From Luigi Cherubini And The Muse Of Lyric Poetry, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1842
by Vineetha Mokkil
We met by accident, the poet and I. There were just the two of us on the trail that evening – him, heading uphill with measured steps, and me tumbling downhill, out of breath after my run. The air thrummed with birdsong. The sun hung low over the mountains; clouds, blood red and gold, bloomed in the sky.
The stranger broke his stride to wave at me. His closely-cropped hair was peppered with grey. Veins of silver glinted in his beard. The grey gave him gravitas without dulling his charm. A tall man who carried himself well. No slouching, no stoop, not an ounce of flab on his lean frame. Sharp-eyed, quick on his feet. Quick to size up the world.
“Hello,” he smiled.
I needed a minute to catch my breath. Every bone in my body ached. My muscles were sore, my feet hurt. I hadn’t gone running in months, not since February, when things spiralled out of control at home. Nick had relapsed again. Dragging him to the hospital, watching over him, calming him down when he attacked a nurse or yelled at a doctor — all of it was my responsibility. My brother swung like a pendulum: some days he was sweet as a newborn babe, sometimes a foul-mouthed troll who threatened to gun down everyone in sight. Mami was no help. She stayed at home, teary-eyed, twirling her rosary all day. No hospital visits. No phone calls. She was tired of talking to Nick about saving him from himself.
“David Sellers,” the stranger reached out to shake my sweaty hand. “I’m a poet”
The David Sellers. He who was hailed by the New Yorker as the finest living American poet. He of Pulitzer fame. What was he doing in Taos? What had we mortals done to deserve this?
“Resident writer,” he said, bowing slightly. A charming gesture, hard to resist even if I tried.
“I’m staying at the Madeleine Foundation,” he said. “Bang in the middle of town”
The Foundation, a white building with a stunning facade, was the odd man out among the beige adobes dotting the townscape. I’d been there, more than once, to listen to visiting writers read from their work. The readings were held in a grand hall. The ceilings were cathedral-high; the windows, stained-glass set pieces; the walls covered with paintings and exotic masks. The room’s acoustics were perfect. Every word coming out of a writer’s mouth sounded like music in there.
“Do you know the Foundation?” David asked, mistaking my silence for ignorance. “The tall, white building. Next to the town hall”
Snapping out of the fog of awe, I strung words together. “My campus is two blocks away from the Foundation. I’m a student at UNM”
“Nice to meet you…”
“Maria,” he rolled the “r” around on his tongue and drew out my name as if it was meant to be sung. M-a-r-i-a sounded like a different name – freshly minted, full of promise – when he said it that way.
We met for coffee on the weekend. Saturday evening. 7. At Jo’s. David stepped outdoors only late in the evenings. Weekday or weekend, his schedule was fixed: wake up at first light, start writing straightaway. He was at his desk all day, reading, writing, revising, polishing lines till they shone. A new collection was in the works. An end-of-spring deadline loomed. His publisher, a champion of poetry and an old friend, was not the pushy sort. He let David work in peace. His occasional emails were all about how much David was missed in the city, how the poetry readings and literary soirees in New York had become a big bore since David took off on his self-imposed exile to Taos.
David laboured away, never skipping a work day, never faulting on his schedule. We met at Jo’s every weekend. We welcomed spring, with great relief, at the long winter’s end. Spring in Taos is a glorious season. Mellow sunshine, scented breeze, gardens in bloom, wildflowers ablaze. The sky is a vision, dazzling blue. Wispy clouds drift over the mountains. Tourists descend on us in hordes at this time of year. All the bed and breakfasts in town fill up. The staff at the pricey Five Rivers Hotel come out of hibernation, button up their uniforms, snap to attention. Quiet streets get clogged with traffic. The town centre is crammed with visitors doing the rounds of the art galleries and the heritage homes – the former Governor’s residence, the home of a Taos architect who built his wife a spectacular adobe, a Japanese artist’s studio/home, a work of art he bequeathed to the city in his will.
Even Jo’s Cafe, tucked away in a sleepy alley behind the town centre, gets its share of the crowd. Jo’s is my regular haunt. In there, I can think my thoughts in peace, pay attention to the story ideas that gnaw at me day and night, pin them down, spell them out in words. Jo, the floppy-haired owner, is a laidback guy. He lets me stay for as long as I like. If I am short of cash, I don’t order any coffee. Jo never makes a fuss. Never asks me to make way for paying customers, get the hell out, go do my writing at home.
