Christopher Bernard’s Novel “AMOR i KAOS”: Final Installment
A pool of darkness. To himself and his neighbors. A weeping willow above it, dragging its whip-like branches across the surface in the afternoon breeze. The little stone springhouse at the edge of the woods where they kept the cream sodas, the Oranginas, the cokes. The light gurgling of the spring over the rocks as it entered the pool. The olive green scum off toward the far side, where the tall reeds started in a dark green screen. The sound of a dragonfly darting past his ear, then the sight of it hovering over the pool, its whirring transparent wings, its delicately pulsing body as thin as a small, black finger; then it darts off.
The sense that a world of busyness is happening all around him, a hidden universe of intense, purposeful activity, from the grasses to the leaves, from the worms boring through the mud to the beetles and flies, to the lizards and snakes, to the squirrels, to the birds flashing in and out of the trees, to the little shifts of air, zephyrs, breezes, to the wind and the sky, to the clouds, the clouds, the clouds, those little worlds of chaos, to the sun, the unseen moon, the silent mob of stars behind the blank, opaque blue—in the apparent stillness, an endless busyness, motion endlessly rich, constant birth, constant renewal, an infinity of novel and strange and oddly beautiful forms, a panorama, a spectacle of beings he was, in effect, and maybe even in fact, blessed with witnessing and living among. A formation of fighters thunders across the sky.
One day an ant decides that all of creation has been made for it and it alone—from its creation myth in a clump of eggs in the corner of a damp tree stump, its growth, scrambling over its myriads of cousins, into maturity, its dramatic adventures scurrying over the forest floor, its toilsome existence dragging pieces of dead leaves and beetle husks into the darkness of its anthill, and its heroic destiny as an ant-angel squeaking hosannas to an ant-god in a heaven full of fellow insects—and it toils at growing its anthill and ant society to ever greater heights and to ever greater glory, to prove its grand dreams were justified, that nothing is too good for it or for its fellow ants, and that the rest of nature exists to support it, and will be, if need be, sacrificed to its interests, its survival, pleasures, whims. That ant, in its little soul and clever brain, has even invented a weapon that, implausibly enough, could destroy not only its own anthill, and all other anthills in the world, in one fell swoop, but the entire forest, the county, state, nation—life on earth itself. Such a clever ant! Such a mighty ant! And it might do that one day, just to show it can. It’s just that smart, and on a bad day, just that mad.
—That ant, he said, is me.
She said nothing for a very long time.
Keenly. As he wheels back toward the beginning. Not that his story will be completed. Because no one’s story is ever completed. It doesn’t end with one’s life. The ripe, hard kernel of one’s life, burned down to its essence, sends its roots out to the future, just as he had been in large part knotted from a myriad of tendrils from the past—a myriad? millions, tens of millions, hundreds, thousands—beyond human counting, beyond the calculations of the quantum computers of the future—in a similar way, he sent a tendril out to combine again and fertilize the wet, dense earth of the future, “nature,” that small part of it occupied by humanity, and beyond. That was all the immortality you needed, whatever it was you thought you hoped for. His consciousness—a weak light in a universe of turbulence and dark matter, unidentifiable energies, undiscoverable dimensions, impenetrable universes—would at last go out (had that wet match ever really been “on”?). It had served its purpose: it had kept this over-intellectualizing primate alive for the time it needed to reach its conclusions, such as they were. The unconscious part of his being—far the larger, graver, more living, perhaps even more valuable part of him—it was called by some, still, “the soul”—would stretch into the bounty of existence, as eternal, as infinite, as eternity and infinity themselves might be—you can’t know, though consciousness will never cease trying to know, in the very teeth of its endearing, absurd optimism.
In the end, your brain decided it was not knowledge it could depend on, but faith, not cunning but belief, not learning but dreaming, not certainty but doubt, the unexpected creator of hope. The illogic of the heart was the beginning of wisdom: the philosopher whose namesake you were had got it right. What they called “intelligence” was a magnificent servant but a brutal master: power drove it mad. He had learned to strengthen his mind as much as possible, though that had turned out to be little enough, in order to master it. A weak intelligence was precisely a masterful one, a tyrant and despot, the camp commandant of the soul. But the strongest intelligence recognized its limits; it bowed to the soul’s sweetness, its oddities, its little, crazy smile, for it suspected that in the soul’s quaint little madness was the deepest human truth—a truth you were always foolish to attempt to refute, because, no matter how often it was defeated and sent packing, it always returned, banners out, drums and fifes and trumpets sounding, like an antique army, against the high-tech military of the mind, the might of satellite, stealth bomber, nuclear weapon, special op, drone—and like the guerrillas of old, against the bloated, over-armed and arrogant, it always, though often only after a bloody and wasteful struggle, won. A single soul can overturn the world.
