Budapest Train Dream – As written in the dark

Arriving at some train station —not Nyugati, Keleti perhaps.

MML was there—and Jon, a few other friends. I was sent out to find our way —somehow we’re in an outer area, vacant overgrown lots — darkness has fallen —I make my way across a field — the distant glow of lights in homes — I see a narrow road so steep uphill like a roller coaster that one cannot see the top. There is a line down the middle but the road can only accommodate one car. The other side of the road is solid, high fences, a bus shelter —plastic and aluminum, suburban, old, forlorn, with weak overhead light.

Suddenly, from the top of the hill: lights! I grab Mister Dog who has crossed the road and could be hit — we duck into the bus shelter, me holding him tight. But the lights are paused at the top of the hill, waiting. At any moment I expect them to come barreling down the narrow road past us.

I hear a cry across the field behind us— one of our party has come to fetch me — they’ve found a well-lit city street passage and we are headed towards a hotel, or is it a hospital? On a hill, eerie greenish light, a long wait at the reception desk. Then we all proceed to a houseboat somewhere—is it on the Danube? We unroll bedding in what is more like a train compartment.

In the middle of the night Mister is sleeping near me, cradled by my stomach — someone begins to yell that the boat is sinking. I try to gather up all our bedding in one sheet pulled together by the corners and grab our bag and somehow we make it off…

We go directly to a train, very old-fashioned made of chrome and old wood. We pause in an amazing solarium car with a skylight. The car has three stories — steep balconies like an ancient surgery classroom.

It is all in resonant cedar wood, the color of a fine cello. The lowest level has wooden chaise lounges with leather cushions in the same smeary cedar color as the wood. Everything is smooth, satin-varnished with deco lines and designs. I marvel at how tall and high the car is, thinking of the tunnels it must pass through, the bridges. Someone explains the train goes through the steppes and prairies, endless miles of flat terrain…all the way to Siberia?

The point of waking, but all the scents and atmosphere of Budapest are still circling in the air and sky, the rain soaked streets. The glowing castle above on the hill, the lights of Margaret Island, the bridge and throngs coming from Buda to Pest and back again….

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Opus Posthumous

 by D. L. Pughe

From 1990

          Quite unexpectedly in late August of last year I was taken to the OP Project in the rural countryside near Utrecht. I was visiting my friends Lefke and Willem in Leiden who had a gathering of acquaintances among whom was Edna Bauer, the now famous founder of the project. Unlike the many interviews I remembered of her, where her idiosyncratic pulling on her throat below her chin and rolling her eyes captivated the writer more than her words, I found what she had to say fascinating and evocative.

The OP Project, short for Opus Posthumous, was founded in 1975 and remains devoted to finishing unfinished ideas. Artworks, novels, poems, plays, compositions, anything which was cut short by time. Edna, who has now added an unusual mouth-pursing and blowing gesture to her repertoire of ticks since she quit smoking last year, offered some of her own personal accomplishments which led to her unusual support of forlorn fragments.

As a promising music student in Salzburg in the 40’s, Edna became hypnotized by some partial musical scores of several avant-garde composers killed in the first world war. She assembled a small chamber group which played the pieces in sequence, with one breaking off, pausing, and flowing into the next in the order in which the composers had fallen in the war. The rupture created a heightened effect and in the third performance, Edna, who was conducting the group, held the silences between in a prolonged gasp where the preceding music danced invisibly along in the air, experienced differently by each listener. Edna, however, kept hearing a repeated refrain and a new movement which substantially grew with each performance. And, although she denies any affinity with paranormal events, she came to believe that the composer was tossing notes down in the still pause. She imagined herself, as though on a battlefield, with a huge white apron rushing around madly trying to catch each clef and note that fell.

The live performances of these pieces ended with great acclaim and the chamber group went on to a more predictable classical repertoire, with much less success. But Edna did not join them and was never the same again. At night, she claims, musical refrains would cascade down to her and pull her from sleep, as if wrapping her in their embrace. She found it happened more frequently and with crystal sound when she was in the countryside.  She soon rented a room above a barn in Roelofarendsveen for the summer in order to complete the score of scores….

At first she wanted to know everything about each composer in order to translate his concepts most honestly. Then, she realized that finding out the intimate details of the composer’s life sometimes forced her into judgmental walls which did not avail her becoming a medium. She knew that a suspension of analysis in order to allow the music to flow into her mind and soul was the only way it could occur with an integrity to the idea.

