Elegant Union (John Clark Smith) - 2

John Clark Smith
A Novel by John Clark Smith


3

 

Before him spread the blood-soaked ground of France, a barren, pock marked landscape with the skeleton charred bones of many trees. The fallen bodies were everywhere in every position as far as he could see. There was a damp, putrid smoke wafting through the air.

It was 10:30 in the morning on November 11, 1918. Titus was on the west bank of the river Meuse, near the Bois de Hospice and a tiny bridge the American marines had built. The dead bodies of engineers and soldiers trying to build and finish the bridge were strewn around the bridge or had fallen on each other. A ceasefire to the Great War had been declared several hours earlier near Compiègne in General Foch’s railroad car, where the German representatives—not the German generals, they were too proud or embarrassed to show up and admit any kind of surrender—met Foch and others from the Allied forces.

Immediately after witnessing the signing, Titus visited many battle sites to observe how the soldiers would react to the good news.

The scene at the bridge at 10:30 was not what he expected. Two military groups had not received the order to cease fighting. The first group were American marines who were starting to cross the bridge. The others were from the 92nd Buffalo division—named after the Buffalo soldiers who were legendary warriors in the American West, comprised completely of African Americans. Soldiers of the 92nd division were trained separately and were segregated into their own division. The American Expeditionary Forces and the British Expeditionary Forces did not want to serve in combat with or under them. Many of the Buffalo soldiers had no choice but to fight with the French army. They were obviously ready to commence an attack. No commanders had told them otherwise.

 

Generals Pershing and Foch, and other military leaders, were aware of what they told their commanders. Unlike the Germans, French, and British, the Americans were relatively fresh to the war. They gave news of the Armistice, but they did not tell them to cease fire or no longer engage the enemy. Some might wonder if the American officers and soldiers did not want the Great War to end and preferred to ignore the news. Others, like Pershing, did not respect the Armistice signing. They feared they might lose their good fighting positions if the war should restart. A few were looking for glory even after the fact. On a practical level, there was the onerous task of hauling back so much ammunition. Why not use it?

The German soldiers were surprised to see Americans continuing their attack when they themselves knew a ceasefire had been declared. They tried to warn them and even raised a white flag. The Americans persisted. The Germans opened fire.

The Afro-American troops and the marines continued to fight and die. Both sides had many casualties.

Titus put on a German uniform and joined the German army facing the 92nd division. He rushed forward and screamed:

“Stop! An armistice has been signed, the battle is over, return to the trenches, you will die without meaning.”

But the 92nd continued and began to shoot at him. When they saw that no bullet was stopping him, the battalion halted in shock and retreated, frightened by the apparition before them in a German uniform. Several of the 92nd were struck down, but most were saved.

Even after the ceasefire, another kind of war continued in the grand rooms of Paris and Versailles where diplomats bargained for lands and partitioning of the world. Who will gain or regain the lands they think they deserve?

Another failure, Titus thought, another attempt that ended in tragedy. He knew what the collateral damage of the Great War would bring. Only a second world war could extinguish such hatred and resentment. Even then, Titus did not have enough arms to snuff out the bitterness. Why must existence yield such pathetic results? What must he do?

 

4

 

Titus walked into his two o’clock World Philosophy classroom, went to the blackboard, and wrote REALITY in capital letters in several languages. At a column to the side, he also wrote the names of Zhuangzi, Aristotle, Shankara, Avicenna, Descartes, Leibniz, Nietzsche, Peirce, de Beauvoir, Murdoch, Penrose, and Audre Lorde.

“Today we have one simple task,” Titus talked as he wrote. “It’s not to discuss how philosophers clarified reality. We’ll get to that later. Here’s the list of the thinkers you’ll be reading on the Board. This list is random and only a guide. There are many other possibilities. The collection is at the bookstore. Please try to avoid translations. Stick to the originals that I offer in the collection. I have a vocabulary list online. Try to come up with your own views through the original.

“Today I’m going to ask you to explain how you yourselves understand or define reality. I’ll give you up to an hour now to make your definitions and hand them in. After we discuss the philosophers in the order I have given here, we will return to your definitions, stage our debate, and see if you would revise them.”

