Part I, Canto I, Lines I-III


Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a darkened wood
For the apparent course had been lost
    Dante Alighieri, The Inferno
Beneath the surface the sounds of splashing and trickling wash through my ears and meet the echo of a thousand splinters igniting. The stream surrounds me, engulfs me, carries me. I take a breath and hold. The night exhales through the trees and with it darkness advances, but still the waters flow on. Sustained and sustaining – but it is mere ether of my thought. In its midst a flame rises up and separates water from water. I look deep in order to decipher a meaning in the tumult of oranges and reds, yellows and blues. I look on and see nothing. The wild colors rage through a forest on the rims of my thought, but I walk through the plains in darkness. My mind, wandering onward through the wild, searches for a single phrase, a new beginning. Searching, but failing to find. The stream continues on its course. I breathe again and glance to my lap, lift a small pen, and in the glow of firelight write: “This tale begins in a darkened wood.”
          Night pressed in and the firelight gave over its role to the stars. My wakeful unrest surrendered to the wish of night where hopes and fears awaken and a voice speaks, a face – whose is it? – appears. Then worlds shifted and I forgot what had passed. I woke abruptly, numb with cold, my neck stiff from resting my chin upon my chest. Moving the few paces to my rocky bed, I slept. The stars circled overhead. Deep in a pool of ash the reminiscences of a watch fire burnt nearly to char lay heaped on the ground, yet still the sentinels, silent and sure, kept to their rounds until their relief came in the form of a pale grey ring on the edge of the world.
          Slowly the forest awoke. I recalled the coals to life, but my phoenix fire was something altogether different from the flame of the night. Without the assault of darkness its luminance was weak. I have heard it said that compared to the revealing brilliance of the sun a fire can only cast shadows: still, I prefer the night. For all the radiance of the sun my small campfires are more penetrating; the shadows are as real as what appears in the light of day – rather more so – and my mind’s eye recoils from the daylight. My tale must wait. 
          I looked around the small space that I had occupied. It was a circle five paces wide. Around me stood a ring of trees rising up to the dimly lit ceiling above imitating the vaults of Notre Dame – though upon reflection they resembled bars more than buttresses. To my mind there is little to distinguish between the structure of mighty cathedrals and that of majestic fortresses and history has taught me enough to know that I am not the only one among my race to consider them one or that a man on his knees is either set in stocks or at the altar, though either posture can be found in either edifice. But at least concretely this wooded enclosure differed from those of civilization in one important respect: the door in this cage was always left ajar, allowing one to take flight at any time. And this I did passing beyond the circle to the edge of the stream that had bordered my thoughts in the night which I then followed as it cascaded some distance to its confluence with the lake. 
          Adrift on the water some hundred strokes from the shoreline I turned and squinted back at the wood. There among the trees I had left something behind, but that which I had left was the very thing that I had not yet found – possibilities and realities. The sloshing of small waves echoed through the hollow at my feet and there I remained caught in limbo between regret and desire, memory and hope, the past and the future. I had seen it each night in the shadows of my thought. Was I retreating away from that face or running toward it? A phantom and fiction in the darkness, in the light of day a persistent memory. From my pen had grown a forest which took the guise of a simple line of prose, but it spoke of more than an impersonal scene of sylvan darkness. It both revealed and concealed an image, sought and gave an answer. And yet the image it had revealed was shrouded in the fog of memory and the answer it gave, too obscure for understanding. Vague and ambiguous it concealed what it gave and questioned its very reply. There among the trees the darkness masked a familiar countenance but the face had appeared anamorphic. I had looked into its eyes and thought that I had known it, but whose face was it? Yes I had a face, I sought a name. Without a name, a face remains as anonymous as the blackness out of which it appears and the features that comprise it are entirely unknown. So on I searched. I didn’t know what such a search entailed, I only hoped that somewhere within the shadows that even then advanced through the Far East I would find a forest waiting to be explored, and somewhere beyond that wood stand face to face, look into her soul, and once again – or at long last – find the voice to speak her name. 