We say hello when I walk in. We smile and nod and settle into a comfortable silence like old friends. I start work on my stories. He gets busy behind the counter, taking orders, brewing coffee or making sandwiches. When there is a lull, and there are no customers to serve, he pulls up a chair and strums his guitar. The café is a small place, but the lemon yellow walls and the cane furniture, painted a rich shade of green, brighten it up. The view is the best part: grab a window seat and you get to see the mountains lined up against the sky, the snow glinting on the peaks, the sun slipping down the horizon, the moon gliding over the mesa like a dancer on tiptoe. Sometimes I stare at the sky and wonder why so much beauty is wasted on us. Not many people bother to look up and take in the wonder of it. Not many care.
David was a good talker and an even better listener, a rare combination in a poet with a serious fan following. He paid attention to everything I said. Took my comments seriously. Chewed over them for long. My insights impressed him, my jokes made him laugh. All this should have given me the confidence to bring up my writing in our conversations. But I stayed quiet. It was so much easier to let him talk about his book tours and travels, his brushes with adoring readers and snarky critics, the glitter of Manhattan’s literary parties, the quirks of New Yorkers. The city shot across my mental screen like a meteor – blinding bright, beyond my reach. Home for David. Hazy dream for me.
Then there were the stories about his ex-wives (three, if we’re keeping count). The past is the past. Best left alone. David swore he was done with it, but that was just wishful thinking. Memories sneaked up on him when he wasn’t looking. Stories came tumbling out. When he spoke of his ex-wives, he used a dry, detached tone like an accident victim bent on distancing himself from a car crash he had suffered. He cracked dark joke after joke. Made light of his broken heart. Laughed off sorrow’s sting. Black humour was his crutch. He leaned on it more than he cared to admit.
I pieced the women together in my head from the things he said: the playwright (creative genius, native New Yorker), his first love and first wife; the “bucolic” second wife, a yoga teacher obsessed with carpets and curtains and kitchen tiles; the outspoken artist from Jerusalem who breezed into Manhattan to exhibit her paintings, moved in with him, and ripped his heart out at the end of a stormy, short-lived marriage.
“Nothing but shadows …,” David snapped his fingers like a magician pulling off a vanishing act. “I don’t let memories drag me down. Nor should you, Maria. Nor should you”
Who sheds the weight of memories at will! Forgetting is the hardest thing in the world. I remember every detail about the day of Papa’s accident at the construction site, the jaundiced evening light, the knock on the door, the look on Papa’s supervisor’s face, his tinny, robotic voice. Our world fell apart that winter. Mami withdrew into her own personal hell, curled up in bed all day, staring blankly at the wall, staring at us as if we were strangers. She didn’t say a word. Not to her friends, not to me or Nick. Her silence settled over the house like a thick, black mist. Nick and I choked on it. We held on to each other to survive. He was different then – warm, funny, unafraid to care. That was before drugs fucked up his brain and turned him into a whole other person.
A fortnight after Papa’s funeral, the company offered Mami a janitor’s job. She forced herself to crawl out of bed. Put on a uniform. Fake a smile. She headed out every morning, spent her days mopping floors, cleaning toilets, sprucing up glass cabins and conference rooms. Nick and I worked odd jobs after school. We mowed lawns, watched babies, gave swimming lessons to the neighbourhood brats. So many jobs, so little money. Nick kept dreaming up crazy get-rich-quick schemes to bail us out. I am the writer in the family, but that boy is the one who can’t tell fact from fiction. That’s how he got sucked into the spiral of drugs. That’s how his dealer kept him hooked to the stuff.
He quits the habit and pulls off clean spells, but the wolf is never far; the beast lurks at his door, baring its fangs, baying for blood. Every day is a test. Every day he skirts the edge. I watch him teeter, holding my breath, holding my howling heart in my hands.
David and I meet at Jo’s on Saturdays because it is my favourite. Also, I figured taking David there would bring luck for my writing; his presence, like a shaman’s, consecrating the space. David read out his poems to me sometimes. New work, lines he’d written down the previous night or in the faint morning light. I liked the sound of his voice, the way he took his time with each line, letting the words breathe, letting them linger in the air like curls of smoke.