He finally turned around and expected to find the familiar faces of his students. Instead they were all strangers. Not exactly strangers to him, but strangers to people of this era. In front of him sat Plotinus, Shankara, Leibniz, Shelley, and Chernyshevsky, all the same age, all young and dressed in the fashion of their own eras. Each sat at a desk with the same proud, arrogant, hesitant, or confused looks of his regular students. They all were focused on him except for Plotinus, who had his eyes fixed on something outside the windows.

The sight of these renown figures was like a powerful gust of wind. It blew Titus down on to his chair at the desk, where he froze staring ahead. No words came to him. He closed his eyes and reopened them, expecting them to be gone.

This was not the first time such figures from his real life, phantoms, visited him. He called them phantoms because they did not belong in this dimension, but they were real.

The phantom Plotinus raised his hand, though his eyes remain focused elsewhere.

“Who are you?” Plotinus asked. “We’ve met before. I mean, are you my guide?”

Titus stood up when he heard the question. In the mind of Titus, Plotinus seemed to be speaking English, not his native Greek. Titus had to consider what language he would use to communicate with them. He decided on Latin, since he knew they all understood Latin, except for Shankara. For Shankara he would write on the board a Sanskrit translation. But he later discovered there was no need. They heard him in their own languages.

“Sententias quaero non sunt quaestiones,”[1] Titus said.

“It’s a simple question about your role,” Plotinus answered defiantly. “The question meant only that, if you or I were to state or experience something real, we would have to partake in reality together. Reality is a continuum with many. But who am I to ask such questions? Who am I to be here? I am so insignificant. But you. First be who you are. What is your role?”

“Alia responsa?”[2] Titus asked the others.

Titus waited for the reactions of his other guests. He could not think of them as students.

No one raised their hands or spoke.

Plotinus rose from his seat and interrupted quietly by saying,

“--a bird is both in the room and on the branch of the tree.”

Plotinus walked to the door and left. The others followed him.

Titus sat down again and shook his head.

 

As he was gathering his materials to leave, his students, Charlotte and Oriana among them, walked into the room, each of them nodding then greeting him in several languages.

He decided to ignore the presence of the worthies who preceded them, though he knew they were Gretchen’s work. That event was of reality but had no role in this existence. They were his furies, reminding him of reality and of his real work.

“Bueno,” Titus said. “Empecemos. Aquí está la frase: 'Un pájaro está tanto en la habitación como en la rama del árbol'. ¿Quién quiere ir primero? Utilice idiomas asiáticos.”[3]

The students looked at each other with confused faces.

“What is it?” Titus asked.

我們已經做到了,先生,” [4] Oriana said.

Titus turned around and looked at the blackboard, expecting to find the word REALITY he had written. The board was blank. The word was gone. Instead there was a silhouette, as if someone had drawn a large face that filled the blackboard, the same silhouette as on the gold disc. Yet it was not a static drawing. This silhouette moved, seemed alive, as if it had flesh and was living somewhere inside the blackboard; or as if he was looking through a window to a living being. The face was speaking but Titus could not yet decipher the words.

Quickly Titus rushed to his briefcase, grabbed his smartphone, and took a video.

它是什麼?”[5] Charlotte whispered to Oriana.

They all saw him take a video of what seemed to them an empty blackboard.

Oriana whispered to her: “यह कुछ भी नहीं है।.[6]

“Nothing?” Titus responded, as he placed his smartphone back into the briefcase. “You see nothing? Look carefully. The field is piled with bodies, the--”

أقول، أنه ليس مهماً في هذا الوقت. [7] Oriana said.

是的, 它確實意味著什麼, [8] Charlotte continued.

“What does it mean?” Titus asked.

“‘A man takes a video of an empty blackboard,’” Charlotte said. “Another sentence of reality, right?”

Titus looked at the eager faces waiting for his reply and then turned back to the blackboard where the figure remained, seemingly quite animated about something. Then the face stopped and nodded.

“Yes, yes,” Titus said, glad to be back on track. “Please explain how you interpret reality in terms of one of these sentences. Who wants to go first?”

