Borderland, 1619, 2008
1. The Walker
He was crossing the river when he first noticed it, the tug at the edge of his vision, the seep of color. And if he was honest, it was not unwelcome. The world was too much with him, as the poet nearly said. For a moment, feeling the cold water as it made his legs disappear, he was back in the garden, a child in the refuge of the large shade tree. That was where he’d liked to read. That was where he’d read that poem for the first time. He could not be blamed for welcoming the slow creep of a deliquescent world, he thought. Look at what had been made of the fields he walked through now. The farmers still couldn’t plow for fear of ordnance, twisted metal, barbed wire. He often wondered if it would stay like this forever, if the trenches would be overgrown into soft hillocks, rippling the countryside. Just as that was a more accurate memory of the war than the actual memory of war was, so was this slow dissolution of color and shape a more accurate vision of the world than the world itself. He didn’t mind losing sight of it. He was tired of seeing.
2. The Hospital
Only one nurse knew when it was, exactly, the man had arrived. She’d seen him by chance, as she was returning in the first light of morning from Dr. Laurent’s small room. She didn’t dare make her way back through the building, once a near-mansion, though the staff quarters and the wards were in fact connected. Instead, this morning, as she did every Tuesday morning, she’d risen in the predawn darkness and silently stepped into her stockings before making her way down the narrow back stairs and out the little door it led to. Then, as if returning from a morning constitutional, she would go the long way around the outside of the building. And it was in the middle of doing this that she’d happened to glance up and see the man there, standing adrift in the field adjacent to the hospital, turning slowly this way and that, looking down and up slightly, as if something were lazily dancing in the air around him. Then the veil of the morning’s fog was pulled across the sight by the breeze again. She would always remember the low carpet of green shoots in the field as she ruined her stockings with mud, the way the man turned his blank face to her at the sound of her approach, as if he’d been expecting her.
3. The Dead
They came and went, so many that the nurse had eventually begun to think of them this way; the already dead. This had begun during the war, when it seemed for a while time really didn’t exist, and the slender boys that crowded the beds of whichever medical tent or hospital she was working in would either eventually return to the trenches or perish there beside her, in the stained and stinking cots; what did it matter. It came to the same thing. Once she’d heard a woman from the village’s aid society, as she unloaded the flowers and bread that’d been collected for these men now, here, remark that it was incredible they’d all survived the war. And the nurse had snapped at her without thinking, Nobody survived the war, not even you. Which was true. And yet the physical world continued on, and there was the early spring, the chilly air breezing into Dr. Laurent’s room, his icy hands on her skin. And there was the blind man, or mostly blind, who’d wandered into their days from the field. And for whatever reason, he did not seem among the dead, as the other forever-patients in the hospital did, even as they shuffled about the garden. It’d occurred to her on that first morning that perhaps it was the loss of the world (at least as he could see it) that made him different. That maybe it was the thing keeping him alive.
4. The Estate
When the bombing in Paris began, on that week of warm and humid nights, his father had insisted they prepare the house and grounds. From the village a truck with hundreds of sandbags had arrived, and the whole staff was kept busy for three days straight filling them with dirt. Up had gone carefully stacked walls around the garden, against the exterior of the house’s foundation. The green copper statue of the young woman in the center of the grounds was given a heavy, intricately stacked skirt. Never mind that Paris was far away, and there was nothing to bomb on or near the estate itself, surrounded as it was by farmland. That summer he lay in his bed at night, window open in the hope of a cool breeze, imagining the rolling thunder of explosions rippling out from Paris through the countryside toward the house. He hated the waiting. He welcomed the bombs, in a way. A few years later, though he would not be there to see it, the rolling gray front of men and steel did sweep out toward and around them. Believing, due to an erroneous sighting by a sleepless scout, that the estate and house were hiding French resistance fighters, they fired several volleys at its empty carapace, mostly missing, the shells landing in the garden, shredding the trees at chest height, and thus proving his father, long dead by then, correct in his fear.
5. The Walker
When the final darkness came, it was like water forming an unbroken sheet of the air in front of him. Through it there was still color, though even as he noticed this the lightless edges were advancing. He’d thought it’d be uniform, somehow, but it wasn’t; the color, the darkness, each border was uneven. The house cast a thick shadow over him, though he was looking out past it, at the brutally lit emptiness of the field. Other patients scrapped the sandy drive in their scuffing circuits. The sound carried through the clear air. His vision shifted again. He thought it was like the world aging in reverse, growing younger, smaller, the colors becoming fewer and then more amorphous, as if regretting the clarity they’d resolved into. It was as if his eyes wanted to take it all back. Let them have it, he thought. Let them have it. And then it was gone.