It was in Roelofahrensveen that she also met Henk Schoonover, a retired philosopher who was taken by her eccentric nighttime quests. He once found her asleep in an open field in order, she said, to hear the notes ringing louder in the sky. If she were mad, Henk reasoned, then the pages of score she copied down before breakfast were those of a mad genius. No, she explained, they weren’t hers at all. She had found them in the air. And she went on to describe the unusual process which had led her to lie in wait of another composer’s muse.

Henk was not unaffected. He fell quite in love with Edna, though she was too preoccupied to notice; he also began to lay awake himself with continual thoughts of the philosophers whose work he most admired, and what they might have written had their lives spanned a few more years. His focus soon became Spinoza, a man of the neighborhood who had lived nearby in Rijnsburg and The Hague and who had died from ingesting too much glass dust from his lens grinding occupation at the young age of 44.


This account of the Opus Posthumous project trails off here, a work of fiction in my imaginary museum series, but led to my own dreams of friends lost on the battlefield of AIDS.  I awoke one night and in a hypnagogic state thought I saw beams of colored light coming down from the sky, each one humming with a radio-like frequency carrying the unfinished ideas of so many friends who had died.  In my group at the Museums (of 25 employees) we lost 11 to AIDS.  So many creative artists, writers and poets from that time disappeared far too young, their ambitions and talents never fully realized.  I later woke and saw that the colored light beams were a dream within a dream.  But also palpable and humming and I spoke of it to Joe Goode, the founder and choreographer of Joe Goode Performance Group.  He turned it into a brilliant performance in the darkened main court of the de Young Museum in honor of AIDS Day, December 1, 1991.  Under 6 beams of light, dancers captured the longing, the distant frequency of ideas still touching down long after the mortal world is left behind.

This fragment also led to this essay on Spinoza and his houses that was originally in NEST Magazine

The illustration to Opus Posthumous is from Choregraphie, 1700, the  dance notation system invented by Raoul Auger Feuillet


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Collected Thoughts

An excerpt from A Different Acquaintance, by D. L. Pughe

The porcelain room of the great fortress of Würzburg is in a high archway connecting one enormous chilly stone chamber to the next. Those rooms are warmed only by massive tapestries that seem to comfort and clothe the shivering stone.  Tiny spotlights frame the paintings there, then glint off of sentries of shining armor and caress the thoughtful faces of ancient lindenwood sculptures. The archway of porcelain is instead lined with windows and full of bright lamps and sunlight. Coming out of the dark Mayer ducked his head while entering as though leaving Socrates low cave.

Believing the ancient plates and bowls could take the weather, the uniformed guard had flung the windows open.   A crisp spring wind rising up over the vineyards surrounding the castle was happily flapping the curtains, pulling them out of the window frames where they were licking the air.

Mayer had arrived in town the previous evening. After dropping his things at a small pension he made his way up to the fortress in the dark. The huge saints and gods that line the walkways of the bridge across the river Main stood tall in the moonlight, each embellished with a touch of gold on the belt or sword or crown. Five times human size, they are grey and harmless guardians, menacing only to the sky. Mayer approached the castle with an unexpected feeling of safety.

It followed him back to the hotel that night and had returned this morning as he again passed by the guardians of the bridge.  The safety lingered as Mayer made his way up to the castle then through its chilly dim chambers and now stood in the light before the arranged dishes and bowls. They would have particularly delighted his grandmother who collected blue and white porcelain for decades and kept it in a mahogany cabinet her father had carved for her with sliding doors. Platters and bowls were brought out and used on celebratory occasions, filled for a brief moment with steaming meats, potatoes and gravies and stuffed cabbage and colorful salads. Then each dish was carefully washed and put away, their patterns enhanced by being in the midst of others.  Dishes from distant countries with elaborate shapes joined  local objects of shared hue, making them into a region all their own. The land of blue and white.

At his grandmother’s house in old Buda, Mayer spent many hours as a child looking at her dishes. She would slide open the mahogany doors and take out one or two, tracing the floral arabesques on a Moroccan saucer with an unsteady finger, then pointing out how it was also on a Chinese cup and a bowl from the Netherlands and one from America. These patterns delighted her and clearly made her feel hopeful. She often mentioned the ‘silk road’ which, like the Black Sea, Mayer for many years harbored as a literal vision. He believed there was a road paved in silk which billowed and shone, blue and white stretched between far dots on the globe that could ripple and lift up into the air.  And at one end lay a huge black sea with waves of ebony or tar.  And that image, in turn, imbued how he saw the dark trunk where she kept the broken pieces from the past.  She did not like to speak of how they were broken and yet was particularly proud of the ones she had managed to mend.  “They’re still good,” she would say.

