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Late Light

Written by: Philip Levine | Biography
 Rain filled the streets 
once a year, rising almost 
to door and window sills, 
battering walls and roofs 
until it cleaned away the mess 
we'd made.
My father told me this, he told me it ran downtown and spilled into the river, which in turn emptied finally into the sea.
He said this only once while I sat on the arm of his chair and stared out at the banks of gray snow melting as the March rain streaked past.
All the rest of that day passed on into childhood, into nothing, or perhaps some portion hung on in a tiny corner of thought.
Perhaps a clot of cinders that peppered the front yard clung to a spar of old weed or the concrete lip of the curb and worked its way back under the new growth spring brought and is a part of that yard still.
Perhaps light falling on distant houses becomes those houses, hunching them down at dusk like sheep browsing on a far hillside, or at daybreak gilds the roofs until they groan under the new weight, or after rain lifts haloes of steam from the rinsed, white aluminum siding, and those houses and all they contain live that day in the sight of heaven.
II In the blue, winking light of the International Institute of Social Revolution I fell asleep one afternoon over a book of memoirs of a Spanish priest who'd served his own private faith in a long forgotten war.
An Anarchist and a Catholic, his remembrances moved inexplicably from Castilian to Catalan, a language I couldn't follow.
That dust, fine and gray, peculiar to libraries, slipped between the glossy pages and my sight, a slow darkness calmed me, and I forgot the agony of those men I'd come to love, forgot the battles lost and won, forgot the final trek over hopeless mountain roads, defeat, surrender, the vows to live on.
I slept until the lights came on and off.
A girl was prodding my arm, for the place was closing.
A slender Indonesian girl in sweater and American jeans, her black hair falling almost to my eyes, she told me in perfect English that I could come back, and she swept up into a folder the yellowing newspaper stories and photos spilled out before me on the desk, the little chronicles of death themselves curling and blurring into death, and took away the book still unfinished of a man more confused even than I, and switched off the light, and left me alone.
III In June of 1975 I wakened one late afternoon in Amsterdam in a dim corner of a library.
I had fallen asleep over a book and was roused by a young girl whose hand lay on my hand.
I turned my head up and stared into her brown eyes, deep and gleaming.
She was crying.
For a second I was confused and started to speak, to offer some comfort or aid, but I kept still, for she was crying for me, for the knowledge that I had wakened to a life in which loss was final.
I closed my eyes a moment.
When I opened them she'd gone, the place was dark.
I went out into the golden sunlight; the cobbled streets gleamed as after rain, the street cafes crowded and alive.
Not far off the great bell of the Westerkirk tolled in the early evening.
I thought of my oldest son, who years before had sailed from here into an unknown life in Sweden, a life which failed, of how he'd gone alone to Copenhagen, Bremen, where he'd loaded trains, Hamburg, Munich, and finally -- sick and weary -- he'd returned to us.
He slept in a corner of the living room for days, and woke gaunt and quiet, still only seventeen, his face in its own shadows.
I thought of my father on the run from an older war, and wondered had he passed through Amsterdam, had he stood, as I did now, gazing up at the pale sky, distant and opaque, for the sign that never comes.
Had he drifted in the same winds of doubt and change to another continent, another life, a family, some years of peace, an early death.
I walked on by myself for miles and still the light hung on as though the day would never end.
The gray canals darkened slowly, the sky above the high, narrow houses deepened into blue, and one by one the stars began their singular voyages.



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