It has happened again. When this first occurred, I resolved not to write about it or think about it, for fear of losing my mind. Now it has happened again, on January 20, 2010, I know I must write myself through it. I shall write it as a story others may read in the hope that with time I, too, will be able to read and remember it only as a story.
There was still a rheum of dirty snow about the leafless trees in the park, and ice on the paths, but I found it mild enough to sit on a bench near the lake house and contemplate the frozen pond. My little dog lay at my feet. For a few moments, the city around me was still, with an air of anticipation, like someone holding his breath. I had seen no one in the park, and was mildly irritated when a man sat down on the other end of the bench. My dog wagged his stub, but he is loose with strangers. I glanced at the newcomer out of the corner of my eye. He was very young, with long dark hair falling over his shoulders from under an absurdly romantic beret. No doubt one of the transient college kids who come and go in my neighborhood, or one of the hungry artists who hang their pictures for a week at a time in the transient basement galleries.
He made an awkward ritual out of stuffing and lighting a cherrywood pipe. The heavy fruited scent of his tobacco carried me back across time, to an awkward young man I had once known well.
I turned to him and asked if he was smoking Amphora tobacco.
Without meeting my eyes, he agreed that he was.
I inspected him more closely, the wide shoulders and narrow body, the silk scarf at his throat, the maroon-colored journal book, big as a child's tombstone, in his hand.
"Then I know who you are." I told him. "You are Robert Moss, though you sign your articles and poems R.J. Moss in The Canberra Times and the student paper."
He returned my inspection. "I know you from somewhere. Are you one of Dad's brothers?"
"I am Robert Moss. I am you. I've just lived a lot longer."
"What year do you think it is?"
"It's 1965, of course."
"You are mistaken. Today is Wednesday, January 20, 2010."
"Don't come the raw prawn with me! It's bloody 1965."
I was tickled by the way that, when rattled, he became a bit more of an Aussie than was his natural style. "Then you are living in Bruce Hall on the campus of the Australian National University. In your bookcase you have Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal and Dante's Inferno in Italian - but not the rest of the Commedia, because you have not yet found the comedy in life - and the Penguin editions of Dostoyevsky, Faulkner and Homer. You also have a blue-bound copy of Kautilya's Arthashastra, which fascinates and repels you because it teaches that the law of life is 'big fish eat little fish.'"
R.J.Moss was not impressed. "Of course you know what books I have in my room. I'm dreaming, and you're a part of me that for some reason is appearing as an old man with white hair who's been eating rather well. So you know what I know."
"Did you know that the man who loaned you the Arthashastra will become your father-in-law?"
As he stared at me, I added, "You haven't met his daughter yet, but you will, when she comes out from England. She'll get a job in a bookshop, your natural hunting ground. On the day you first speak to her she'll be helping a customer who wants to purchase a map of the world that does not include the United States."
"You are one of my thought forms, and you will disappear if I tell you to."
"You got that from one of your books on magic, probably Dion Fortune. Try it if you like. It won't do you any good."
"You claim I am going to marry my professor's daughter."
"Yes, but it won't last. You will marry much too young, with too much of life ahead of you to stay in a nest. Anyway, for a while you'll be seized with a reckless desire to fight battles. You'll get over it, but not until you've been blooded. Then you'll marry again. You'll notice the woman who will become your second wife when she tells you she can dream the result of a horse race."
"This is definitely a dream."
"Where do you think you are now?"
"I'm sitting at the edge of the lake in Canberra, and it's bloody hot. That silly water jet doesn't make things any better."
He made the motion of fanning his face. I recalled that in that absurdly oversized book he lugged everywhere with him, he had drawn a picture of Nietzsche at the edge of madness, and written an interminable series of poems for a girl, now lost, he called Lady of Khorasan, even though she had bad teeth and had never been outside New South Wales, except to study in the dreary capital, set down in the bush at an airless remove from the ocean beaches that are the country's lungs.
At this age, he lived for poetry, I remembered. Perhaps I could move him with a line he had not yet encountered, more than with a preview of his future that, while factual, seemed to him full of impossibilities.
"I will say something you do not know but whose reality you will accept because it is poetic truth. Are you willing to hear?"
"Il faut vivre comme un ours."
He frowned a little. "'One has to live like a bear?' Is that right?"
My turn to nod.
"Who said that?"
"You haven't read enough Flaubert to know. And you have yet to write a novel. You will write novels, and will publish many. More important, you will meet the Bear and this will change everything." My tone indicated that we were no longer talking about any bear, but the Bear. "You won't understand until he comes for you, and that will be in North America, when you are twice your present age."
"This is the strangest dream. I don't believe I'll remember any of it. But just in case, if you have lived my life ahead of me, what can you tell me that can help me?"