A few years ago, on a return visit to Budapest, Mayer (now an aging professor in a different land) invited his grandmother to join some of his colleagues for lunch at a café in Pest. Morris, an American philosopher with an affection for poetry, was seated next to her and they began an animated conversation that ended in curious looks, then perplexed silence, and finally laughter between them. His grandmother’s small frame shook and her face grew bright from the exertion while her hands folded helplessly in her lap.  Morris bent over his plate choking on his wine, laughing while wiping his eyes with his napkin. Mayer’s grandmother, in halting English, explained that they had been conversing for some time about a thing they both share in great affection. It began with Morris asking her if she knew Paul Celan.   She enthusiastically exclaimed that she collected it. Somehow they proceeded until the hard plates and bowls of Mayer’s grandmother’s vision collided with Morris’s thoughts of the Romanian poet and they discovered their mistake. Now this story clung to Mayer’s notion of porcelain itself, as though phrases from Celan’s poetry were secretly etched in light relief in the bottom of his grandmother’s cups, visible only when the tea is gone and they are tipped to the light.

The tear, half,

the sharper lens, moveable,

brings the images home to you.

Peering into the cases before him now, Mayer saw a plate brushed with  blue figures and gestures from the great Qing poems, airy and incomplete. Imported to the West, these were copied on bowls and the human features become more angular, the eyes wider, fluttering details of landscape began to encroach upon the mist. Taken back the other direction along the same road, they were imitated on cups, with inflections of local life creeping into the faces until a whole new race emerged.


From blue and white, as a child Mayer mistakenly believed that photography evolved from porcelain. He assumed colors were exiled leaving black and white in order to highlight pattern and setting. Later, when he learned this was just a limit of photography at the start, his first and partial knowledge lingered on. For Mayer they remain intertwined, one a cerulean silk road, the other paved by Daguerre and ending in Sudek’s dark haunting portraits of Mionší Forest.

Mayer’s grandmother’s collection was his first experience of desire and unembarrassed pride in ownership not based on value.  It was her need to gather certain things all in one place. Each piece joined a group only after lengthy, discriminating nomination and acceptance. He recognized it in himself, as a student Mayer had  scraped together every penny to buy one of Sudek’s views of Janacek’s garden, an iron chair between two trees with a carpet of fallen leaves.   Even now, when it was pulled from its box and admired, his stomach recalled the two weeks that followed its purchase when he was forced to go without lunch.  What was its power?  An empty chair in an overgrown garden, waiting amid neglect.  He had never seen anything more haunting.


Most collections begin innocently. A thing draws our attention. Something about it provokes an intangible recognition, a sensation of kinship, an evocation of memory. You long to hold it, and then: hold onto it.  Then comes the hunt and gather of the very particular. Prominence comes into the picture, then the notion that others understand who are drawn to the same thing, and share the ways of weighing it. A scale of excellence begins to emerge and condition each new acquisition. The innocent delight at the start of the collection now grows more serious. Discrimination takes place. At some point early pieces are exiled, and each addition can go hand in hand with exclusion.  In his grandmother’s case it was not pieces that were expensive, but ones found for a handful of change.  It was plates or bowls or cups which reminded her of something, most of all of a time of peace, times of tea and coffee on calm sunny afternoons, times with so many relatives there, laughing, their forks clinking against the plates.

When Mayer was ten he cut school one afternoon to go up into Jánoshegy forest with his friend András. They shared a strong dislike of their 4th form teacher, and an interest in being out of doors. After racing through the empty cafeteria, they took the tram up Buda hill to the forest, then rode through the woods on the Children’s Railway using the last bit of change they could scrape together. The Gyermekvasút (as it is called) winds through the thick forest and is managed by older children, giving every other kid on board a sense of entitlement. They got off in a stretch of the forest with tall firs and rough terrain of needles and brush at Virágvölgy. It was still cold with the last traces of winter in the air. Mayer and András used their knives to cut two willows and strip them into swords that made desirable whooshing sounds. They began to fence on a cluster of rocks in a clearing among the trees.

Then András tipped Mayer off the embankment and he feigned death by rolling down onto a mound of twigs and leaves. When they poked around it was a vast structure of compressed bits of wood and trash. An old and abandoned nest, or so Mayer told himself as his curiosity overtook respect for the creature that might live there. The crush of things must have left little room for its inhabitant. But then a large brown pack rat rushed out, its round ears flattened back, and scuttled up the hill to a hollow in the stones. From there it shrieked in fearless anger.  Mayer and András stopped pawing their way into the nest and broke their swords, using them to attempt to repair the area they had damaged and build a small tunnel for the rat to return to its fort. They departed grudgingly respectful of its creator. Since they had no coins left, they began to walk in silence along the edge of the tracks through the forest.   Darkness was falling when the train reappeared. They showed their empty pockets as it rolled by and a boy attendant helped to pull them on board. He operated in silence too, handing them each transfers even though they hadn’t asked.