          I continued onward. The fog from the lake seemed to rise and fill the morning sky with a heavy grey shroud so that I never saw the day break. The midnight clear was lost to a featureless dawn. The static noise of mist on the lake took its rhythm from the methodical beating of my paddle. For six days I had been on the lakes alone. For those six days, and the two months leading up to them, I had been entirely lost. Years earlier on similar trips I had brought maps and a compass. What a voyageur I had been. I had sometimes considered setting out with only my compass and charting my own maps as I went. I thought that I was bold, believing that I could make my own way, but I was merely an audacious fool. I had known even then that there was something about this world too wild, too independent to make entirely mine, but I had also had confidence that I was its equal, that my independence was at least as great as its own; that was another age and I had lost my compass some time before – truth be told, I had quite willfully cast it away – and without a compass, maps have no direction so I had thrown them away with the compass. Of course, I didn’t go on at a complete loss as to my way. Certainly, there’s always forward and backward, even if there is no north or south. So forward I went without much regard for where I was to end up. I knew that wherever I found myself when the stars appeared I would make a bed and for one night at least be at home.
          I moved forward on the water without seeming to progress through the cloud-thickened air. The only evidence of movement was the whirlpools left in my wake. There was no wind and soon the mist turned to rain and veiled all but a navy-grey impression of the shoreline. On both my right and left it stretched before me into the obscurity that marked my future. The rhythm of my paddle and the rushing of droplets on water were joined by the chaotic patter resounding on the sheltering brim over my eyes. With the opening of the sky, all other sensation was suppressed; it only rained on.
          As the day continued the rain waxed and waned until finally it nearly halted so that only occasional drops would disrupt the surface and catch my eye on one side or the other. The fog and clouds had converged for the length of the day but now began to rise so that a point in the sky off to my right grew brighter speaking of a world that lived in hope far above the melancholy blanket that weighed down the atmosphere surrounding me. In time an occasional tear in its surface showed the azure expanse above. I saw in it the optimism of a senseless universe that confidently plotted its future far beyond the weight of my daily humanity. Its serene stability in spite of me was reassuring and in seeing this I smiled. The sensation was strange. When had been the last time? My eyes wandered on until I eventually noticed the surface of the lake taking on a warmer hue. The rocks that structured the shoreline and the vertical strokes of brown and green began to soften in color. I turned and saw a line of clouds near the horizon and behind it came a pastel sky, a dim canvas reminiscent of the harbor at La Havre, but these were distant impressions. With surprising speed the clouds broke and the weather began to lift and for the first time that day I observed the shoreline in detail.
          Since setting out that morning I had followed the course of a single lake. It was so narrow in places that I could have mistaken it for a broad, stagnant river and its winding length served only to reinforce the potential for such an error. Along the edge, the two elements were divided by a barren, grey border tainted only by the pale greens and whites of lichen and the darker green of moss. Sometimes the lake’s frame was comprised of massive slabs curving gradually into the water’s edge, other times pieces of rock sized without any regularity were scattered about the lakeshore and occasionally set off into the water breaching the surface and trying with little success to establish some garrison of dry ground. Behind the granite stood the still figures of a faceless crowd of spruce, aspen, and pine. The day’s showers had opened their pores and released the scent of infant life. Among the oaks of my youth rain brought on the scent of deep rooted experience, heavy to breath, heavy to recall. Farther north where the forests have been green since the world’s birth, they exhale the vapor of youth, fresh even in their autumn.
          I approached the shore and the bottom of my boat scraped on the naked lakebed when I made landfall. I stepped out and heaved the canoe on shore. A jutting platform of rock leaned into the lake and allowed me a seat a dozen feet above the water on which to make camp. The sun hovered some distance above the horizon, but the memory of the day’s showers still floated across the sky mostly sheltering me from its gaze. I sat on the edge for an hour or more recalling the way I had travelled and considering what now was to be my course.
