O beauteous ash upon the earth! O ever-elevating cloud to heaven! Heaven and earth thus joined by fire!
I shall never forget that first cigar!
I wonder sometimes (in view of free will) as to the advisability of fate: it seems so fragile a structure upon which to rest our human universe. Had I not looked up when I did—that day—had I played at wetting the faces of my playfellows with just one degree more of intensity in focus and concentration, had my mother earlier placed me in the pen oriented toward the pastel-papered wall instead of the open window on our dark yard, had my gaming resolution in the playpen proved inviolate,—impervious to the influence of the outer worlds, the spaces beyond the bars, beyond the walls and windows,—had I been entirely content with my infantine games,—it is distinctly possible I would never have discovered, as I did that day, quite by accident, “the somatic salubrity, the pneumatic purity, the nobility and undulant ego-enveloping quiddity—of the cigar.”
The window, as I have mentioned, was open, and I faced it. In my hands were a pillow and a playfellow, each moistened by my unflagging gaming efforts. Over my bladder I kept an unique control, by which means I was able to release my fluid waste in spurts rather than streams, so that I could extend by cubic factors the useful life (as well as the aiming accuracy) of my urethral expectorance. In this way, I could study the effects of time as it related to such topics as seepage, permeability, and evaporation. My main concern at present was to discover the most efficient possible rate of replenishment, so as to maintain consistent, reliable saturation in a maximal surface area.
The game absorbed my interest wholly, yet.… The window was open, and I faced it.
I kept a careful survey of my toys and cushions. I arranged them in rows, according to a scheme whereby the most recently moistened players were placed farthest from me, to be given rest and time for drying. I would attend to them again only after I had progressed through the entire row.
I selected the next playfellow in line, and examined with my sensitive fingertips the status of his stuffed flesh. He was a solemn member of the Bears Confraternity, his fur sable, his eyes of seeming crystal, so serene in their devotion. With a soft breeze soothing over my nude flesh, I held this Bear before me, bowed my head in a formal gesture of respect, and commenced to whiz. The Bear acceded to my anointing pecker, allowing his face and chest by its careful trickle to be steeped and thereby consubstantiated with an ubiquity of my own making, made homogeneous with a vast universe of urine.
It did not occur to me that any greater happiness was possible than this—I was content to play at my youthful games, playing at being grown-up, playing at the wielding of worldly power (as children will, in rehearsal of potential revolutions, future resolutions).
Yet, I submit,—that somewhere within my apparent contentment resided a rageful demon of discontent,—that at core I was in turmoil,—that my soul was an arid, empty tract, no matter how fertile its soil, no matter how faithfully from my pecker’s tap I watered and tended it, there were no seeds to germ and grow and slurp that water up, and so it was a desert, and so the sun of my fleshly need and want reclaimed all moisture to the sky,—and so was it that at the age of two I was already an old man, a rageful, bitter man, an old, old man.
But I was not all bitter, nor old: I was a child. I was youth embodied, literally. I was hope and I was the future of our race. I controlled my bladder, and I controlled my destiny. I did not know in conscious terms of what I held in my hands beyond the obvious penis, but (I know now, and in some unfathomed reservoir of my mind then, I knew) what I held in my hands was fate. I am without reserve certain of one thing: that what next occurred that night was no accident, but was by design.
For the window was open, and I faced it.
It is one of my earliest memories. I was two years old when, quite by accident, I discovered “the somatic salubrity, the pneumatic purity, the nobility and undulant ego-enveloping quiddity”—in short, the maximal and plenary human joy—“of the cigar.”
Two years in this sublunar sphere, and all I knew by way of ingestion was the teat manna, the corn flake, the chicken nugget, the banana, and the occasional spoonful of sugar.
Prior to the fateful events I am soon to recount, there had not been means available to me by which to explore potential avenues of oral sensation. There existed for me only what my mother conceived to offer, and as evidenced by her offerings, conceptual variety was not my mother’s strong suit.