Mayer now leaned out the open window of the German fortress in Würzburg into a similar spring chill. He recalled Leonardo’s sepia sketch the Rain of Things, a crashing deluge of human objects falling from the sky in random clutter. Rakes and boxes, tools and all manner of household stuff. The moral warning Leonardo intended was lost, Mayer thought only of how it might have delighted the pack rat of Jánoshegy.  And possibly his grandmother.

In the year she died, her collection of porcelain was shared among the grandchildren and cousins.  Mayer asked for only three broken and repaired pieces, the ones she had proudly shown him in the past.  Two had survived the war, one the failed revolution.  And, with no objections from any of her survivors, Mayer took away a box of shards from her small dark trunk.  From time to time he would look at them, fragments of blue and white and sometimes the grey of clay in between, and see two bits that might fit together.  Now, he realized, of all things—even his photographs—this box was what he would rescue if there were ever a threat and a need to suddenly go.

Tiny bits of green were timidly adorning the contorted vines far below Würzburg castle while traces of snow still hid in the brown furrows. A cool wind was sweeping up the hill. Mayer leaned into its embrace, the curtain flapping against his ear, a moist spray beginning to cover his glasses making it nearly impossible to see.  But there was also sun, and a brief moment of safety.


Leonardo da Vinci, The Rain of Things, The Royal Library

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Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite


Jean Vigo made Zéro de conduite in 1933 and it was banned in France until 1945 out of government fear that it would be an incitement for boarding school boys to misbehave. It was revolutionary and anarchistic. In October 1933, Vigo made these remarks before a screening in Belgium, and nothing captures the spirit of the film or of childhood so well:

 “In this film I did not allow myself any literature. No invention whatsoever. I barely needed even to bend down in order to retrieve my memories. Childhood, an October night at the start of term, kids abandoned in the courtyard somewhere in the provinces beneath some flag or other, but always far from home and the desired affection of a mother, the camaraderie of a father (unless he’s already dead). Now I feel myself consumed with anxiety. You’re going to see Zéro de conduite. I am going to see it again with you! No doubt I shall rediscover in the train compartment those two friends returning from vacation for the start of term. Of course there will appear with its thirty identical beds the dormitory of my eight years of boarding school, and I shall see also Huguet, the junior master who we loved so much, and his colleague The Warden Péte-Sec (dry fart), and the silent Head Supervisor with his ghostly crepe soled shoes.

In the light of the gas lamp left on low, will the little sleepwalker haunt my dreams again tonight? And perhaps I shall see him again at the foot of my bed as he appeared to me the night before he was swept away by the Spanish flu in 1919.

Yes, I recognize all my friends, Cosussat, Bruel, Colin, the cook’s son, and Tabard known as ‘the girl’ who was spied on and persecuted by the administration. All he really needed was a big brother as his mother didn’t love him.

 Everything is represented, the refectory smelling of beans, the classroom where one day one of us said out loud what all of us were thinking. And I shall witness again the representation of the conspiracy that caused us so much trouble. The night spent in the loft, the rebellion that took place, the crucifixion of Péte-Sec. The public celebration that we disturbed on the aptly named day of Santa Barbara, B for Boredom. Shall I again set off from that loft, our sole domain, across the roof and towards a happier sky?”


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imageszero-de-conduite-1934-08-gvlcsnap-2010-05-16-14h50m09s33    Zero_Feature_Current_video_still  zero-for-conduct



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The dentist and her

assistant move

in unison, four

hands in silence

passing tools

and cotton,

suction and light.

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The dance of women’s fingers

beyond words.

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Aware of all of it

or none; drifting

off to the night

I held my mother’s

hand.   Her breath

slowing and weaker

over hours,

her skin cool then



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For her life, her

love, I

weep with

gratitude that

could fill oceans.

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“Are you okay?”

Afraid I’m in

pain the

concert of hands


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No, no…I wave,

my eyes and

mouth and

throat full.

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Don’t worry.

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The play of hands

ends; my smile

restored. I blink

back into the

day with

my mother’s palm


lightly warm

in my own.

Screen shot 2015-03-06 at 10.57.19 AMScreen shot 2015-03-06 at 10.57.19 AM

— D. L. Pughe


My beloved mother, Barbara Pughe

I think of you every day, sloshing with love,

and try to somehow live in your honor.