She still said nothing. You wondered if it was because she finally liked what she was hearing.
—Crippled and lunatic and afraid of nothing. A man worthy of the name. That’s what he was. They’ll never find his like again. Though they will no doubt try. The fools!
The portly man smiled pensively into his almost empty glass.
—That doesn’t sound too awful, do you think?
—Not on your life.
—Well, that’s some way to put it. If we thought this was that, and that was enough, who in God’s name would put up with it?
—I can’t imagine. Or rather, I could, and that’s what makes it so awful. Like Fukushima melting down to the planet’s core. Or the thousands of tons of water contaminated from cesium radiating the North Pacific. Or the spent rods, as they are carried down from the water towers, rattling and touching and exploding, raining, or rather snowing death, silent and invisible, without taste, without odor, across the islands of Japan, across the coast of southeast Asia, inland to China, north to Mongolia, to Russia, southward to Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, eastward to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Europe, the Atlantic, the Americas, a snow of invisible whiteness wrapping the world like a package for millennia.
He turned to her this time.
—The guy from the collection agency is on the line, and he’s beginning to be abusive. I keep telling him they packed up out of here a long time ago, but he refuses to believe it. “They’re got to be there,” he said. “There’s no other place they can go. They’re hiding somewhere, that’s all. Just keep looking. When you find them just bring them to me. I can wait. I’ve got nowhere else to go. The bill just keeps growing—the miracle of compound interest! I’ve got all the time in the world.” Then he hung up.
A stroke and shock and ache.
—The friend who, alone out of everyone in the world, understood you, laughed with you, forgave your foibles, your silences, your neglect, and smiled whenever he saw you—one day you turn to him, reach out to share a story, joke, a little success, a little defeat, or just to catch up on news and gossip, and he’s gone. You are surrounded by strangers, a vague wall of hostility, pity, and scorn, the dead eyes of indifference, the mild disgust and giddy triumph that the young feel for the old, and you realize that that is how you once felt too, the only real wealth is time, and blessed and graced above all the middle-aged and old therewith, and how you knew it and strutted in your glory, your beauty, halo, pride. And the most glorious gifts of all that you had were your friends, who loved you, who you loved, without demands, at least in appearance, and that can be enough. How far away it is now, the irresponsible laughter of the young. You were not grateful enough. You thought they would always be there, ready to turn to you with a big laugh, a happy, welcoming smile, ready to share a laugh forever—after all, why not? Why not? There is no answer to that question. It is not allowed. The roses die, despite your best efforts to water and weed, prune and protect them. Pets die despite your care, great trees die after generations, civilizations die after centuries of grandeur and bloodbaths, species die after millions of years flourishing on the revolving earth, friends die a day after you had coffee with them and you parted with a laugh and a promise to call them next week, after you have known them since childhood and assumed—assumed! you never gave it a second thought—that they would last at least as long as you did, mortality acknowledged as an abstraction only, something that would happen “some day,” but not tomorrow, not today. Today, with its annoyances and irritations, was secure, sacrosanct, safe. But then no longer: there comes today “some day” itself. It is like grabbing for something you always hold onto to keep your balance, and all your hand meets is empty air. And you almost fall. Or you do fall. And keep falling.
—Where are you now? Sasha asked him, as if he were deep in some hypnotic trance. I’m still here, she said. You don’t have to be afraid.
—Yes, he said, I know. But for how long?
—How long will you be there? she asked, with an ironic smile. Where will I be if you go?
He laughed lightly.
—You’ve had your nice little bout of self-pity, it’s time to dry yourself off and face the day. There’s some heavy lifting to do. And just as there are more roses, pets, May flies, sequoias, species, civilizations to come, so there are more friends to make, even for old heads like you. To say nothing of current friends not to take for granted.
—It isn’t all about me? His face abruptly scrunched up in a sour puss of dismay. Damn!
That had been a very happy day.