I considered telling him: you'll break hearts and your heart will be broken in turn, but you must never stop living from the heart. There is one who watches over us and never leaves us. Swim whenever you can. Listen to your dreams and move always in the direction of your dreams. Beware of a woman with razors in her eyes, and a sheriff in the Blue Ridge Mountains who makes moonshine in his bathtub. Never lose your sense of humor, once you find it again. Don't reverse your steps once you have crossed the Pont Neuf. Define yourself, as many times as necessary, to escape being defined by others.
What I said was, "Twenty-three years from now, you will be booked on an early plane to Philadelphia, with the intention of driving to a certain house in coal miners' country, in Lancaster County. You must not take that plane."
"What's in Lancaster County?"
"Trust me on this. Will you remember?"
He shrugged. I knew he would forget, but an hour before he was due to leave for the airport, twenty years into his future, more than twenty years into my past, a dream would remind him. I knew this because - but for that dream - I would not be alive today and we could not be sitting on this bench together.
He surprised me by saying, "I have something for you: Ich bin ein Funke nur vom heilengen Feuer."
I remembered now that I - that is, he - had taken some German in order to read Rilke in the original. My German did not stick; I can barely manage to order sausages in a beer cellar.
His mouth curved into a faintly superior smile. "It seems I know things that you do not." His mood flickered like a shadow on the ice. "This is the strangest dream. I know I'll forget it. If not, you would have known we would meet this morning."
I thought of a fantasy by Coleridge. A man dreams he is in paradise, and he is given a flower as proof. When he wakes, he has the flower in his hand.
"Let's give each other something," I proposed. I dug in my pockets, and came up with a wad of crumpled bills. I separated the least disreputable and handed it to him. He examined the face of the wigged man inside the oval, and lingered over the occultists' pyramid on the back with the eye in its floating apex. I drew his attention to the small text next to the signature of the Secretary of the Treasury: "SERIES 2006".
He groped in his own pockets in turn, and produced a gum-nut.
"Look at the time," he jumped up. "I must be going."
As he rose, my little dog jumped up too, wagging his stub.
"There's one thing more," I said. "Dogs love you no matter what."
We did not shake hands or have body contact in any way. We walked away from each other in opposite directions. I did not look back; I cannot say whether he did.
Postscript: One day after this encounter, I cannot find the gum-nut I put in the breast pocket of my shirt, which I threw in the laundry hamper at the end of the day and only searched this morning. When I walked my dog today, I made a point of not returning to the bench by the lake.
But something is still in play because I noticed that the big maroon journal - his journal, from 1965 - has surfaced in the room I use as my archive. It was clearly visible near the top of a stack of notebooks in an open documents box. Of course I had to pull it out. I treated it as I do any book, opening it at random to see what comes up.
The book of R.J.Moss fell open at pages numbered 114 and 115 in his hand. The bottom half of page 115 was filled by his drawing of Nietzsche staring into the pit of madness. The upper half of page 114 contains his copy of a word-picture of Stefan George by Andre Gide, in French. Below this, in script running diagonally across the page, giving the general impression of a wing, R.J.Moss inscribed several verses of Stefan George including the line
Ich bin ein Funke nur vom heiligen Feuer
with the translation
I am a spark of the holy fire.
THE OTHER BORGES
Jorge Luis Borges' story"The Other" came to me twice, in mysterious ways, over the holiday season. Just before Christmas, I woke with the certain knowledge that there was something by Borges that I had not read that I needed to find that day. I have many editions of Borges on my shelves (I've been reading him since 1970) but I went to my nearby magic bookshop at opening time to see if anything popped up. There, atop a pile of new arrivals, was a translation of Borges' late collection The Book of Sand.
The opening story is "The Other", in which Borges, seated on a bench beside the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1969, encounters a young man who proves to be his own younger self, who thinks he is sitting by the lake in Geneva in 1919 and is reluctant to believe this this encounter can be other than a dream. Borges gets the attention - and wins the partial belief - of his younger self by reciting an amazing line of Victor Hugo that the young man has not yet discovered, about the "hydra-universe" twisting its "scales of stars."
The following weekend, ranging around in the early hours in the midst of leading a workshop, I opened a 500-page edition of Borges' Collected Fictions, in Andrew Hurley's excellent translation, as a random act of bibliomancy, and found myself at the first page of "The Other", again.
Like Borges, I am intrigued by the possibility - for me, a certainty - that we can meet our past and future selves. In homage to the great Argentine writer, I have borrowed the outline of his story, just as he borrowed the ideas and the form of a story by Kurd Lasswitz (which he reviewed in an essay titled "The Total Library") to craft his celebrated "Library of Babel".
RM Journal drawing at top: "Writing on the Wall (or Hanging Stanzas)" from a dream of February 22,2021 I associate with Borges