  BarbaraPughe-CUYears  IMG_2383

Continue reading

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The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

This passage refers to the previous post on E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End:  Connecting with Nature in Forster’s Forests

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith is referred to by Mr. Bast in Howard’s End as leading to his own desire to walk through forests all night.  Bast mentions it is in the Chapter called ‘Nature Speaks’

From Chapter 42 

Nature Speaks


 Telling Austin he would be back in a few minutes, he sallied into the air, and walked on and on. “A father!” he kept repeating to himself: “a child!” And though he knew it not, he was striking the key-notes of Nature. But he did know of a singular harmony that suddenly burst over his whole being.

The moon was surpassingly bright: the summer air heavy and still. He left the high road and pierced into the forest. His walk was rapid: the leaves on the trees brushed his cheeks; the dead leaves heaped in the dells noised to his feet. Something of a religious joy — a strange sacred pleasure — was in him. By degrees it wore; he remembered himself: and now he was possessed by a proportionate anguish. A father! he dared never see his child. And he had no longer his phantasies to fall upon. He was utterly bare to his sin. In his troubled mind it seemed to him that Clare looked down on him — Clare who saw him as he was; and that to her eyes it would be infamy for him to go and print his kiss upon his child. Then came stern efforts to command his misery and make the nerves of his face iron.

By the log of an ancient tree half buried in dead leaves of past summers, beside a brook, he halted as one who had reached his journey’s end. There he discovered he had a companion in Lady Judith’s little dog. He gave the friendly animal a pat of recognition and both were silent in the forest-silence.

It was impossible for Richard to return; his heart was surcharged. He must advance, and on he footed, the little dog following.

An oppressive slumber hung about the forest-branches. In the dells and on the heights was the same dead heat. Here where the brook tinkled it was no cool-lipped sound, but metallic, and without the spirit of water. Yonder in a space of moonlight on lush grass, the beams were as white fire to sight and feeling. No haze spread around. The valleys were clear, defined to the shadows of their verges; the distances sharply distinct, and with the colours of day but slightly softened. Richard beheld a roe moving across a slope of sward far out of rifle-mark. The breathless silence was significant, yet the moon shone in a broad blue heaven. Tongue out of mouth trotted the little dog after him; couched panting when he stopped an instant; rose weariedly when he started afresh. Now and then a large white night-moth flitted through the dusk of the forest.

On a barren corner of the wooded highland looking inland stood grey topless ruins set in nettles and rank grass-blades. Richard mechanically sat down on the crumbling flints to rest, and listened to the panting of the dog. Sprinkled at his feet were emerald lights: hundreds of glow-worms studded the dark dry ground.

qmNCXHe sat and eyed them, thinking not at all. His energies were expended in action. He sat as a part of the ruins, and the moon turned his shadow Westward from the South. Overhead, as she declined, long ripples of silver cloud were imperceptibly stealing toward her. They were the van of a tempest. He did not observe them or the leaves beginning to chatter. When he again pursued his course with his face to the Rhine, a huge mountain appeared to rise sheer over him, and he had it in his mind to scale it. He got no nearer to the base of it for all his vigorous outstepping. The ground began to dip; he lost sight of the sky. Then heavy thunder-drops struck his cheek, the leaves were singing, the earth breathed, it was black before him and behind. All at once the thunder spoke. The mountain he had marked was bursting over him.


Up started the whole forest in violet fire. He saw the country at the foot of the hills to the bounding Rhine gleam, quiver, extinguished. Then there were pauses; and the lightning seemed as the eye of heaven, and the thunder as the tongue of heaven, each alternately addressing him; filling him with awful rapture. Alone there — sole human creature among the grandeurs and mysteries of storm — he felt the representative of his kind, and his spirits rose, and marched, and exulted, let it be glory, let it be ruin! Lower down the lightened abysses of air rolled the wrathful crash: then white thrusts of light were darted from the sky, and great curving ferns, seen steadfast in pallor a second, were supernaturally agitated, and vanished. Then a shrill song roused in the leaves and the herbage. Prolonged and louder it sounded, as deeper and heavier the deluge pressed. A mighty force of water satisfied the desire of the earth. Even in this, drenched as he was by the first outpouring, Richard had a savage pleasure. Keeping in motion, he was scarcely conscious of the wet, and the grateful breath of the weeds was refreshing. Suddenly he stopped short, lifting a curious nostril. He fancied he smelt meadow-sweet. He had never seen the flower in Rhineland — never thought of it; and it would hardly be met with in a forest. He was sure he smelt it fresh in dews. His little companion wagged a miserable wet tail some way in advance. He went on slowly, thinking indistinctly. After two or three steps he stooped and stretched out his hand to feel for the flower, having, he knew not why, a strong wish to verify its growth there. Groping about, his hand encountered something warm that started at his touch, and he, with the instinct we have, seized it, and lifted it to look at it. The creature was very small, evidently quite young. Richard’s eyes, now accustomed to the darkness, were able to discern it for what it was, a tiny leveret, and he supposed that the dog had probably frightened its dam just before he found it. He put the little thing on one hand in his breast, and stepped out rapidly as before.

