(This is the first, rough draft of a story written as a whimsical flight of fancy based off a hypothetical could-have-been from writer and painter Denton Welch’s life, as mentioned in his journals. He said, nostalgically reflecting on a cross-England walking tour he took at the age of 18: “I suddenly wanted to be hiking and hearty and pre-war and pre-accident, everything young and careless. I wished that Eric and I had known each other when we were both eighteen and that we had walked miles together every day and slept every night in haystacks. I longed for it quite bitterly.”
Welch, of course, was hit by a car not long after this walking tour, and ultimately died of complications resulting from it in his early 30’s. He wrote that (emetically sentimental, wrenchingly wistful) desire from the crooked perspective of injury and damaged youth. As a statement, it interests me in that it comes from a literalized version of that perennial fantasy of the old: the wasted and damaged youth. For Welch, this fantasy was a reality, and the desire to have it undone, to pull back the cheap threads of time was more violent and truly spoken than the common bad-faith regret of the old. Although, a voice (through a cloud?) whispers into my ear with the warmth of seduction, “We all waste our youth. At least he had a real excuse; you certainly do not.”
This story then, is a representation of the impossibility of that bad-faith wistfulness of the old person, rendered literally. It should be no surprise then, that the attempt to go back and have things differently, does not work.
This is the first part; the second will be posted not long after.)
* * *
My leg was healed and clean. The knee was back in its right place too, and moved in joyful unison with my other bones. But more than anything else, my back felt strong and straight for the first in a long time. Walking again without a crutch was a revelation. I paced back and forth over the dull carpet with a frightening level of excitement, torturing myself with the desire to leave, to get going.
Myself and Peter left the damp warping fog of our home and penetrated into a warm and greenly wet valley. The strange whining noise that always nagged in our ears left us at last. As the beginning to our walking tour it seemed to bode well, and Peter’s face formed the charming smirk which passed for a smile with him on seeing the landscape before us. We had little money, and nothing really but our packs filled with bread and cheese and canteens of water. We were both about eighteen and on the edge, the cusp of our lives. We had been sleeping before, but now we were awake, and much was going to happen to us, we were sure.
We passed through a small wood whose packed earth was knotted about with vines like strands of thick dark hair, smelling somehow of cardamom but leaving a taste in the mouth like chocolate. We talked about coming across ruined holdfasts and stave-churches, but the wood was suffused with a brisk and unconscious health and anything like that would not have made sense there. Birds glimmered in between the foliage, puckered red moss glowed against the homely bark, leaves lay about the ground like carpets of melted-down bronze. Peter ran his hand across every patch of moss, his strong wrist leading it across the red fur as if it were braille.
There was an openness all around us. We were passing through a portico into another realm.
The woods sloped downwards into a hollow that leveled out and opened up again into the verdant valley, now strewn with cowslip and honeysuckle. My loose and springing legs carried me down the grade and I shouted with exuberance on the way. Peter was too caught up in that exuberance to roll his eyes or make dry remarks at me, and he came down smirking.
“Sourmeath looks a lot closer than ten miles ahead,” Peter said, gazing ahead in his focused way, oblivious to anything else. I don’t know what came over me – the getting over the awful injury, the rhubarb tint to his cheeks, the firm, warm wind coursing across and animating the landscape like blood filling an artery – but I leaned over and kissed him, right on the cheekbone. He stepped back a little bit, at first amused, then a look of hurt puzzlement came over his face and he muttered something indistinct. I looked down at my shoes, my fresh pair of boots, and wished I hadn’t done it.
“Come on,” he said. “Sourmeath will be the first stopping point on our journey, and I want to get there before evening.” Then he laughed, gestured forward with his head, and began walking through the scrubbed and glistening land. I sighed, looking up from my shoes to the sky, and saw that its former pristine blue had become chalky and calcified, incongruous with the scene below. Yet if anything, this just intensified the beauty of everything else.
A fire was in me to see everything around. The millipedes pouring themselves across the ground like living licorice, the timid mice excusing themselves into their dim burrows, the stilt-legged grasshoppers hurling themselves like missiles from their own trebuchet. I felt, with Peter’s body near me, flooded with its own churning blood and life, that I was enclosed by a history written with invisible ink all around me. A micro-history of unrecorded life, the histories and chronicles of storm-ponds, of the nests of spiders and the rise and fall of their heraldic woven arms, the furtive couplings shuddering in the quiet dark and damp of the beautiful unearthly countryside.
“It’s usually only this nice out when you’re stuck inside,” Peter said, grabbing hold of a tuberous purple foxglove hanging downwards into the path.
“That’s poisonous,” I told him. “Wash your hand before you put it back in your mouth.”
