Inspired by an evening, roaming through the second floor of the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin
In the morning I went to the gym and trained as usual, carefully. I felt relaxed, the dizziness was gone. Back home, the most important person had gone to her own class. We would meet later, and I had time to prepare breakfast. First I sorted the gym clothes, making sure the wet towel and T-shirt were hung out to dry. The air was still cold but the sun was shining. The clear new bright sun of February. I closed the door of the balcony. Suddenly the dizziness had come back, like a small cloud out of nowhere. I laid out the breakfast table, poured a cup of coffee. The pain in my left arm was now sharper. I was used to it. The price for keeping fit was to be in permanent pain, or so I had told myself, long ago. I sat down, breathed deeply. The apartment was silent, I could only hear the deep growl of traffic, down on the avenue, and the crows exchanging gossips, up there on the roof. I had time. The most important person would not be back for another hour. I decided to write a short note: “Feeling a little tired, if I am asleep when you come back, just wake me up, softly! Xx”
I decided to lie down on the sofa, pulled the light blanket over the pain, smiling. The crows had gone silent. The traffic noise seemed to recede. The pain had moved from the arm to somewhere between the shoulder and the middle of the chest. All at once it grew even sharper. There was no surprise, I had long expected this: not a question of if, merely when. My vision had gone vague, all sounds had receded. I felt a great calm, just the pain, invasive, and I knew I was going. Soon it was dark. A last thought was how simple this was.
The separation came later. How much time had gone by then, I could not even imagine. The pain had gone, only remained utter lightness. The light was dimmed. The room and the surface where I had rested were gone. Moving felt easy. Was it really moving? Exploring without motion, rather. Was this still me? These questions felt unimportant. I sensed, rather than looked, around. There was a shore, an expanse of water. No sound.
Then I saw him. I knew immediately who he was, although he looked much younger than I had expected. Charon’s eyes betrayed his apparent youthfulness. He was deaf, but his benevolent words came clear to my mind. “I was expecting you earlier, and I am pleased to see you.” Then a little later – but what did that mean now? – “Take place when you are ready, there is plenty of time.”
I stood at the front of the boat, exactly as in the painting. Standing, I was aware of the long white robe, of the hood. I felt somehow very dignified, at peace. Charon sat at the back, his muscular arms in evidence under the medieval shirt. Without moving I could see his calm face, the kindness of his eyes, and yet the absence of smile. The boat was now moving effortlessly, or rather gliding on the surface of the water. I could see the rudders cutting through in silence. The light was now brighter, under a cloudless but rather dark sky. I had the feeling we were immobile and that it was the water that was flowing under our boat.
Then the island was there, at first a small icon, and then the cypresses came into view. The sight of them was a sheer pleasure, a feeling of fulfilment. The dark green contrasted with the pale face of the high walls and rocks at the water edge. A faint mist surrounded the vision. “We have arrived,” said Charon without a word, “don’t worry about your luggage, it will be taken care of.” I only then notice the ancient coffer at my feet. I looked up, saw the small windows on the face of the cliff. Scents: the trees, sea water, salt in the air. I knew there was a cell for me, somewhere deep in the immensity of the island. Lightheaded I turned to the sea: Charon and his boat had gone. Small waves were crushing on the narrow shore. Did I hear sea birds in the sky?
“Wake up lazy bones!” said the most important person, her crystal laugh resonating in the room. The crows were back, and so was the traffic. Why did those legs feel so heavy?
Photo: Arnold Böcklin, die Toteninsel, Alte Nationalgalerie