Excerpt: 'Moth; or how I came to be with you again' by Thomas Heise


Stockholm Transport Museum: Bus in Copenhagen, 1922

COPENHAGEN, SPRING 2010: What I do not wish to reveal will be discov­ered anyway, because I will inevitably tell it by leav­ing it out of the record. Such is how desire works. So consider this: thirty-five kilometres north of Copenhagen, on a morning of washed-out light that is not uncommon to the region in April, I was follow­ing at an ever-increasing distance for the space of an hour a Middle-Eastern woman in her thirties through a field of heather stretching for acres, which were full of grouse that rose up in a great clattering confusion as I waded through, as if I had aroused them from a sleep that had lasted all of their lives. She wore a white dress of muslin and intricate lace resembling a sail wrapped about her shoulders, and unlike myself was able to walk noiselessly through the field without a disturbance, leaving no trail behind her as if her feet were floating through the heather. Glancing once over her shoulder, she lifted her veil, and I saw on her face a sense of wonderment, the way a parachutist looks back before leaping into the ether, then she disap­peared over the hillside. By the time I reached the crest she was nowhere to be found on the slow undu­lations of purple and marbled green ending with a col­lar of fog on a desolate stretch of seacoast that seemed so cheerless and heartbreaking a place as to be all but uninhabitable. The abandoned lighthouse, plywood in the windows, each with an X on it, conveyed as much. Neither the longer odyssey by which I had arrived at the scrub of dirt and brush and wind-swept trees nor the place I first set sight of her — in a vegetable mar­ket or at a petrol station or by a bell tower in a town square — had left any residue by which they might be traced backward, recovered, or recalled without fab­rication. But this knowledge by itself would not stop me from trying. Without realizing it I had fallen for some months into the practice of following women through Copenhagen, which lent my otherwise aim­less walks a purpose apart from passing time before sleep. It was often the case that I would walk the dis­tance of several blocks, sometimes a kilometre or more into entirely different quarters of the city before I became aware I was, as if on autopilot, keeping pace with a woman threading her way through a crowd, late for lunch, or a business meeting, or, as happened once, back to her apartment building where, catching a door of iron roses right before it closed, I followed and turned into an interior courtyard at the last sec­ond, as she ascended the stairs to shower or sleep or talk on the phone or wait for her lover, I had no way of knowing. I rested for an hour, while I stared at the crumbling stones and up at a parcel of sky on a sound­less day through which, miraculously enough, a zep­pelin glided overhead like a mechanical whale, and I was convinced for a moment it was 1901 again and everyone and everything would be okay for a while. I would never speak to these women — maybe a hun­dred or more in total — and I would take caution to hang back a few metres to feign a casual coincidence but close enough to breathe a trail of perfume, real­izing any recognition would prematurely end the spell I was under and wake me to the ruins of the day. I can only speculate upon what drew me to them other than they walked with an assurance and direction that each step carried them into a future self-determined and entirely their own, while I myself felt each year recede into the past, like a broken ice shelf and on its drift the explorer who having found what he wanted refuses to leave. By the time she would enter an eleva­tor or rendezvous with a companion, which I took as a signal