But I shall not classify the beauteous ash and elevating cloud of the cigar, pettily, under mere “oral sensation.” No, I speak of whole sensation, of body and spirit conjoined in fire, and sole sensation, these discreta again disjoined, made pure in the flame’s center, in form of ash and smoke dispersed upon the winds. Pure ash and pure smoke—clean of sin, clean of self. Dry. Loose. Hot. Quickly cooled. Ready to disperse upon the winds with the merest flick of the butt, the relaxatory release of a single sigh. Dispersing upon the winds regardless of flick or sigh, as the winds come sighing and flicking on their own, dispersing everything in range without regard to preference.
Happy faces smiled at me, sewn into lacy pillows scattered countlessly around me. This vacuous, cushiony joy was counteracted by the stolid indifference of my toys—they, too, endlessly scattered—their features best described, in the language of emotions, by “grim.” Perhaps even “glum.” But not in a disapproving way. My toys seemed to bear their lot in inanition without complaint, active only with the determination to sustain infinitely the blank omniscience of their stares.
Stoics make poor playfellows, to say the least, and I preferred generally to avoid involving them in my games, except where absolutely necessary. My games were few, but rewarding:
1. The staring game, a competition of skill between my playfellows and myself,
2. The crying game, in which I measured myself against my own past achievements,
3. The asthmatic game, the aim being to produce in the shortest possible time the keenest imaginable terror in my persevering mother,
4. The heiney-linen-rubbing game, the psychic effects of which still haunt my morning dreams,
and, most rewarding of all, 5. The imbuing-of-ubiquity game. This game was one of pitched engagement between my padded playfellows and myself: invariably I prevailed: every one of those stuffed rumps and bulbous, furred bellies received of my bladder’s plentiful embrocation … much to my gurgling delight and their vitric-eyed forbearance (I am not ashamed to own I gurgled: being below the age of two, it is my firm contention, dignifies most indignities in the eyes of men … most but perhaps not all.… No, I shall not elaborate!).
These games, and others of less historical consequence, filled my time and my mind. No thought of alternative happiness occurred to me. I knew what I knew, and what I knew satisfied me, yet.…
My lungs were twin vacuums. My teeth chomped—each other! my tongue! My eyes were moist to the naked air’s lewd, heavy recumbency. My penis emitted fluid streams of dreams dissolved among the salts and acids—wasted, unreplenished, lost in padded diapers and dewdamp playfellows.
I am not certain what it was that made me look up when I did.
There was no sound emitted, no startling stimulus to guide my curiosity toward that window. Time proceeded as per usual, second by second. My playfellows and pillows behaved as per usual, without animation unless by my will by means of hands and feet and urine as mentioned above. In the next room, my mother and father both sat in worship of the television, as per usual. All things were usual—that night—but there was nothing usual about that night.
For out the window, in our dark yard, I saw fate’s ember floating.
But fleeting. The ember floated in a straight line fleeing past the window’s edge. For perhaps one full second I saw it, but even an instant of perception was quite sufficient for my interest: indeed: interest was puissant in my mind and body, more puissant even than my piss. I pursued my interest, as I always do, with maximum avidity.
At that age, I was yet thin; therefore, I was able to slip between the bars of my cage without much difficulty.
Walking, on the other hand, presented me quite much in the way of difficulty. For I did not wish merely to crawl toward that window: to crawl would have been easy, shameful. I wished in the adult manner to stride there. Something in the floating glowful sphere I had seen told me of grownup matters, and I knew that I must subsequently act in accordance with grownup manners. As the giants did, I did: I walked to the window, and there, upwardly inclined upon my tippytoes, I gazed past the sill, into the dark yard, where in the farthest corner of the property I once again saw fate’s ember.
