Veil of Veronica
I was pretty young when this happened so I don’t really remember every detail, and I might even be confusing things with a dream I once had.
It was a humid-hot Sunday in late August, and I was on Canarsie Pier, a concrete square in Brooklyn built on top of a landfill and – pointlessly, it seems – jutting out into Jamaica Bay. Furnished with benches, a parking lot, an abandoned restaurant, and frail sapling trees, the pier is fenced by green railings. Ever since it was built, locals used it as a place to park their cars and fish from a polluted lagoon surrounded by threatened salt marshes.
Despite the city’s neglect, the pier was always crowded on weekends, and there was a certain sense of community. Only 15 minutes ago, Mrs. Parker bought Jerome and me a popsicle from the ice-cream truck, on the condition that we hush up while she’s trying to get the fish to bite. Jerome wanted to test his new bicycle, and I had a basketball. But, beaten by the heat, we sat quietly in the shade, licking our popsicles, watching the grown-ups weathering the sun, each with a bucket, a hat, a foldable chair, and a beer.
I looked up and saw clouds gathering. I didn’t think anything of it. I finished my popsicle and waited for Jerome to finish his. I stood up, walked to the water fountain, and leaned down to drink. A strong gust of wind swept my oversized Yankees hat off my head, and it flew toward the water. I cried out and ran after it. The wind sped up, and my hat lifted up a few yards in the air, hovered for a second, and dove like a seagull into the water. Jerome and I ran to the railing, held the metal bars tight and watched helplessly as the hat slowly sank, overpowered by the waves.
The wind sped up. Jerome said something, but I didn’t hear it. I looked at him, and then felt something wet hit my side and land by my feet. I looked down and saw a shiny, rainbow-scaled fish with violet wings flopping at my feet. I grabbed it without thinking, unafraid of holding it. It wrestled with me, but its flimsy oversized fins were no match for my eight-year-old hands.
“A flying fish!” Jerome shouted.
I gaped at him, and then gaped at the fish, which gaped at me. The man who was fishing next to us put down his beer.
“Son, you just caught yourself a flying fish!” he shouted.
There were dozens of fish flying through the air. I think a school must have hit the pier, because the next thing I knew I was seeing rainbow-coloured fish everywhere, and children were either running around screaming or trying to catch one for themselves. Jerome was zig-zagging through the barrage, trying to get a hold of one but they kept on slipping past his tiny fingers.
The wind picks up faster, and I notice the sun is gone. I look up and see a mass of clouds. There’s a white mass, a large blanket, accelerating toward me. The moment stiffens, the air engulfs me, I am caught in a large net, I make a noise, a shout, a cry, and the rain hits me. It forms its way around my face, which is gazing, transfixed, at the sky. Like an inverse veil of veronica, that blanket of water that I saw coming at me only a split second before leaves an impression on my face.
Around me, everyone has stopped trying to catch fish, and starts running for cover. I stand, still transfixed. Jerome grabs my arms, tells me to come, but I can’t hear him. The deafening sound of heavy air and heavier water engulfs me.
All the rainbow-coloured flying fish escaped, except one. I stood holding it as the rain slowed down. It breathed in the humid air, but that wasn’t enough – when the rain stopped, I felt it getting weaker. People crowded around me, and Jerome begged to see it, he asked to hold it, he would lend me his bicycle, or his Game Boy. But I stood still, staring at the clouds moving away fast. I looked down at my hands, and saw, felt, the rainbow twitching less and less. I looked out at the bay, and saw a rainbow receding away from me, rising up from the water. The rain had stopped now, and left a rainbow in its wake. I swung the fish as hard as possible, and it spread its ugly wings, balanced itself in the air, and became a moving speck of the rainbow. An instant later it plunged into the water, and then the rainbow was gone too.
It’s almost as if there was magic at hand, or maybe God was trying to say something. If anyone has some idea of what God was trying to tell me, I’d like to know. I still don’t understand it, and I never will; maybe He was talking to the wrong person. Maybe it was just another moment in the colourful dream of childhood.
Six years later, Joan was found in her bathtub, staring at the ceiling; a bullet had hole-punched her right breast.
The funeral was one of shared loss and damaged friendship. Including the priest and driver, nine people showed up.
Walter attended. It was a humid day, and he could hear motors making a sticky residue of sound on the parkway nearby. Greenwood Cemetery had a distinct silence; it was not the haven away from the city it pretended to be. Instead, Walter felt like the silence was manufactured. A loud synthetic murmur swallowed everything; whispers, birds, and the shuffling of feet. The priest’s gruff voice was smothered by a seemingly ever-rising rumbling tide. Walter did not hear the over-fertilized dirt hitting the coffin. He did not hear the hearse starting up and driving away. He did not hear soft-spoken Natalia whispering in his ear.