 

5

 

After the class, Titus walked across the quad, his eyes on the ground, ignoring his surroundings. His thoughts were not only on the recent events in the classroom. The rapid movement of the shift made him nervous. The bridge and the 92nd division hung upon his consciousness. He had to prepare for the next steps. There was little time. His memory was racing with thousands of events, each remaining at the forefront for a few seconds to show his role before moving on to the next. Almost all deflated him because so much of his work had shifted, though “shifted” did not explain the consequences. The whirl of these events exhausted him.

When he reached the quad center, he stopped. The event with the phantoms and the chaos of his memory were making him lightheaded. He sat down on the octagonal bench that surrounded the statue. The scent of the roses calmed him.

Whenever he sat on the bench now, he thought of Oriana. Today was no different, but there were changes. Now he wondered how and why Oriana and Midia were in his class. They were never in that class outside of this event.

He sighed and realized the answer. His existence as the Professor of Global Studies was ending. Once again Gretchen will emerge as well as Wang. Already Ratanna has asked for attention. And his brother Fischer would be there.

Oriana’s role was a mystery to him. Like all his connections in existence, he wanted to know how deep her connection was with reality. When he first met her, she was sitting alone on the same octagonal bench. Near her was a large suitcase, a duffle bag, and a backpack. The impression was that either she was moving or that she wanted to appear as if she was moving or that she was homeless. It was a hot early afternoon. The sun was beating on her. Her face was sweaty, assumedly from the strain of toting so much baggage on a hot day.

Did she have a destination or was she waiting for help? He was unsure. Others had ignored her. When he came closer, he saw a hat on the ground in front of her that seemed to be asking for money.

“When is Fischer coming?” she asked, just before Titus brought out his wallet to offer a donation. “I’m Oriana. Shall I go with you?”

“Fischer?” Titus said. To hear the name of his brother from a stranger was unexpected. Why would she go with Titus? Was she here?

“Do you know about pamoghenan?” she added.

“I’m not Fischer. Here.”

Titus dropped a few coins into her hat. He continued walking, but then swung around and came back.

“Pamoghenan?” he asked her.

Oriana stared at him a few seconds without replying as if she was unable to explain why she asked about pamoghenan or why she was sitting there.

“Ah, here’s Fischer,” she said as if relieved.

Oriana stood up and began to gather her bags.

“Here, let me help you,” Titus said.

“There’s no need,” a deep rich voice said from behind him.

Titus turned around and saw his brother.

“I can manage,” Fischer said.

Fischer smiled, but this was not a smile of friendship or appreciation, and certainly not a brother’s smile. It was a smirk, a smug self-satisfying and confident look that said: ‘I am victorious and you’re not.’

Fischer’s triumphs did not intimidate or worry Titus. Fischer was competitive because he believed in his real role and was committed to it. That it differed from how Titus viewed his role was of no account. Fischer worked hard at being a god, even though that word did not describe his work. Fischer and Titus were not ‘gods’ in any religious, traditional, or mythical sense. They knew that. The word ‘god’ came from Gretchen, but she admitted there was no other word to describe what they were or who she was.

Fischer had a smirk because he wanted, and had been waiting for, Gretchen to ungod Titus. Becoming a professor, Fischer thought, was a first step. She allowed Titus to slide comfortably into the professor role, knowing well that he wanted nothing to do with his real responsibilities. Existence seemed more comfortable to him. Though Titus never said it, Fischer believed Titus did not want to be a god.

Fischer took on the burden of the bags. Oriana handed Titus’s money back to him. Fischer and she walked away.

 

6

 

The next day he searched on the Internet for information about ‘pamoghenan.’ He only found the word once: at an entrance to a building on Adelaide Street East.

The building itself was a neoclassical limestone structure, with the third floor in Second Empire style, and a small Doric portico, with four columns, and ten steps that led to the entrance. On each side, there were four rectangular windows, two on the first, two on the second, with a door to the porch above the portico. On the third floor, there were three windows protruding from dormers. The front steps led to a double door. Into the molding above the door was the word PAMOGENAN carved in Greek ΠΑΜΟΓΕΝΑΝ.