It was my first inkling of the possibility of fate. I had known of piss, I had played with it, but this was something in a higher sphere. This was something glowing outward against all odds against the dark, minuscule but magnificent combustion in the night. This was willful exercise of power, rebellion against greater forces. I knew it teetering on my toes with my chin upon the sill, my fingers gripping tight with pain to keep me in my pose. Here was an invitation to a burning world of beauty, and could I in all good conscience reject it? Did it even occur to me that I might reject it? I confess, it did not.
Thus, tapping strength reserves within me I had never yet tapped, nor known of to tap, I pulled myself up on that sill, and tumbled out into a needly bush, and then into the dewy yardgrass.
The damp danced upon my skin, spreading cold with every guttate promenade. I reveled in it. I welcomed the cold. My skin expanded and contracted simultaneously: I became inexpressibly both large and small. I rose to heaven and burrowed in the earth. I flew across the yard, and I tunneled to the same location. My destination: fate’s floating ember.
I was not visited with the ability to speak until I attained to the age of reason, the age of seven. However, nearly from the first, I was able to understand what words were spoken to me, even though I could not in kind respond.
Thus, I comprehended the motleyed man’s soliloquy to the night, which he spoke in a rich, sweetly quavering violin’s high-C such as I never had heard issue even from my father’s gusty glottis. Which somewhat surprised me, as this man’s crown was at least four feet closer to the ground than my father’s, and my father was not a particularly tall man for his type. Now, in hindsight, I attribute this exceptional quality of the man’s voice to the cigar he held in his tight fist, and which occasionally during his verbose outpouring he brought to his lips for a long, burning, cloudy pause.
My first sight of the man is even now emblazoned in my mind, as if even now he stood before me, silhouetted against the stars. He was a dual-membered beast of a man, the lower member a fountain spouting a healthy, endless stream upon the nightblack grass, the upper member a bonfire spewing its sweet, turbid incense up high and higher into the black night sky. Full three feet tall, perhaps only two feet and a half (memory does sometimes exaggerate, I admit, in matters of size and encumbrance). He was, though, taller than I and to me a giant akin with the world of grownups.
I declined to reveal myself: I remained within the him-enclosing dark which to him was unsafe yet to me was my safety: I remained in the night which I still was a part of, while he fended off the night with his flame-tipped upper member of fumaceous courage: I listened, enraptured, as he spoke his passion to the night he hated, and to me whom he somehow detected there in its embrace, although he could not have seen me:
“Have I naught left to save me but the somatic salubrity, the pneumatic purity, the nobility and undulant ego-enveloping quiddity—of the cigar?
“Have I with horn and hoof wrought such beastly wrack and ruin upon my plains of sanity?
“Have I made jest of fragile nobility, made to shatter it that I did not understand, for this reason, that I did not understand?
“I have! I have! I have! I am this jester! I am this beast! I am this chomper of cigars!
“You! Get you to the stripling wood! I could hang you on a branch to die—slow—slow—oh! You just a babe, think you not I know you there? I have known much younger and by far much older. But do not fret, I am to you harmless this night. I am not in so contumacious a spirit that I should leap upon you with my clawed fingers to rip your belly’s bloated giblets out steaming on the grass to mingle with my steaming piss. No, tonight I am in that contemplative mood which strikes sometimes, which moves me to strike my cigar alight and take a stroll into the stripling wood to emerge behind some fool’s shack who all the same keeps his hovel warm as I could have no skill to do. My bones clack together in the cold, and in the heat my flesh perspires. I do not modulate my climate, but suffer at my climate’s whim. And I would have it no differently!
“I have lived a hobo’s life, the life of a tramp, the life of a lonely man. You could not know, yon babe, you could not know! You have this life ahead, and I am gifted with such sight that I know, having seen,—you will not know the life of a lonely man. You shall be alone forever, and never lonely: the whole world will keep you company! Baah! Think you I care one bit? I have seen your life entire, just now: in the curling smoke, in the wet grass: I’ve seen your life: before my eyes it flashed like a firefly in fever: and afterwards all was dark again—the night came back—the night had never been away.