You couldn’t escape. Like existentialists in love. Those mafia of philosophy. Who only kill their own. When they spent that summer in Sicily, Old Empedocles’ island, when Syracuse was a goodly city and the great Pythogorean had walked the hills in his robes. And they were stumbling up the slope of Mt. Aetna, the volcano into whose mouth the old philosopher was reputed to have thrown himself at the end of his life, still smoking from a little recent, casual eruption, just to remind everyone it was still alive, when they came upon a peculiar piece of graffiti scrawled on a square, flat stone in ink or black paint or Magic Marker, the ambiguous phrase “AMOR i KAOS.” Of course, “amor” meant “love” and “kaos” meant “chaos,” as in old Empedocles’ ancient doctrine of the origin and history of the cosmos, fluctuating forever between the poles of, on the one hand, love, wholeness, and order, all creation brought together in a tight embrace, and, on the other hand, chaos, strife, anger, all creation torn to pieces, before being pulled together once again by love, the process beginning all over again, without goal or aim, forever. It wasn’t always unambiguously good to be pulled together by Love, because everything was then crushed together into a ball, a blob of pure entity, a kind of seamless, lifeless sphere, and it was Chaos, or Strife, that made possible having a universe filled with separate things: everything from galaxies to snapdragons, from space stations to iPads. Sasha and Pascal were only possible in a chaotic world, a world of strife and anger that was haunted by memories of the world of Love, and so they spent much of their time trying to rebuild that world in the midst of the chaos they knew, and which had made them possible. But once the world was ruled again by Love, everything would be squashed together again into a great ball, everything would be perfectly ordered once again, silent, still, perfectly comprehensible, dead. And Love would be haunted by the memory of separation, of strife and chaos, of life and sensation, feeling, thought, all of which were only possible after the destruction of union, and the world would begin again to pull apart, out of the numbness of being into the suffering of becoming. And Chaos would break everything up again and create a charged, dynamic, exasperating, and incomprehensible universe.
And they read the graffiti and couldn’t decide what language it was in, the peculiar use of “i,” by itself and in lowercase, threw them off, so they played with various translations: “Love and Chaos,” “I love Chaos,” “I chaos Love,” “Chaos I’s Love,” and whatever else came into their heads, for every possible and impossible, plausible and implausible meaning, and then they played with which one of the pair of them might be “Chaos” and which one “Love,” and sometimes Pascal was Chaos and sometimes he was Love, and sometimes Sasha was Chaos and sometimes she was Love, and the cosmos spun out between them in its endless dance between the two poles, never settling at either one but always moving away from any settled state, in a perpetual state of chaos and love, strangely like human life itself, which can never stop at either love or strife, of the love that binds or the self that frees, but must forever destroy itself to go on. And then Sasha had a question: what was the relationship between Love and Chaos? Because (putting on her philosophical cap) that relationship defined Empedocles’ cosmos more completely than either love or chaos did alone. Was it love, or was it strife? Or did it change as well; was it sometimes strife (when the cosmos was in the state of Love) and sometimes love (when the cosmos was in a state of Strife)? Or was it something else entirely? And so they played long into the summer evening in the hotel in the ancient town near the base of Mt. Aetna in Sicily as it erupted in a small way, rumbling under their feet just enough to remind them that the world under their feet was not perfectly secure. A plume of volcanic ash rose like a long gray feather above the kaldera at the volcano’s top, and bent toward the east, scattering ashes into the Mediterranean.
—Chaos and Love, said Sasha. The philosopher and the whore.
—Which philosopher? asked Christopher.
—You can do better than that! Sasha crowed.
—Ach nein, meine kleine Schmetterling! she riposted with a giddy, shocked look. Norman Vincent Peale!
—How could I forget. But who is the whore then?
—Mrs. Miller, from the old movie. Julie Christie would be so proud. She played her, you remember, opposite the young Robert Redford.
—And they toss the world between them, forever and ever. Chaos, mon amour.
—Amour, my Chaos.
Between the bordello and the snake-oil wagon, the ad man and the parvenu, the social network and the stunt man, the chief evangelist and the black site, the special ops and the fraudulent mortgages, Caedmon and Machiavelli, the Venerable Bede and Gilles de Rais, Gilead and Hermann Kahn, the big heat and the big short, the destitute past and the catastrophic future.
—Between thee and me.
A step a step. Then another. And another. Wherever we are going. Not knowing where. Not knowing when or how or why. Just going. Like a character, if it can be called that, in one of the Irishman’s stories, if they can be called that. A Russian, an astronomer, a philosopher and a whore enter a bar. The Russian orders a vodka and bemoans the meaninglessness of existence. The astronomer orders a cosmo and says, with a shrug, “Who needs the meaning of existence when you’ve got an entire universe, with its billions of stars, to explore with your telescope?” The philosopher orders two shots and a beer and says, “You’re both pathetic! Vodka’s the meaning of life for you, Ivan! You’re only happy when you’re moping. And you scientists are all alike: you think the world, truth, reality actually exist! What you call the ‘universe’ is nothing but a projection inside your own head. And that telescope of yours? It’s just a neurotic substitute for your tiny penis!” The whore asks for a ginger ale and says nothing. After a moment, the Russian, the astronomer and the philosopher turn to her. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?” She looks at them and then takes another sip of her ginger ale. “I really like ginger ale,” she says. The philosopher nods sagely. The astronomer smiles: the bubbles in the ginger ale remind him of the stars. The Russian softly moans to himself. The whore shrugs and takes another sip.