The rain was now steady; from every tree a fountain poured. So cool and easy had his mind become that he was speculating on what kind of shelter the birds could find, and how the butterflies and moths saved their coloured wings from washing. Folded close they might hang under a leaf, he thought. Lovingly he looked into the dripping darkness of the coverts on each side, as one of their children. He was next musing on a strange sensation he experienced. It ran up one arm with an indescribable thrill, but communicated nothing to his heart. It was purely physical, ceased for a time, and recommenced, till he had it all through his blood, wonderfully thrilling. He grew aware that the little thing he carried in his breast was licking his hand there. The small rough tongue going over and over the palm of his hand produced the strange sensation he felt. Now that he knew the cause, the marvel ended; but now that he knew the cause, his heart was touched and made more of it. The gentle scraping continued without intermission as on he walked. What did it say to him? Human tongue could not have said so much just then.


A pale grey light on the skirts of the flying tempest displayed the dawn. Richard was walking hurriedly. The green drenched weeds lay all about in his path, bent thick, and the forest drooped glimmeringly. Impelled as a man who feels a revelation mounting obscurely to his brain, Richard was passing one of these little forest-chapels, hung with votive wreaths, where the peasant halts to kneel and pray. Cold, still, in the twilight it stood, rain-drops pattering round it. He looked within, and saw the Virgin holding her Child. He moved by. But not many steps had he gone ere his strength went out of him, and he shuddered. What was it? He asked not. He was in other hands. Vivid as lightning the Spirit of Life illumined him. He felt in his heart the cry of his child, his darling’s touch. With shut eyes he saw them both. They drew him from the depths; they led him a blind and tottering man. And as they led him he had a sense of purification so sweet he shuddered again and again.

When he looked out from his trance on the breathing world, the small birds hopped and chirped: warm fresh sunlight was over all the hills. He was on the edge of the forest, entering a plain clothed with ripe corn under a spacious morning sky.



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The Child of the Open Sea


This short poetic story is by Jules Supervielle, a French poet who spent much of his life in Montevideo,Uruguay.


How had that floating street been created? What sailors, with the aid of what architects, had built it in mid-Atlantic, on the surface of the sea, over a gulf thousands of fathoms deep? That long street with its red brick houses, so faded that they were turning French gray, those roofs of slate and tile, those unchanging, humble shops? And that richly perforated belfry? And this place which had nothing but sea water in it, though no doubt it wanted to be a garden, with enclosing walls set with broken bottle glass, over which a fish would sometimes leap?

How did it remain standing without even being tossed by the waves?

And that solitary twelve-year-old child who walked in her sabots with a firm step down the liquid street as though she were walking on dry land? How did it come about?

We shall relate all these things as we get to know and understand them. And if anything remains obscure it will not be our fault.

Whenever a ship approached, even before it could be seen on the horizon, a great drowsiness took possession of the child, and the village disappeared completely beneath the waves. And thus it was that no sailor had even seen the village, even at the end of a telescope, or even suspected its existence.

The child thought she was the only little girl in the world. Did she even know she was a little girl? She was not very pretty, because of her rather wide-spaced teeth, and her rather too tip-tilted nose, but she had a very white skin with a few speckles—I mean freckles. And her small person, dominated by gray eyes that were shy but very luminous, sent through your body, right into your soul, a great surprise which hailed from the night of time.

Sometimes in the street, the only one in that little town, the child would look to right and left as if she were expecting a friendly sign from someone, a slight wave of the hand or a nod of the head. This was merely an impression she gave without knowing it, since no person or thing could come to that lost village that was always ready to vanish.

How did she live? By fishing? We don’t think so. She found food in the kitchen cupboard and larder, and even meat every two or three days. There were also potatoes for her and a few other vegetables, and eggs from time to time.

Provisions appeared spontaneously in the cupboards. And when the child took jam from a pot, it remained as intact as before, as if things had been thus one day and had to stay the same forever.

In the mornings, half a pound of fresh bread, wrapped in paper, was waiting for the child on the marble counter of the bakery, behind which she had never seen anyone, not even a hand or a finger pushing the bread towards her.