Inside he found a large octagonal room with bare brick walls, though there were marble pieces set in the walls with the battle names ‘Somme,’ ‘Verdun,’ ‘Marne,’ ‘Gallipoli,’ ‘Jutland,’ ‘Brusilov,’ ‘Passchendaele,’ and ‘Amiens.’ Four boxing rings with women and men being coached and practicing were set up in each corner.

When Titus saw the names in the walls, he quickly left the building and stood on the porch outside the entrance. At the end of the walkway leading to the building he saw a blonde-hair woman waving; it was Gretchen in another body. The shift was happening. The marble pieces were her work, an intentional reminder for him to get back to work.

She approached him.

“There’s no point in thinking about that or this, much less in doing anything about that or this. You must rise above these attachments. Aren’t you tired of existence? How long must reality wait?”

Her presence, the energy that flowed around her, was so powerful, he began to shake.

“You keep drowning in existence,” she said.

“Reality has no interest in me,” Titus said, “or I would find comfort in it.”

“Oh little god, step outside yourself. You think you’re free from burdens.”

“Who is this Oriana?” Titus asked.

She studied his face.

“Is that it? Oriana? She’s just someone you might as well get to know. She’s going to be around. How close is love with reality?”

“She’s with Fischer?”

“Why do you care? Fischer’s doing his job. He knows she’s important--”

“--oh, she’s important. That’s all I need to know.”

“No, no. When I say ‘important,’ I mean you need her. More important than Fischer knows. Let her be.”

Gretchen turned around and walked off.

Titus re-entered the building.

“I’m looking for Oriana or Fischer,” Titus asked a coach.

The coach pointed to a door at the far end of the room opposite to the entrance. On either side of the door were two chairs. He knocked on the door. No one answered.

One of the boxers came up to him and said:

“No need to knock. Someone will come. Just wait.”

Titus sat. In a few minutes, Fischer appeared and said softly but flippantly to Titus:

“Why are you here?”

“Pamoghenan.’”

“You came down here just to find out about Pamoghenan?’

“Yes.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

Fischer went back through the door without answering.

“I suggest you leave,” a boxer said.

“What’s going on in there?” Titus asked.

The boxer laughed.

“What do you mean?” the boxer answered, grabbing Titus’s elbow. “Boxing. Isn’t that what you see? Why do you ask?”

“But--”

“—I suggest you leave. This is a private gym. You must be a member.”

The boxer was rejecting him in a kind way, but he was rejecting him.

What was Fischer planning? Titus’ intuition was throbbing and saying, ‘Reality.’

“I want to meet the owner,” Titus said.

The boxer left him at the entrance. In a minute Ratanna appeared. She wore a gold robe tied with a black rope cord. Her face appeared as if it had been pummeled on many occasions and was misshapen. She pointed to a private corner of the room.

“It’s not a gym,” Ratanna whispered, “but you know that. Come back later.”

“Escort him outside,” Ratanna said in a normal volume to one of the coaches.

He stood outside looking at the building. After a minute, its shape changed into what resembled a citadel, then a cave, then a battlefield covered with dead bodies, and then an ancient Greek temple.

 

7

 

While sitting on the quad bench after class, a place where he often ate lunch, the wind began to increase so much he was thinking of leaving. He turned his head away for a minute or two. When he looked back, Oriana was sitting at the end of the bench.

“So you’re Dalworth?” she asked.

“I’m not—” he stuttered, quite startled to see her.

“—oh but you are. Fischer told me. You come to the gym, you ask a lot of questions, and for what? No one has invited you. You ask about pamoghenan. Who are you to be so insistent? And according to Fischer you don’t even need the answers. You’re Dalworth.”

“My name is Titus, Titus Ketkar, I teach here at the university. I saw you on this bench a while ago, you said something about pamoghenan, and then my brother came and took you away. I wanted to know what you knew about pamoghenan and Fischer. I found pamoghenan on a building. I went there. No one would help. That’s it.”

“Titus?” Oriana said, smiling. “Nope. Not your name. That’s a label. You’re not a Titus. I can barely speak that word ‘Titus.’ Get rid of it. What does it mean?”