“(O putrid night! O endless night! Even in the day thou holdest full sway! For the sun doth tramp, doth make his lonesome round through the night, and shineth day upon this smaller sphere, but he doth know true and well, sad sun,—for him there shall only be eternal night!)
“I could have been noble as you shall be. I was noble! I could kill you now … but I shall not. I shall leave you to your noble life. This you do not know shall be a curse upon you. And I have not even the pleasure of laying it upon you myself! It is already upon you.”
The man took pause, puffed for a while on his cigar. I remained in my infant crouch, watching, awe-filled.
“O, I am not angry with you, babe. Sit you there and hear my tale. I am a lonely man. So few have heard my tale. So few shall before I die. Do not fear, it is not a long tale. It is a short, a very short tale. Humor me: sit you there beside the stripling wood, young stripling, and before this cigar has dwindled to its stub, you will know my woe, and my final peace.
“I will not tell of my toddling days in that mean marm’s orphanage; or of my escape into the surrounding soggy swamps to subsist for many weeks on crabgrass and beetles; or of my foundling youth in a meterman’s shack having wandered there dazed with hunger and insane with marsh gases and taken in out of pity by the childless meterman I soon came to call both father and lover; or of the abduction which took me from that happy home into a life of slavery in P. T. Barnum’s Secret Tent of Titillation and Torture; or of the friendly cockroach who kept me company at night as I lay enchained in my box on savage wooden planks, the individual whom to this day I consider the greatest friend of my life; or of the legendary fire which set all us freaks free, most of whom huddled shivering and whimpering in an abandoned warehouse among cranky oliphants and tygers until Mr P. T. Barnum himself rounded them up and reënslaved them, but of whom I and several others perpetuated our newfound freedom by hopping trains and traveling the countryside, seeing the world in all its cruelty from a vantage of remove and relative safety; or of my subsequent years and decades, spent in the company of my fellow hobos and tramps, setting up camp for only several weeks, at the most, in any one place, scrounging for food in dumpsters and dumps, entertaining crowds on the street with antics and pratfalls for hours on end, earning for all my expenditure of energy but a meager pittance to jingle in the depths of my hat.
“I will proceed instead directly to my discovery at the age of forty-five that certain men were noble, whilst others were not. And that knowledge of nobility may be both the boon which raises you to nobility and the curse which keeps you from it.
“You see, it was at this age that I became enraptured by a woman whose flaxen hair, were it harvested and woven in the ancient ways now lost to knowledge, could clothe the finest kings of history, indeed humble all their finery, reveal them but craven fools like all the rest and not the issue of the gods, their limply wrists and Royal We’s notwithstanding. This woman’s eyes were windows on the Lake of Fire, and upon first sight of them, I fell to my knees (which admittedly was not a long fall), and I cried to her, with tears leaping from my orbits and sobs wrenching my voice from its pure tones, ‘O Lady, who art She this humble freak hast sought in terms of Beauty during all the putrid years of his pubescence and senescence, O Lady, I speak to thee as though my words could merit to the privilege of being heard by thine august ears, but know it truthfully that I full realize the position I must take, whichbeit in all cases netherward and groveling with respect to thee and the perfection of thy form.’ I screeched these words to her, and more words indeed, and was prepared to screech so many more, but that she interjected in a voice so sweet as to calm the storm into its ocean’s berth, ‘Dear freak, address me not in such sniveling ways. Please, but show me that dignity which thou keepst hid behind the leather of thy face and within the bones thou maketh to tremble most falsely to thy true character. But tell me thy name, and I shall reveal mine, and we shall then be friends.’ And thus, by her own command, I regained my feet and stood beside her in the manner of her peer, though knowing well indeed I was her slave. I spoke my name, and she gave me hers, and we became most friendly. Together we walked upon a path through a garden, and observed the myriad beauties there cultivated, the warbling fountains and the gallivanting children, the profusions of the flora, the ecstasies of the bumblebees, the antics of the young lovers on their embowered benches believing themselves privately ensconced and therefore given over to unbridled exhibitions of their wanton lusts. By all these sights and more, in combination with my proximity to my Lady, I was excited to the strain of my manliness, yet I strove to subdue my passions (though aching not to!). Were it love or lust, I could not to this hour discover, nor have I once attempted to.