She was always up early, and she would push up the metal screens of the shops (one labeled “Bar,” and others “Blacksmith,” “Modern Bakery,” or “Haberdasher”), open the shutters of all the houses, carefully fastening them back because of the sea wind, and, according to the weather, leaving the windows closed or not. She would light a fire in a few kitchens so that smoke should rise from three or four roofs. An hour before sunset she began, very simply, to close the shutters and to lower the corrugated metal screens.

The child accomplished these tasks, moved by some instinct, some daily inspiration which drove her to look after everything. In the summer months, she would hang a rug over a window sill, or some linen to dry, as though the village must at all costs look inhabited and as lifelike as possible. And the whole year round she had to take care of the town-hall flag, which was so exposed.

At night she used candles, or sewed by the light of a lamp. There was electricity, too, in several houses in the town, and the child turned the switches easily and gracefully.

On one occasion she put a black crepe bow on the knocker of a door. She thought it looked nice. It remained there for two days, after which she hid it.

Another time she started beating a drum, the village drum, as though she were going to announce some news. And she had a violent longing to shout something that might have been heard from one end of the sea to the other; but her throat contracted and no sound came out. She made such a stern effort that her face and neck became almost black with it, like those of drowned people. Then she had to put the drum back in its usual place, in the left-hand corner at the far end of the big hall of the town hall.

The child reached the belfry by a spiral staircase whose steps were worn by thousands of unseen feet. The belfry which, the child thought, must certainly have five hundred steps (it had ninety-two) showed as much sky as it could between its yellow bricks. And she had to satisfy the weight-driven clock by winding it up with the crank handle, so that it should sound the hours exactly, day and night.

The crypt, the altars, the stone saints giving silent orders, all those faintly whispering chairs which waited, in straight rows, for people of all ages, those altars whose gold had aged and hoped to age still more—all that attracted and repelled the child, who never entered that tall house, contenting herself, when she had nothing else to do, with sometimes half opening the padded door and darting a rapid glance at the interior, holding her breath as she did so.

In a trunk in her room there were family papers and some postcards from Dakar, Rio de Janeiro, and Hong Kong signed Charles or C. Lievens, and addressed to Steenvoorde (Nord). The child of the open sea had no idea what those far countries and this Charles and this Steenvoorde were.

She also kept an album of photographs in a cupboard. One of them showed a child who looked very like the little girl of the Ocean, who would often gaze at it humbly; it was always this picture which seemed to her to be right, to ring true; she was holding a hoop in her hand. The child had looked for one like it in all the houses of the village. And one day she thought she had found one; it was the iron hoop of a barrel; but hardly had she begun to run down the marine street with it than the hoop bowled out to sea.

In another photograph the little girl was seen between a man dressed in sailor’s clothes and a bony woman in her Sunday best. The child of the open sea, who had never seen either man or woman, wondered for a long time what those people wanted, even thinking about it in the dead of night, when lucidity sometimes strikes you suddenly with the violence of a thunderbolt.

Every morning she went to the village school, with a big satchel containing notebooks, a grammar, an arithmetic, a history of France, and a geography. She also had, written by Gaston Bonnier, member of the Institut and professor at the Sorbonne, and Georges de Layens, laureat of the Académie des Sciences, a little field guide which listed the most common plants, as well as useful and harmful plants, with eight hundred and ninety-six illustrations.

She read in the preface: “During the whole of the summer, there is nothing easier than to get hold of a great number of field and forest flowers.”

And how were history, geography, countries, great men, mountains, rivers, and frontiers to be explained to someone who has nothing but the empty street of a little town in the most solitary part of the Ocean? She did not even know that she was on the Ocean, the very one she saw on the maps, although the idea did cross her mind one day, for a second. But she had driven it away as mad and dangerous.

Now and then, she would listen with complete obedience, write a few words, listen again and begin writing again, as though at the dictation of an invisible mistress. Then the child would open a grammar and remain for a long time, holding her breath and bending over page 60 and exercise CLXVIII, of which she was particularly fond. In it the grammar seemed to be speaking entirely for the benefit of the little girl and the open sea:

— are you? — are you thinking? — do you

speak? — do you want? — should one apply

to? — is happening? — is being accused? —

are you capable? — are you guilty? — is the

matter? — do you like this present? — are

you complaining?

(Replace the dashes by the appropriate

interrogative pronoun, with or without


Sometimes the child felt a very persistent longing to write certain phrases, and did so with a great deal of concentration. Here are some of them, among many others:

Let’s share this, shall we?

Listen to me carefully. Sit down and don’t

move, I beg you!

If I only had a little snow from the high

mountains, the day would pass more


Foam, foam all round me, won’t you at last

turn into something solid?