“It’s a very ancient word, possibly Osman, but no one knows what it means.”

“And Ketkar?”

“Again, unsure.”

“Just as I thought. The origin of each of your names is uncertain.”

“Yes,” Titus agreed, trying to change the subject. “When I saw you, you seemed upset.”

“Was I?” Oriana said. “Perhaps I was.”

“Why?”

She moved close to him on the bench, took his hand between her two hands, and stared directly into his eyes.

“Suppose I’m one stranded in this existence, Dalworth, and have a right to be upset. Think! Or I might be mad, the way someone is when someone loves someone so much, she is obsessed. Or being thrust into an alien environment among people who speak a different language. Take you. You’re not a boxer. Fischer and I could be killers. I could kill you right here and prop you up as if you were sleeping and walk away. I could scratch your eyes out before you raised an arm.”

Titus nodded, removed her hands, rose to his feet, and began to walk away. Dealing with the implications in her presence, her story, and her threat were time consuming. He had too many other events, people, and duties for him to worry about what she knew about pamoghenan, Fischer, Ratanna, or the gym. Besides, she was right. He knew nothing about her and was not a boxer. The situation was irrelevant to his life. The only fact that he learned from Gretchen was that Oriana had her duty too. So, of course, did Fischer.

The building was another matter. The battle names on the wall would not leave his mind.

After he stopped trying to find her, Oriana pursued him. She came to visit him on his lunch hour, still calling him Dalworth. He did not discourage her. She was someone of note, like the gold disc, the gold creature Ratanna, the word pamoghenan, and the words on the walls. Yet in all their conversations on the bench, she never released any information about pamoghenan, Fischer, Dalworth, the gym, or herself. Sometimes Fischer would come and stroll off with her. Since she told Titus nothing; she and her ideas were enigmas.

“Some day,” she did say on one occasion, “when you’re young, pamoghenan will be clear. You and I will be together. Someday, that is, when you take action and become who you are.”

“I’m only a couple years older than you,” he replied.

“Stop hiding yourself. You’re many centuries younger than I and thousands of years older.”

“What do I have to do to be old?” Titus said, playing along with her puzzle.

“Oh, many things,” she replied.

“Name one,” he dared her.

“Not living in time.”

“Name another.”

“Not quantifying your habits and decisions.”

“You’re just trying to be cryptic,” he said.

“Am I? It’s not at all cryptic. And you know that. You’re just refusing to--”

“--where did you learn these things?” he asked. It was a question he had asked her in different ways before, trying to learn about her background.

She smiled.

“I’m an admirer of yours, Dalworth,” Oriana said. “Some day we’ll sit next to each other in a great amphitheater. Till then, you’ve been educating me. I’m learning from you.”

“But somewhere—somehow—”

“—yes, somehow it happened, and I came upon what I am or it came upon me and I came upon you and you educated me. Yet that process, the process of knowing me—my, that sounds peculiar—is far more difficult to express or explain. Nor would I share it with you or with anyone. I’m sorry, Dalworth. I’m not trying to confuse you. It’s just the way it is. That’s what you did to me before you…well…before this moment.”

When he heard her answer, he decided to ask her the question he had considered from the beginning.

“Why are you here?” he said.

She laughed.

“Why?” Oriana said. “I’m your admirer and follower.”

“I doubt you follow anyone.”

“Fine. I’m not your follower. Or the follower of Fischer. Follow for me doesn’t mean imitate or behave like a sheep. It means love. You sought me out. Remember?”

“How is that?”

She stood up from the bench.

“Or should I say,” she continued, “you sought out pamoghenan. You’re Dalworth, and you live a life long discarded, and…well…a bunch of other things, but you’re persistent. I must go. See you soon.”

He watched her walk away, alone this time, without Fischer.

It means love?



[1] The sentences I seek are not questions.
[2] Other answers?
[3] Well, let’s begin,” Titus said. “Here’s the sentence: ‘A bird is both in the room and on the branch of the tree.’ Who wants to go first? Use Asian languages.”
[4] We already did it, sir.
[5] What is it?
[6] It’s nothing.
[7] I’m saying: it’s not important at this time.
[8] Yes, it does mean something.

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