One evening, when Jo’s was starting to fill up, David asked if me if I would like to go for a hike that week. His poems were coming along fine. He could afford to take a day’s break without going to pieces about his deadline.
“The trail’s steep. It’s an uphill climb,” I warned him.
“I’ll be fine,” he tapped his chest. “Unless we run into a bear. Any bears up there?”
“Grizzlies you mean?”
“We’ll play dead if we run into one. That’s the best way out, right?”
“I’m no expert. But I hear they snack on poets”
David waved a sheet of paper in my face. Letters, scored in his spare and elegant handwriting, covered the page. David was not a messy writer: his desk was as tidy as his handwriting, books neatly stacked, papers filed away. No dirty coffee mugs lying around. No clutter, no mess. The housekeeper at the Foundation had declared him the best resident to have walked the halls.
“I’ll read the bear a poem,” he said. “No bear in his right mind can resist poetry”
Luckily, we didn’t have to test his theory out. We headed out on a clear Tuesday morning and the trail, free of bears, stretched ahead of us.
I felt like a different person up there. The endless expanse of sky and mountain and wilderness loosened my tongue. I told David about the acceptance letter I’d just received from a magazine. My story about a boy who gets separated from his parents, and survives, all by himself, in a deserted war-torn village, would be published next month.
“Congratulations!” David cheered, his voice carrying across the trail. “Well done, Maria!”
“I have to read it,” he said, stopping in his tracks. “What are we doing out here? Let’s go back. Let’s go read your story”
“I’ll email it to you tonight. I promise”
“Send me everything you have. All your stories. Poems too, if you’ve written any”
“No poems, only stories. A few are ok for you to read. The rest is rubbish”
“How long have you been writing?”
“Since I was a kid. Since I learnt the alphabet”
As a child, I used to make up stories about fiery dragons and wizards and witches who turned things around with their spells. With adulthood, the cast of characters changed, their dilemmas too complex to be solved by spells. But the impulse that powered me stayed the same. The fictional worlds I conjured up, the characters I let loose on the pages, helped me peel the skin off the real world, burrow deep into its heart, find some meaning in the chaos, the madness around.
I liked that David was so eager to read them. What would he make of my stories? The characters I fleshed out? The tangled plots I wove? My eagerness matched his impatience, but we had a hike to get on with. If ever there was a day meant to be spent outdoors, it was this. The weather was perfect; mellow sun, bluer than blue sky, the wind in my hair. The mountains, shaped by time, shaped by the sun and wind and rain, stood in front of us like magnificent sculptures.
It took us the whole day to cover the trail. Late in the evening, we walked back to town, tired but happy wanderers, with a sawed-off half moon in tow. The sky was full of stars. The mountains shone like magic in the moonlight. We rested our eyes on them. We felt lucky to be alive.
Mami and Nick were having dinner when I got home. Nick was pecking at his food as usual. He ate child-sized portions of everything; a spoonful of peas, half-a-bowl of soup, a thin slice of chicken, a measly breadstick or two. His cheeks were sunken, his collarbone jutted out like a clothes hanger from under his skin. The wind would carry him any minute if we weren’t careful. Because I was too exhausted to sit through dinner, I said a quick hello to them, and went straight to my room. Fighting off sleep with superhuman effort, I flicked on my computer and emailed David. My finger hit the Send key, my stories careened into cyberspace, and winged their way to his inbox. He had promised to read them right away.
The next morning, when I got around to checking my mail, David’s comments were waiting for me. High praise mostly, plus a few suggestions on how to tweak a story, fix some plot holes, streamline the flow. His praise made me head-spinningly, heartstoppingly, ridiculously happy. I screamed. I danced a crazy jig around the room. I felt like a real writer for the first time in my life. I felt I would explode with joy.
When David and I planned our next hike, I invited Nick to go with us. Nick spent too much time indoors, hanging around the house like a ghost, a pale, silent apparition who spoke only when spoken to. Nothing caught his fancy – music, food, the great outdoors, the goings on in town. He didn’t visit his friends or ask them over. He hung up on them when they called. No conversation, no music or books or movies to keep him company. Day after day, he walled himself off – a detached, distant spectator watching the world go by.