The winter covered an unknown world with an impure but haunting whiteness. If he could only discover what it was. A step a step. And end the insanity of reason. That you cannot escape. A modicum of sanity was all you needed. A stroke and shock and ache. Such comfort even in the cold. That doesn’t sound too awful, do you think? Though I would seriously consider rephrasing that line. Crippled and lunatic and afraid of nothing. A falcon hovered above the tower. Keenly. But he was not desperate enough. A pool of darkness to himself and his neighbor. Make them stand on their own feet. You don’t believe me. But love had nothing to do with it, as the song put it. Why can’t you be kind? That’s exactly what I mean. So give me another. That abrasion of the mind. The dim cowering into dimness. Sound typical? She turned sharply to him. It was really wonderful to see. A pale tide. Though that might be too much to ask for. Though he may have been wrong, of course. But they were. If only you could be good. Don’t fool yourself, he said. Yes, let them levitate at will. My home is elsewhere. Be careless and free. It was a delicious sensation. Dewpoint. It could be a lifetime. All because of the photographs. A little bit of phenomenon. From the old country. Unquiet grave. And what about you? The prevailing winds. A short spell of heaven. Ocean. The gods make us suffer to hear our music. And a lot more money. The tang. But it didn’t anymore. Pity was a rich source of contentment for him. Because hope was its own reward. The smell of the future was in the air. So they tell me. Life being a joy at first. Before it was a pain. She felt so much better afterward. But that meant nothing. Wake up, wake up, no, no, go back to sleep. It was without, let’s say, a certain heroism. He lacked the courage and character for it. Called adulthood, if you remember correctly, that curious fraud. Free at last. Like existentialists in love. And other spectres.
At last he responded to what Sasha had just told him.
—Marry me, he said.
Her eyes opened wide.
—No! Chris . . .
She bent down, folding her arms in her lap and burying her head in her arms. She was wearing the soft burgundy robe he had given her for Christmas. He quietly stroked her auburn hair and repeated, Marry me . . . marry me.
—No, no . . . She shook her head over and over in her arms.
At last she raised her face to meet his own, and he looked at the little button nose that had always so moved him, it was so like a child’s, and the woven brows, and the wild lips, and the austere cheeks that, when he first met her, had thoroughly intimidated him. They were slick with tears.
And she was laughing.
—Well, he said, suppressing the quiver in his voice. I am in love with you. He casually picked up the coffee pot. But I don’t love you.
And he threw the scalding coffee in-
. . . And she was smiling.
He threw his arms wildly around Sasha’s shoulders, vulnerable as a pair of shorn wings, and crushed her lips against his
She was crying.
—Damn you, Chris, damn you, damn you, damn you, if only you had
—I told you. I love you. Really. I do. But I am not and I will never be in
—I loathe and despise you, you narcissistic, socially retarded dork God how
—I don’t know what to
Frozen like a photograph, held in that moment forever
He said nothing for a minute, nodding as though agreeing with Sasha, or merely signaling that he had heard her clearly. Then he stood up as though he had finished with breakfast and went over to the unused fireplace in their small apartment. The fire poker—a long iron shaft with an ornamental bronze handle, never used—stood in a tall iron stand with an equally unused ash shovel. He unhooked the poker from the stand and raised it, looking at the long black point crossed by the flat black claw used to clasp and turn logs as they burned.
—We’ve never used this, he said.
Sasha made no answer.
With a single sweeping movement, Pascal then turned, raising the poker over his head, and brought it down with a savage motion against the back of Sasha’s head.
The poker pierced her rich, auburn hair and her skull, with a thud and a sound of cracking and she went “Uhh!” and rolled off the chair to the floor. The poker remained in his hand, the point smeared with brains and blood.
Blood began pooling around Sasha’s head and half-turned face, a look of surprise in her eyes. Her purple robe was half open, revealing her small, birdlike shoulders, the vulnerable neck.
The sound of the wind shaking the windows filled the room.
Shortly afterward, Pascal left for The Philosopher’s Club. The brightness of the snow was almost blinding.
Leave it as it is. Without closure. The two of them paralyzed at the breakfast table. Neither of them knowing the answer to the question each has made of the other, of themselves. Waiting for an answer that might never come. An answer without which they cannot live. Or die, for that matter. And yet an answer they will never be allowed to have. Like life itself, sometimes. Or often. Or always.
Perhaps the answer is lurking somewhere in the story told so far. If so, they seem to have missed it. And now they will think it through obsessively until, like tire marks in mud driven over and over again in an attempt to pick up another track, it has become completely effaced.
The last thing he heard was the wind shaking the windows.
And she disappeared into the darkness of this imagining.
Christopher Bernard’s previous novels include A Spy in the Ruins and Voyage to a Phantom City. He has also published two collections of short fiction and two poetry collections. He is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org) and a regular contributor to Synchronized Chaos.
“AMOR i KAOS” will be published later this year by Regent Press, under its original title, Spectres. Check out Regent Press’s website for updates: (www.regentpress.net/).