Where he would die was a life-long obsession for Arthur Sand. He was at this point, half-way through that length of time that he knew, or at least had once read in an orphaned copy of the Economist at the airport in Atlanta, was typical for a Caucasian male in a developed country. He kept a record of the possibilities, and, on occasions of unbearable tedium such as standing in-line waiting for a flight to board, he would unfurl his map of ideal places to die and spread it before his mind’s eye. With relish, he would smoothen the imaginary creases, taking a moment to briefly review the folds for any signs of wear.
Typically, he would start his purview in the regimental chapel. Brass plates and torn flags. “Robert McKinley, born, Galway, Ireland, 12th Regiment, Irish Fusiliers, died Bengal. David MacCauley, born, Edinburgh, Irish Guard, died Natal, South Africa.” During the weekend mornings, before the artisans gathered in the market outside, he would stand alone in the three-naved chapel. The floor was covered with remnants of medieval gravestones, names slowly worn away by visitors. “Connor de Burgh, 1714, late sheriff of this citiye, a widow’s son.” How beautifully still, summer light flowing through the large stained-glass rose-window. So many soldiers lying in such calm silence. It seemed unlikely. The stone knight lay in full-repose, clutching his petrified sword. What did these dead men feel here in the loamy deep rich moist soils of home? Did they replay memories of India? Visions of magnificent Afghan warlords seen for the first time through the sights of their muskets? Did a pair of green eyes beneath a veil in Peshwar now and forever haunt their thoughts? How could they bear it then, to be buried here within earshot of all they knew, remembering all that they had found?
Calling groups 2 and 3.
He ran his finger across the dry paper, delighting in the thoughts of geography and adventure that trailed his gaze, like seagulls following a trawler at sea. Fiji. Self-conscious hesitation. Lapping, peaceful blue turquoise waters. He was not himself, but someone transmuted and free. He was nothing, owning nothing, receiving no communications and was clothed as befit the purpose of the day rather than for any care for typical customs or modesty. He was human with them, and after all these years, he was now sure that they too were so with him. They sat surrounding. His aged and failing mind would play with the words of his mother tongue, long since resigned to use merely as a type of music. E-l-a-b-o-r-a-t-e. P-o-l-y-d-a-c-t-y-l. He would laugh at puns that only he could understand, some more humorous than others. Now they laughed too. Men emerging from the sea between his eyelids. A-m-p-h-i-b-i-a-n. The taste of fresh sea-urchin soaked in Vanderford’s orange juice. V-a-i-n-g-l-o-r-i-o-u-s. Perhaps he had helped these people in some way during his life. Perhaps they had come to love him. Perhaps, on this day, they would flood the small harbor with dugouts, bellow into a great conch-shell and scatter on the sea the ashes of one who had known the full bargain of their friendship and family. The sea!? No, not the sea – how irreversible! No, in the palm-grove on the bluff, where one can look out to sea and watch the world from afar. Perhaps catch a ship forever on the horizon. And yet, amid more than his fair share of beauty, he was so far from home. He felt disloyal to the graves of those from whom he had begot.
He was certain that one location was surely so awful, the manner of the passing there so ignoble that it could not be endured. The horror of it in fact had given birth to his map. Manhattan. In his life, he had lived there for a while and indeed quite liked it, with mixed feelings, as with anything. It was one of the few places in the United States where he felt he did not have to apologize for thinking. And yet, perhaps born out of this peculiarity, it seemed now to his older mind a town full of conceit, smugness, and the typical adolescent pretensions and affectations of those who do not yet realize they are about to die. It happens in a kitchen in an atomistic apartment with a large and intentionally de-personalizing number. 5603. “Oh, the man in 5603 died,” she would say returning to bed on a Saturday morning, firm-breasted and young, reading the obituary. The television would almost immediately quench their memories of him with a warning on the importance of being regular. Days before, he had been lying on the floor, unable to move, listening to them fuck while he waited. “J G Wentworth. Mattress-discounters. Cialis. This is unlike any computer we’ve ever made before. In a sense it’s not a computer at all. It’s you. Get the channels you want, when you want them. Have you been injured in a workplace accident?” He had never felt sufficiently at home in that apartment to want to change the kitchen-cabinets. And now those cabinets were the only witnesses to his departure. Too much fucking beige.
Please turn off all electrical devices at this time.
Would America ever do? Perhaps the Rockies, but he had never been. He had seen photographs and films and the vast expanses of pristine untouched nature seemed sufficiently beautiful to warrant his last breath. Upwards, peaks, clean, majestic, undisciplined, devoid of advertising. Perhaps there was a sunlit glade, the seasons passing quietly by. The nights still and filled with constellations, tales of Araby? Perhaps a camper would light a fire nearby and read aloud from Thoreau or Whitman. That would be a pleasant evening. Maybe? America, – such a strange land. Imagine being tied to its disappointments forever. No doubt they would find some ingenious double-talking way to screw it all up. I couldn’t bear to have to watch them beggar themselves with progress and be unable to leave. A drill-bit mangling through my bones, some plaid-bellied foreman bending down to toss my skull aside. Farting. And yet perhaps they wouldn’t, or perhaps the mountains would endure nonetheless as they had always done.
“Please fasten your seatbelt sir.”
“Oh I’m sorry.”
The plane taxied to the runway. Across the aisle there was a woman from India. She had a child with large brown eyes. She was beautiful.
The isolated mountains of Provence. Manon de Sources. Home of the Cathar heretics, the lethal pot-shot taking camaraderie of the Croix de Lorraine. Sunlight pouring through the open door of the farmhouse imperceptibly nestled among the cypress trees along a golden ridge.
The woman’s husband sat beside her. He was tall and disinterested, with that stern look that stupid people wear when they are trying to appear commanding.
Shelves lined with books and old friends. A wrought iron-bed. Fresh tomatoes left by the door by a friend. Tuesday. Ever the optimist. The birds outside in summer. He knew there was a half a bottle of rosé left in the fridge. Last week a letter, a paper letter.
The mother’s face was sweet and gentle. He thought what a waste for a woman like that to spend a lifetime with a man like him.
At this point this felt best. His spirit gently flowing from him, through the memories of laughing dinners on the terrace and out into a countryside devoid of modernity and soaked in history. He would feel the cloth sheets, old paper, warm stone, friendly timber, transcendent blue-green glass.
What a beautiful child.
The plane began to increase in speed. He secretly loved how the acceleration forced him back into the chair and then that ecstasy at takeoff. The lift beneath the wings. The moisture flickering violently on the window as if nature herself was shocked by such obscene acceleration. Suspended now, in the air, between points, beyond choice or control. He was smiling. His mind was silent. He closed his eyes.
She smelled of jasmine and something else.