To play a round game you have to be at least


There were two headless shadows walking

away along the dusty road.

The night, the day, the day, the night, the

clouds and the flying fish.

I thought I heard a noise, but it was the noise    of the sea.

Or else she wrote a letter in which she gave news of her little town and herself. It wasn’t addressed to anyone and she put no kisses for anyone at the end of it, and on the envelope there was no name. And when the letter was finished she threw it into the sea, not to get rid of it but because it had to be that way, and perhaps in the manner of navigators in distress, who consign their last message to the waves in a despairing bottle.

Time never passed in the floating town: the child was always twelve. And it was in vain that she swelled out her little chest before the glass-fronted cupboard of her room. One day, tired of looking, with her plaits and her very bare forehead, like the photo she kept in her album, she got cross with herself and her picture and scattered her locks roughly over her shoulders, hoping that this would give her age a jolt. Perhaps it would even affect the sea all round her, and she would see coming out of it great goats, with foaming beards, who would draw near to look at her.

But the Ocean remained empty and she received no other visits than those of the shooting stars.

Another day destiny seemed to forget itself for a moment, as though there were a sudden crack in its will. A real little cargo boat, all smoking, as obstinate as a bulldog and riding easily although it was not heavily loaded (a beautiful red band gleamed in the sun under the water line) —a cargo boat passed down the marine street of the village, without the houses disappearing beneath the waves nor the little girl’s getting overcome with sleep.

It was just midday. The cargo boat sounded its siren, but this voice did not mingle with the voice of the belfry. Each kept its independence. The child, hearing for the first time a noise which came to her from men, rushed to the window and shouted with all her might:


And she flung her schoolgirl’s pinafore in the direction of the ship.

The helmsman did not even turn his head. And a sailor, who was puffing smoke from his mouth, passed along the deck as if nothing had happened. The others went on washing their clothes, while on each side of the ship’s bow dolphins separated to make room for the cargo boat, which was in a hurry.

The little girl descended very quickly into the street, lay down on the track of the ship, and embraced its wake for such a long time that, when she got up, nothing remained of it but a stretch of sea with no memory, quite intact. On returning to the house, the child was dumbfounded at having shouted: “Help!” Only then did she understand the profound meaning of this word. And this meaning terrified her. Could men not hear her voice? Or were those sailors deaf and blind? Or more cruel than the depths of the sea?

Then a wave, which had always remained at some distance from the village, clearly not wishing to intrude, came to look for her. It was a huge wave, which spread much further than the others on each side of itself. In its crest it had what looked exactly like two eyes, made of foam. You would have supposed it understood certain things and did not approve of them all. Although it furled and unfurled itself hundreds of times a day, it never forgot to equip itself with those two well-formed eyes, in the same place. Sometimes, when something interested it, you would catch it lingering for nearly a minute, with its crest in the air, forgetting its wave nature and that it had to begin again every seven seconds.

For a long time this wave had been wanting to do something for the child, but it did not know what. It saw the cargo boat disappearing and understood the anguish of the little girl who remained behind. Not being able to bear it any longer, it carried her a little distance away, without saying a word, as though leading her by the hand.

After having knelt before her, wave-fashion, and with the greatest respect, it tucked her under itself and kept her for a very long moment, trying to confiscate her with the collaboration of death. And the little girl stopped breathing to help the wave in this serious plan.

Failing to achieve its object, it flung her into the air until the child was no bigger than a sea swallow, catching her again and again like a ball as she fell back among the foam flakes bit as ostrich eggs.

Finally, seeing that nothing was of any avail, that it could not succeed in giving her death, the wave took the child back to her home, with an immense murmur of tears and excuses.

And the little girl, who had not received a scratch, had to begin opening and closing shutters again without hope, and disappearing momentarily under the sea the moment the mast of a ship showed on the horizon.

WaveFLourish2             Sailors who dream upon the high seas, with your elbows propped on the handrail, be fearful lest you dwell too long in the darkness of the night on a beloved face. For if you do, you risk giving birth, in places that are essentially deserted, to a being gifted with ever human sensibility, who can neither live nor die nor love, and yet suffers as though he lived and loved and was always on the point of death, a being infinitely disinherited in the watery solitudes, like that child of the Ocean, born one day in the mind of Charles Lievens, of Steenvoorde, deck hand of the four-master Fearless, who had lost his twelve-year-old daughter during one of his voyages, and one night, at a place 55 degrees latitude North and 35 degrees longitude West, thought of her for a long time, with terrible intensity, to the great misfortune of that child.


Le Theatre de Nuit has made this interpretive short film based on this story.  Theatre de la Nuit website with this story.



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