my pursuit was over, I would invariably find myself leaning in a doorway hastily transcrib­ing her height, weight, hair colour, son habillement, the shape of her earrings, and then I would invent a name fitting for her, vines scrolling down my pages. Consulting my notebook I can confirm the evening before the woman disappeared through the heather, I had slept in the Inn Bonne Esperance and though I had no appetite despite having not eaten in over thirty hours, had alone taken a dinner of melon, roasted salmon, white tea on a heated patio decorated with holiday lights strung in a few potted begonias, had spoken briefly with the elderly keeper who, so barely animated he seemed to have survived his own death and was now biding his time, proceeded precisely at nine to show me my room. It was strangely adorned with two antique diverging mirrors that were meant to open up the claustrophobic quarters, but which created instead a debilitating sense of disorientation, as if space itself around me were beginning to bend. That night the simplest movements became a trial. Each time I would cross the floor for a glass of water or to retrieve my wallet, multiple versions of myself appeared out of unfathomable recesses in the mirrors, converged in the centre and then dispersed, one turn­ing a corner back into the corridor that now seemed to lead to the basement, two others climbing perpendic­ular up the walls in different directions, a fourth hang­ing from the ceiling as I paused. All of this induced a paranoia that I had begun to project onto any surface reflexive of my desire a desire to be seen. I was nause­ated, as I always felt when looking at an M.C. Escher lithograph which now I was sure I was in danger of becoming trapped within and so, exiting the room with care, I ventured downstairs to find the owner to request another accommodation, but to judge by all of the open doors he, along with the other two guests, a Jewish couple travelling to Munich, seemed to have departed. It was only later I learnt from reading on the early period of European demonology that convex mirrors were an effective tool for ridding a room prone to unfriendly spirits. It was not a haunting I felt, then or now. Not precisely, unless you can haunt yourself, the former life clawing out of the dead leaves and soil. As I gather my thoughts like the threads of a tapestry, the window I stand in surveys the city’s aquamarine office towers populated with accountants, financial analysts, insurance underwriters whose lives, which make ours possible, I cannot begin to imagine, and a few metres below is a cemetery of mature oaks, a stor­age house enshrouded in such ivy to remove it would cause the roof to cave, and perhaps a hundred tomb­stones tilted on a slope that steps down to a small river popular with mallards in summer. I know nearly nothing of those buried in the family plots and sepul­chres whose eroded inscriptions I can almost read on a clear, dry day with a pair of opera glasses, lives given in battle, victims of cholera, death by isolation, still­births, erased suicides. I was once informed grave­yards old as this no longer have bodies in them, only names and sun in the branches and an inkling of the future robins bring. Twice a month in late afternoon, two nuns appear, though I never see their arrival, to repair a broken link in the fence, pruning underbrush around the mossy stones with a pair of small scythes, a bit of dirt on the wrist which gets smudged on her forehead and suddenly it is Ash Wednesday, and the sky is unfolding and they have gathered leaves into a wicker basket in the medieval lanes with the dedica­tion of a gardener poised before the fragility of his orchids: White Moth, Flower of San Sebastian, Mother of Pearl, Apollinaire, Tiger, Hider of the North.