“Oh,” he said, looking somehow both crestfallen and detached at the same time. “Well, I guess some things have to be.” Then he smiled again and continued on ahead of me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen him so weightless, so unconcerned with making incisive remarks. He yelled something back to me about a cottage.
It turned out not to be a cottage, but an elevated hunting blind set off from the path about ten yards. It was built with plywood and looked extremely old. Worn cloth was set over the windows instead of glass, and it flapped against the sill in that same, seductive wind we could still feel even off the road. A mangled old bicycle lay against its raised posts in a heap.
Peter got hold of the first step on the ladder and began climbing up to the opening set in under the blind. Not wanting to be left behind, though fearing the blind’s stability, I began climbing. I watched Peter from below as he pulled himself up and I tried not to fall.
Inside it was silent but for the flapping of the cloth. The air was close and grimy with dust. Peter peered at some yellowed posters on the walls of outdated information about hunting licenses, a few pin ups of large and curvy women, and a black and white print of an old car of some make I couldn’t discern. Dust had settled on it so thickly it looked like a pale fungus.
The remains of a fire lingered in a circular pit, the ash gone from gray to white so that it looked like polluted snow. I looked upwards and saw a hatch that opened out to the sky. A rusted dead bolt was over it. I could sense the sky seething above it.
“Would hunters make a fire while waiting for their prey?” Peter asked, fingering the ashes with an extended pinky.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “It’s been used as a shelter for wanderers, I’m sure.” I kicked at a rock from the pit and tried to imagine someone with a hunting rifle lying in wait here, piercing with lead any animal that passed by. It struck me as vulgar and out of place in this valley.
“What was once sordid is now quaint,” Peter said, apparently disagreeing. He threw open a cloth curtain and exclaimed something about a family of rabbits outside, then jumped down the ladder to the ground. He was moving back and forth between trenchant observation and thoughtless exclamation in a way I had not seen since we were boys, that bizarre capacity of his to shrug off existence and embrace it without question in the span of the same minute.
I stood there in that musty blind marveling at all of the things that must have happened just in this spot. But it seemed to me an ugly history and I did not want to think about it any more, so I climbed out of the blind and ran to catch up with Peter.
He was crouched in front of a hollowed out log. Behind the log was a group of four rabbits, all crouched down and staring at Peter with bright green eyes. They did not move. He made a motion to hush me.
“They were in a bush next to the blind and scattered when I came down,” he whispered. “I don’t know why they stopped running. They look out of their wits with terror.”
And they did. One appeared to be the mother or father rabbit, and the other three were under-grown, scrawny little things, all spine and fur. They all stared blankly ahead. A pendant of slaver hung down from the jaw of the oldest, suspended in the air with a stillness that was uncanny. They were all so motionless it was unclear if they were even breathing. They seemed separate from everything else around them. It was as if we were viewing them through a peep-hole in a penny view-machine on a boardwalk.
“Are they looking at us?” I asked.
“I thought they were,” Peter said.
We stood and watched but the animals remained completely still.
“I don’t think they are looking at us,” Peter said.
“What do you mean?” I was looking at the oldest one’s eyes, which did not blink or twitch in the slightest but which I could swear were aware of all going on around it.
“I think they’re looking at something behind us,” Peter said, and we turned around to look at the blind.
The blind had not changed in the slightest since we had left it, but where it was empty before, it was not empty now. How this was the case, I couldn’t say, and Peter probably couldn’t either. But just as I had felt the sky seething behind the hatch inside, I could feel some presence behind the plywood walls, just in back of the cloth curtains. It’s strange to say that I had no idea what kind of presence, but I didn’t. What I knew was that it was a vileness. It was the opposite, or the negative, of the brisk and healthy wood we had just gone through, a place or thing of dead birds and clotted vegetable decay.
But more than this I was certain that it was boring, tremendously boring. There was nothing in the world more boring and vile or emitting a stronger gravitational pull towards lethal, brain-deadening boredom. It was the cosmic boredom of pleasure-worn Greek gods or of certain old and entropic marriages of aunts and uncles.
I felt a vibration in my toes in reaction to it and knew instinctively if I did not step back I would have to steady myself or lose balance. It was drawing me towards it with a powerful inhalation. I looked over to Peter and he was rapt with wonder and fascination. He did not seem horrified in the least.
I grabbed his shoulder and he returned my gaze as if recovering from a stupor. I pulled the both of us backwards in the direction of the road.
“That’s a strange thing,” he said, and I could not find anything more interesting to say either. My mind was a bowl of rancid pudding and language was an undiscovered refrigeration. And I hadn’t even seen the damned thing. My mind would have stopped like a clock if I had glimpsed it.
We shambled away towards the road. As we reached its humble dirt outline, we turned back and saw the family of rabbits still frozen behind the log, looking at the blind.
* * * *