He followed her out of habit, and watched her feet as the group made its way to Fifth Avenue. The cluster of friends waited outside a deli, and Charlotte bought some water bottles to, in her words, “wash out this oppressive noise.”
They stood on the pavement, drowning the noise of the cemetery with Poland Spring brand water. As the roar of silence receded and sputtered out, the sound of their thoughts rose higher and higher, until they heard each other and the street seemed literally quiet but metaphysically loud.
“Looks like Joan figured out a way to get us together again,” said Walter, out loud. The rest nodded, but didn’t catch on. They seemed estranged, and he realized then that the damage had been exacted a long time ago.
The reunited party of seven made their way to Fourth Avenue, where they would take the D, M, N, or R trains to different destinations. On the way, Natalia brushed by his shoulder, and his hand brushed hers.
Walter soon found himself in JFK, waiting for a flight. This time Natalia was with him.
Some relationships, he discerned, are reparable.
Well-known are the Falaises de Martel – the Cliffs of the Hammer – that stretch for several miles in southeast France. They seem to be a geographical blunder, but are in fact remnants of a long-ago sea that crashed its waves against the mountains and sloping hills of the Massif Central – an oversized and amputated “leg” of the Alps that covers a sixth of France. This sea, which has eons ago receded, left in its wake vegetated dunes that furnish the kilometres in front of the cliffs. Thus, when reached by way of the mountains behind them, the viewer will imagine a vast expanse of water, but when actually standing at their edge, the viewer sees nothing but the dry contours of vineyards and occasional white specks of sheep.
And yet the ocean haunts these cliffs; when standing at their edge, you will feel as though the falaises – which are really escarpments, for they are inland – are actually the breaking point of a wave that has hit land. Those mountains and hills of the Massif Central are the swells and peaks of an excited sea, a dry sea, but a passionate sea. Here you are atop the cliffs, standing on the final wave, and to your right, to your left, the ocean merges with the land. From behind comes the massive power of the mountains, pushing you forward against your will, and you feel drawn to the chalky sun-smitten rocks that lie fifty metres below. The rocks seem to be mocking, demeaning, and waiting for a victim to fall prey to their blank purity. And indeed, many deaths have occurred at these Cliffs, and many men and women have been tempted by those innocent and uncaring rocks, and have let themselves fall upon them – if only to stain them with impure blood.
Better known are the caves that reside within. Hollowed out by that ancient sea, the Caves of the Hammer are situated below the halfway point of the falaises, and are protected from plain view by a group of boulders fallen from the crumbling cliffs. To get to the caves, you must hike through the dunes, up a rising hill, and on hands and feet, make your way between the cracks of an awesome boulder broken in two. Absailing down the cliff is also a possibility.
The caves are also called the Cathédral, because, once you’ve passed the single boulder, a series of caves and cliff walls reveal themselves, formed in such a way that suggests those giant European edifices meant to be a testament of God’s power. There are turrets, and carved from rain and wind above the largest cave sit two figures not unlike gargoyles. And because the caves cannot be viewed from a distance, their majesty does seem great when you see them so close and so suddenly. You crawl out from under the split rock, and they rise before you in all their white brilliance. Like the top of the cliffs beckons you downward, these caves call upon you to enter. And strangers do enter.
The caves are also called la Cathedrale du Diable. Facing south, they barely ever receive sunlight, and if the sun does deign to shine in their direction, the boulders block most of its slanted rays. So the caves are pitch-black. And you would imagine a satisfactory echo, like the one heard in a church, but the only sound is an absorbent thud. You shout, and they mumble buh, which seems to not only sap the importance of your shout, but its volume too. You walk, and the caves declare buh. You hit the wall, and they reply with a dying buh. You drag in your drumset – one with double-bass pedals and several tom-drums and even three different types of snare drums and a meter-wide ride cymbal – but the caves refuse to echo. Buh, buh, buh, buh, they maintain.
It is the sound of a bird dying in mid-flight and hitting the ground, or wet earth hitting a coffin, or a drumstick hitting a mattress, or perhaps a car colliding with a massive pillow. It is the sound of a wet turd hitting the dusty ground. If hearts made a final sound when they stopped beating, it would be that sound. Or if the soul made a noise when it left the body, a dull buh would be heard. It is with a resounding no that these caves reply. If you ever find yourself in the Cavernes de Martel, you will find yourself in limbo – in an antithesis of society, and all your beliefs, sometimes suspect, will forever be annulled. So much for world peace, so much for humanity, so much for the environment. A geographical blunder will stop you in your tracks.