“He’s not a baby, Maria,” Mami rolled her eyes at me. “The boy’s got to grow up. You can’t keep holding his hand”
“It’s just a hike. And I won’t hold his hand”
“What he needs is a job, a steady girlfriend, responsibilities of his own. He’s your big brother. He should act like it. You can’t save him every time”
But I sure as hell could try!
Nick said no to the hike. No to getting out of the house, no to spending the day with David and me. He didn’t bother to come up with any excuses. If I needed one, I’d have to cook it up myself. Tell David my brother was allergic to fresh air. Tell him he was sick of the human race. Sick of the rigmarole of conversation; the trick questions and slick sidesteps, the barrage of condescension and condolences, the thrust and parry, the stench of small talk.
I let it go. Nagging him was no good. The more I went on about how much fun David and I had clambering up the trail, the more annoyed he got. My ode to the mountains grated on his nerves. My songs of praise for nature’s splendour made him slam the door in my face.
“Writers suck,” he yelled, scrunching up his nose. “Ooh! Mountains! Birds! Ooh! The sun! The moon! The stars! …Why’s everything such a big deal with you guys?”
“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”
“Shut up,” he said, throwing a cushion at me.
I picked up my backpack and left the house on my own. David was crushed when I showed up, all by myself, at the start of the trail. He looked so let down I thought he was going to cry.
“Nick said no?” he asked, shaking his head in disbelief.
“He’s too lazy to step out,” I said. “His loss”
“I can be fun,” David groaned, making a face. “Does Nick know that? Does he know what he’s missing?”
“He’s not into hiking. He’s an indoor plant. Stuck in a corner. Stuck to the couch”
I led the way and David trailed after me, smarting from Nick’s absence as if it was a personal insult. We walked down a narrow stretch of the trail, in single file, in silence.
“I’m reading the new story you sent me,” David said, slowing down to catch his breath. “You write so well, Maria. You’re truly gifted”
My heart turned giddy somersaults. I felt so happy, so hopeful, I could flap my arms and fly away. David’s praise was my lifeline: all my doubts disappeared, my worries lifted like a mist. I saw the world sprawled at my feet, mine to woo and win. The future beckoned, a new start, a new life, a bright place scrubbed free of shadows. Nothing to fear. No need to falter.
I felt invincible.
The clock kept ticking like a maniac. Nothing I did would slow down time or stop the seasons from changing. Spring slipped through my fingers. Summer barged in. Soon, it was the last fortnight of David’s residency, the last week, the last day.
I went around to the Foundation to meet him. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping, but the morning looked dull and grey to me. David’s room was on the ground floor, a well-lit, airy space overlooking the garden. When I walked in, he was kneeling on the floor next to his suitcase, balancing a pile of clothes in his arms. His bed was made; sheets drawn, cover tucked in tight, not a crease in sight.
“Can I help?” I asked, stepping closer.
“I’m hopeless at goodbyes,” he said, without looking up at me.
I handed him his shirts, one by one; books, folders, stacks of papers, sorted into separate bundles, labelled with yellow post-its. He arranged each item in his suitcase carefully, precisely, as if they were the words to a poem he had written.
“I have a confession to make,” he said, snapping his bag shut.
I sat down next to him, on the faded blue carpet, not knowing what to expect.
He cleared his throat. “I was stuck the week I got here. Couldn’t write a word. Not a line on paper. Not a line in my head. A complete blank. Totally useless”
“And then I met you… that evening…the poems came to me in a flash. Words and images, the fragments that make the whole. All of it came looking for me”
“You made it happen. You saved me,” he said.
“You are my muse, Maria,” he said.
I froze. Did his confession demand one in return? Was I meant to tell him that I was working on a story about an aging poet and his many loves? Would he hate me for writing it? Would he read it without flinching?
About the Author:
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, “A Happy Place and other stories” (HarperCollins, 2014), which was listed as one of the Ten Best Works of Fiction of 2014 by The Telegraph. She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award June 2018, and is one of the winners of the New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2018. Her fiction has appeared in the Santa Fe Writers’ Project Journal, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Asian Cha, The Missing Slate, and Jellyfish Review.