraction and repulsion, the loving and the jettisoning, are all expressions of the same connection. Heraclitus and the dharma farmer agree that the stairs up are the stairs down.
"But if your quarter has two heads?" she asks. "If you're stuck in the soak cycle of the washing machine? I never thought a woman would betray me this way, dump me for another woman."
I don't tell Ariadne that there are feminine secrets only men can know, and masculine mysteries only women can fathom. Instead, I relate the tale Karate Ken told me about his grandfather Jake that afternoon I was nursing my sore heart under the Gravensteins and Sierra Beauties.
A sawmill worker in a state famous for its potatoes, a barely literate, snaggletooth tobacco chewer, met a fine, young city lady with a parasol one day. She was out for a walk along the trail from the dude ranch where she was staying, hoping to improve her delicate health in the brisk mountain air. Opposites do attract, sometimes in a most volatile fashion, and they were soon married.
A little over a year after the wedding, Jake was placed on the night shift. The winters howling down out of Canada are cold, his wife was frail, and before he left for the mill each night, he lit a blazing fire and hauled in a pile of firewood from the woodshed so she wouldn't have to go traipsing through the snow. Most mornings he would find her curled up on the sofa by the hearth, the golden fan of her hair spilling over the flowered quilt she favored, the book she'd been reading into the wee hours opened, spine up, on the floor.
One small thing troubled him. As the winter wore on, Jake noticed that his firewood was vanishing at an alarming rate. Unable to explain the disappearance any other way, he reached the conclusion that some varmint was making off with it. In the boonies, firewood thieves are right down there with barn burners and child molesters, and he felt more than justified in carefully hollowing out a log, filling it with dynamite, plugging it back up so it resembled all the other logs, then placing it on top of his woodpile before he left for work.
The mill hands heard the explosion above the keen of the head saw. Many workers, some of them members of the volunteer fire department, shut down their machinery and rushed to the site of the blaze lighting up the sky outside town. Among them was Jake, who arrived on the scene in time to see neighbors pulling his wife and the best man at his wedding from his shattered cabin, hissing and steaming in the plumes of water from hand pumpers. Bruises, stark and strange as violets in the snow, blossomed on their naked corpses.
Ariadne doesn't suspect it, but she sounds better already. I can hear healthy traces of impatience and irony in her voice.
"I mean, is there supposed to be a moral to the story, or what?"
"Not exactly," I answer, unwinding the paper towel to see if my wound has stopped bleeding. "It's more like evidence, proof for the truth of what Balzac said, that life cannot go on without a great deal of forgetting."
"Easy for you to say. Your heart is so scarred and battered. Mine is still young and tender. Forget the past? Why don't you ask me to remember the future, while you're at it?"