“Some few minutes after my Lady and I took our leave of each other, I was approached by a gentleman of exceptional height but skeletal girth, whose moustache grew in curls that reached to his eyebrows and whose cheeks were perpetually suctioned between his teeth. Stroking beneath his lip with a skinny finger, he divulged to me a design, in which he wished to secure my participation. It seems the family of my Lady had procured the services of the gentleman to protect the interests of She who was too generous and uncritical to protect them on her own. For, while noble traits, it is the fate of one who bears them too strongly to be struck down from her loftiness by their unwise application to persons undeserving. The gentleman hastened to assure me that I was not that person to whom he referred, but that instead I should become the agent of discord to plans underway in the mind of the man to whom he did refer. Did this man’s plans fructify, then disaster for my Lady and her family awaited inevitably. I must aid in the thwarting of those plans! Otherwise, he insisted, the prestige of my Lady should be brought crumbling to ruin.
“I proclaimed vigorously to the gentleman that my Lady’s prestige occupied an all-consuming role in my albeit freakish and humble psyche, and that to secure its everlasting sustainment I should go to any length and perform any deed as lay within my power. The gentleman then revealed to me my part in his design for her protection.
“Being, as I am, of a diminished stature, I should conceal myself behind a bush beside a certain gate, and there wait for a man to pass through. This man would wear a deep vermilion cape and boots as black as oil. At this time, I should raise a small mirror and reflect the sun from it into the leaves of a tree which stood at the center of the arbour into which this gate admitted. I was most suitable for the job, for the wait could be hours, and a man of normal height might incur permanent damage to his knees were he to keep them bended so protractedly. It was, I may mention, a tiny bush.
“I assented to my role in the gentleman’s design with utmost earnestness. For the sake of my Lady, I so assented.
“The wait indeed was hours, and I was grateful to my diminished stature for its obviation of one’s need to bend the knees when one hides behind a tiny bush. The bush, in fact, stood full three inches higher than myself, so that I harbored no especial worry of discovery, and was able to stand in a perfectly comfortable fashion during those hours, tiring not in the least of my vigil, but remaining alert and keen in all my faculties so that no man passing by should escape my detection of him. And presently, the man came through the gate; I heard his gait and tugged a leaf to see him through the bush. He wore the deep vermilion cape, and his boots were black as oil. I raised my mirror, and aimed the sun into the appointed tree.
“At this time, the man began to speak softly to himself, but I was near enough, and my sense of hearing sufficiently sharp, that I could listen in without missing a word. In morose and melancholy tones, he said, ‘O, that her bosom had been not so bountiful, her cheek not nearly so roseate! O, that a cloud had passed below the sun that fateful minute, thus perhaps diminishing her luster for that brief instant so that no beam of her beauty had penetrated my eye and felled me as certainly as the axe should fell that tree yonder. Instead, she shone, and I—I fell! And fall yet still! For did I not through some cunning, some wile I had not suspected I contained within my heretofore most innocent bosom, draw from her o’er time the proclamations of her undying love for me, knowing yet full well that my station and hers were in no way compatible? Have I not committed this crime upon her?
“ ‘O, that my mother had brought forth not a son but a daughter, so that instead of ill-starred suitor I might have become her handmaiden confidante, carrying the basket for her flowers, combing out the tangles of her golden tresses, delivering and receiving the soft caresses appropriate between a proper Lady and her handmaiden!