COPENHAGEN, FALL 2010: The town where I had passed my childhood was a favourite subject of my memories about which I could dwell, even luxuriate, for hours while lying on a couch alone in a largely empty house bereft of furniture, or while sharing with my analyst, which I often did with my eyes closed so it seemed to her I was talking in my sleep and the long monologues that streamed out of me without any urging as I reclined on her sofa, imagining it were a raft, flowed from an underground river whose source, I liked to think, was the icy meltwater of Norway’s Austfonna glacier. But over years these memories became more infrequent and my efforts to conjure them by pouring over sepia-toned photographs of bridges or schoolrooms filled at first glance with identical children quiet at their desks, or by holding in my palm a porcelain brooch of a young Victorian couple walking horses beneath two sycamores were to no avail. Then one day I recognized the transports of my wonder had left me behind, and the prospect of remaining forever trapped within the crystal of the here-and-now was enough to usher in the most severe depression. The small cache of talismanic objects I had acquired over time and carefully guarded included, in addition to the photos and brooches, distressed maps of various cities in Europe, elaborate corals, pigeon feathers, a woman’s silk ribbon in purple, two miniature masks worn by monkeys during itinerant countryside the­atre performances in nineteenth-century China, and a boy’s diary with a cross on its cover secured with a tiny rope. Relics of other pasts, they bore no true connexion to my youth. The items were purchased at estate sales and antique stores during the migra­tory period of my early thirties. I had chosen them out of the disorderly array of possibilities, the sheer randomness of abandoned objects, as evidence for an invented childhood, plot devices if you will, whose fictional quality assumed a truth I could barely deny. I could recall little of my life before the age of puberty and so to compensate for the honeycombed structure of my brain, I took to assembling a glass and teakwood cabinet where at night displayed items were aglow from spectral electricity emanating out of things torn from their context, a quality witnessed in the oddly bright eyes of tropical birds forced to live indoors. Whenever I moved from one apartment to another, from one city to another, as was my wont as soon as a place had exhausted its spell, I would carry the cabi­net by hand, a shroud draped over it like the cage of a sleepless parrot, which only served to elicit the curi­osity of each passerby on the street. I would install the box on its own stand and immediately rearrange the items by different taxonomies according the usual order — age, size, colour, organic or manufactured by human labour — but also by systems cutting to the heart of the issue with greater quickness — objects that contained sadness, objects that over time would change shape, objects that should not exist, objects that could not be destroyed. But one day the cabinet, which had been built as a portal for my imagination, quite inexplicably metamorphosed into a museum of dead things. The auratic pulsations emitting a diffuse colour that recalled sea glass were simply inert. The suddenness of the change was baffling, but I feared I had robbed them of their special power by handling each with too great a frequency, like the dials of a shortwave radio. To this day, I still feel deep within me a glittering but inaccessible and lost radiance that grows with its distance from my current life, but the use value of this knowledge is as limited as Vermeer’s sunlight. That afternoon, I sat in a wing-backed chair facing the cabinet feeling the sun’s falling fire on my back, feeling reduced to benumbed speculation, then as the hour reached the mysterious moment when dusk filling the room is exactly balanced by twilight settling over the cobblestoned street, I rose up to walk the eyelid curve of the port in Aker Brygge by the converted shipyards where at night theatre and restaurant patrons departed for the trams as if inside a well-lit belief that could carry them safely beyond the hills. I knew no one within 900 kilometres and as often happens when this terrible realization is vis­ited upon me, I found myself lost in the labyrinth of my own thoughts, watching the small sailboats drifting in the dark harbour like ideas worth admir­ing. It was then I remembered an elderly man wear­ing a waistcoat I had once approached on a park bench in London some ten years prior, having just come from Temple Church, where the young choris­ters draped in their scarlet cassocks had turned into small flames as pollution gathered in the clouds at sunset. In my chiaroscuro’d memory, he looked like Mr. N., the owner of a coop of carrier pigeons from my childhood town. He raised the birds in the attic of his Edwardian mansion as a hobby after his wife had died of inoperable bone cancer because he felt their honing instinct was a perfect metaphor for the human heart. He would drive to the furthest reaches of town, sometimes deep into the Bavarian coun­tryside, always a different route in hopes of confus­ing the birds to test their fidelity. And then, upon securing an empty scroll to their legs with a ribbon or strands of his own hair if the ribbon had run out, he would release them into the day, only to drive home slowly for he wanted them to wait for him, as if he were the one who had flown away. When I con­fronted the man to enquire if he were indeed who I thought he was, he replied he had once resided in the same town, but as to being a hobbyist with pigeons, he was clueless what I was speaking about, stating he found the tale odd but charming. Wondering if I myself may not have inadvertently invented the story and not wishing to be dismissed immediately, I asked if he had any recollection of me as a boy from the local orphanage; he said no, but regardless with the wave of his hand invited me to take a seat next to him. The sum of our solitudes, we remained through the evening while the London Eye stared hypnotically from its pupilless centre at the spires of Westminster, at Cleopatra’s Needle, at crows float­ing in air as if nowhere were worth landing, and at us while we sat there unable to move while a line of snow settled in a hushed circle at our feet. That night back in Copenhagen I hailed a car, a warm glow on the taxidriver and from his metre the knowledge that even in stillness time was passing. Out the back win­dow the narrow canyon began to move again, reced­ing into the night like the ending of a melancholy film. A light rain falling. The car gathering speed on an incline never noticed before, a momentum that pushed me gently against the seat and I could not see the driver in the darkness and I wondered if he were still behind the wheel or if it even mattered as water whipped off the windshield in little rivulets into which the people melted, sidewalks awash in colour and then miraculously petal . . . petal . . . petal . . . in a blur. And I was a blur as well, only I could not see I was hurtling through the world.

Text Details

Excerpted from MOTH; or how I came to be with you again by Thomas Heise (Sarabande, 2013).

About the Author

Thomas Heise is the author of three books, Moth: or how I came to be with you again (Sarabande, 2013), Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2010), and Horror Vacui: Poems (Sarabande, 2006). He currently divides his time between Montreal and New York City.