          I had wandered these six days. My purpose, I have no doubt, was escape. The series of lakes I had followed and the river that connected them had brought me an unmeasured distance and now resting near the outlet of the lake, considering tomorrow and looking back down its length, I questioned my direction. I wasn’t sure where I was nor where I went, only that I accompanied the current downstream. I had thought that I headed toward something – or someone, that I had an end that drew me on, a place where the waters were still; but at the same time, I knew that the force driving my flight, whatever it was, originated from behind and that its rearward rush was infused with a power that rivaled the magnetism of what drew me onward. The past throws me forward, but the future draws me on, even if the future’s end is only death, and then as now I wondered which is the greater power that moves me. Yet one thing can be said of each, they are born of compulsion, gratuitous and perverse and yet addictive, and run as I may I cannot escape that which has destined me nor the fate to which I am destined. I looked to my right and saw the forest wrap around, blunting the end of the lake, and then looked to my left and saw the long course I had just tracked. Tomorrow I would leave this lake forever; I desired to continue downstream but thought with some regret that I needed first to backtrack to make any progress. I cannot give any reason why, not with any certainty. It may have been that at the beginning I set off down the wrong course, or it may have been more simple: having lost my way, I had to return upstream in order to discover where I was and where thenceforth to proceed.
          The pinks in the sky turned violet, then navy and black. My decision was made so that now I had only to sleep one more night in the present darkness. As with each previous night, I required a fire. The wood from the forest was saturated from the day’s rain so I carved off the outer layers to reach the dry, brittle heart so necessary to kindle a flame. I worked on and my breathing and rustling blended into the sounds of night. With a spark I made myself known to the black. The smoldering filled my eyes and caused me to weep until the flames took hold of a scrap of paper torn from my journal, a page empty of anything but a few forgotten words, so that I could lay back to allow the tears to give clarity to my vision.
          I have said that for two months I had been lost, but it may have been that I lost my way much earlier and only at that moment, illuminated by the flicker of epiphany, did I comprehend my confused state. Since I fled from cobbled streets to these meandering waterways, I had been utterly breathless, my hand paralyzed, hardly able to write more than a few words and even incapable of naming the image always present to my mind; but now, as I lay back in the darkness just out of reach of the warmth cast by the newborn fire, I can feel the cool air course through my lungs. I can breathe again.
          There is a peace in the wilderness unequaled by any other state in life, and I believe that wilderness can be found almost anywhere. So foreign to my cultured life, the wild immerses me in my surroundings and splits me off from who I have been. It gives me a sense of safety in the midst of its violently ebbing tides. When faced with the alien, I am forced inward, forgetting for a time what is outside and when with some hesitancy I regain the courage to venture forth once again that which I have discovered within myself shores up my strength and clarifies my mind to face the future and learn from the oncoming unknown. The world I have entered has its own purposes, its own meaning for life and upon crossing its borders I open myself to that meaning. True it is harsh, but honest. There is nothing to romanticize about the wilderness, no nobility in the savagery of nature, but there is simplicity which in turn permits clarity. I smile, yes sardonically, when I think of people invoking the fantasy of natural harmony that is supposed to order the universe. There is none. But there is honesty, or rather there is no dishonesty and the absence of any lie makes such distinctions superfluous. In the wild, everything follows its simple nature and transcends the complexities of truth or fiction.
          I am more animal here and, strangely, am thus more able to recall my humanity. Each day out I have eaten simple meals, drunk the very water that carried me, slept on the floor of the world and beneath its ceiling, and then at dawn moved on. This is my life set apart and holy, sanctified from the sins of society. In this sanctum sanctorum I am seated on an altar of stone, my eyes lifted up to a tree upon a hill. Behind it is a multitude of relics that grow in its likeness each giving out its own identical benediction. They all say the same thing: there is no philosophy, no politics, no religion.
          But these are mere relics and not my icon – a nameless face – the weighty image that even still I carry with me. Not dangling around my neck, but still resting upon my heart. This icon has heard my prayers, has felt my kisses, has seen my tears. It was the haunting of an image that drove me out into the wild, but I am no holy man and the purity of this place and the illumination of the night have laid bare my memories with the cruelty of indifference. I have run from that image and for a time believed that I would escape but even here there is no true freedom from the ghosts of life because even here I carry them with me, indwelt by their breath – or possessed. So I wander onward on a night like so many that have come before. I look down to the first page of my journal, still crisp and white. I lift my pen, and for the last time – oh god, I hope for the last time I write, "This tale begins in a darkened wood on a path lost by the very one who follows it."
9:24 AM | Unknown