“ ‘O, that the world of men were arrayed out differently, so that the love between us would determine our intercourse, and not the station we were born into, helpless to alter it! That legally, I and She might gaze upon each other’s eyes in full view of the world of men, and with its full approval!
“ ‘Or if it could not be that stations could dissolve and love be fructified between any man and any woman, why could not I have been born to her station, or she to mine? Why must it be that We who Love be criminals merely for behaving as Nature Herself would have us behave?
“ ‘I shall not live. My Lady shall not be subject to the cruelty of the world of men. Upon my death, she shall be greeted by some man of her own rank and taken into his noble household, and she shall bear forth children whom she will love and who will love her, and soon enough she shall forget the Love we did share whilst I lived!
“ ‘I must do it. I must belabor it no longer. I must do it here. I must end it all!’
“And so speaking, he strode toward the arbour’s center, removing his dagger from its sheath, preparing to immolate himself within the shade of that tree and give his blood unto its roots. But before he could begin his plan, a man dropped from the overhanging branches and did the job for him, thus saving his soul from the everlasting punishment of a suicide.
“Having witnessed these events, having heard the suitor’s noble words and observed his noble intention, though thwarted yet adamant all the same, I turned my eye inward, and saw truly what I was. For I would not, had I been in that young man’s shoes, have gone through with such a plan. I would have either developed some treachery to obtain my beloved’s hand by any means possible, or fled, never to see her again but to live out my days in some foreign locale, perhaps miserable but alive! In neither case would I have displayed one shred of the nobility which that man embodied in his every fibre.
“The suitor was noble, and I was not. I could observe his nobility, and comprehend its value, and pine to possess it myself; but I could never destroy myself for the sake of an ideal, and to be noble, I finally perceived, one must possess this capacity.
“I could not bear to die, and therefore I could not be a noble man, and I ran weeping from the tiny bush without even bothering to collect my payment from the gentleman who’d hired me!
“And years have passed, and betimes I recall the nobility I witnessed that day. Before that day, I was noble; after it, I was no longer. Before that day, I would have died for my convictions; having witnessed such a death, I would no longer. For yon babe, why must thou die if others shall live? I should kill you now, to save you from your wretched, noble fate! But I shall not. I shall leave you to it, as well should a noble man be left to fulfill his noble destiny!
“It is with this fate I am stuck, that I shall always recognize the noble man, but I shall never be him, and perhaps I’ll live forever, but know it is a life of misery and obliviation of the self! All that is left me, all the joy that I may experience in this life—”
Here, the motleyed man paused, held aloft the short stub which remained of his cigar, squinted broodingly toward it, and brought it back to his lips for one last puff before discarding it to the grass still dewy from the flood he’d loosed upon it some no few moments earlier.
“All that is left to save my soul is contained within the somatic salubrity, the pneumatic purity, the nobility and undulant ego-enveloping quiddity—of the cigar!”
I was impressed by the motleyed man’s noble tenor, howbeit self-denigrating and tortured. Over the course of his soliloquy, his voice had dropped two full octaves, his timbre at the end more in the range of the cello than the violin. This too, his tremendous vocal range and his facility in employing it to the service of his narrative, impressed me.
Furthermore, I was most greatly impressed by the remains of the cigar still burning in the grass.
O, there was fate’s ember, the very object of my attraction to this spot, nor floating now nor fleeting, but still and burning, and for the taking.
Retaining my determination to stride in the adult manner, I took myself at no diminutive speed to the cigar, and I took the cigar to myself, and held most reverently within my infant grasp the damp yet burning holy stub of my destiny.
I placed my lips upon it, garnering my first taste of that tangy leaf, howsoever steeped in the effluence of the motleyed man.
And from the burning center of that ember, through the damp, dense mass of the cigar’s vegetation, I drew into myself an ecstasy that remains within me even now as I write these words:
O beauteous ash upon the earth! O ever-elevating cloud to heaven! Heaven and earth thus joined by fire!