To tell my story, I would first have to talk about the life I was forced to vacate and renounce so I could become who I am today. I would have to tell the story of a love I did not admit to myself, a dream I did not pursue. But the life I decided against was close at hand. I was never alone; I could feel it. I found it unbearable to think that this life could have its own world where it could escape from me. For I was positive that, all told, nothing gets lost; that everything that appears to trickle away without consequence keeps growing in a second, hidden life; that there is a time that passes alongside time, in some room, on some adjacent street, a second still-unclaimed life proceeding parallel to ours, the bastard child of our reality, like the illegitimate progeny of a king who has been spirited away, raised under an assumed name, who then identifies himself and lays claim to the throne. Today, I feel responsible for my past; I want to know it is in good hands. I know I should keep watch over my memories so they don’t bind to someone else, so they don’t overflow; I know I should keep watch of my life from all sides because I have an inkling there is somebody else beyond me, close by, laying claim to that life, conspiring with my memories against me. I am afraid of that rejected life that has returned to lay claim on me. As whenever I had neglected something, I could feel myself hesitating, resolving against him, disclaiming him, and never referring back to him even though what he was doing at
that moment, and what he was capable of, were in arm’s reach; I felt his presence. I hardly missed hearing his voice.
That summer, I discovered something I had not expected, something apparently intended only for me. One morning, the circus wagons were lined up in a semicircle on the lawn behind the old Burgher Hospital. The men were hard at work unloading the trucks and gathering the materials to pitch the tent. Tent poles, rolled up tarpaulins, ropes, cables, and blocks and tackles were spread out on the lawn, but it seemed as if everything were ready at once, all the clear, rational intentions and plans to erect the circus like any sudden epiphany, any dream and any flash of madness, which were likewise waiting to be summoned instantly into reality from the enormous reserve of possibilities. In a flash, I saw before me a summer of endless, grotesque diversity and wondered how it could be possible that time extracts but a small share of this immeasurable stock, exactly as much as it needs so that this constant trickle of seconds never runs dry and the people from the circus only stretch a single narrow rope between the two poles while the vast reserve of madness goes untapped. I imagined that I had seen what would only become evident in retrospect, years past us, when time loosens its grip and gives itself to the days: the unsettling tally of their withheld possibilities.
The acrobats had suddenly come to the forefront in all my memories, thickening in the air, in my eyes that gazed into my mother’s room, but at her prompting, my gaze floated as if on an invisible rope above all the days, while I held my breath and followed each of her movements, trembling and marveling.
They charged in, and then, quickly, as if short on time to show off all their tricks, they began their act. First, two of them walked side by side holding hands. The stiff dignity of their steps, as in a pavane, gave way to a rapid series of grips and moves. Finally, they
stood face to face, placed their hands on each other’s shoulders, and halted in that position. Spaced around the edge of the ring, looking out to the audience, the other acrobats were waiting. One by one they turned around and entered the ring, and I felt as if they were being taken away from me, as if their act were summoning them from me, removing them from me one at a time. The next acrobat, like each of his predecessors, fell backwards as if he were being pulled suddenly, irresistibly, into the center. He spun around on one leg and caught his balance with another step. Each time an acrobat left his spot, I felt I was losing a memory, and another piece that I had recognized from my past broke off and took shelter in this act, becoming part of this singular reality that had prevailed over the rest, as if one moment were drawing in all the others, as if the acrobats waiting at the edge were the many lives required to live this one life, which was now in the spotlight, which was now coming true, as if my entire life were now gathering there, as if it had nowhere to rest except hoisted up on someone’s shoulders. My memories streamed in from all sides. I saw one acrobat helping another into a stirrup, while the second pretended he was mounting a horse. And so it was that our days at the horse track were being deposited into this act, and I no longer owed that summer anything, I didn’t need to remember anything else about it. With the others, they withdrew to where they could cohere better, lest any of it fall to someone else, lest anything get lost in a world where memories revolve around themselves, in a past from which nothing and nobody could stir any longer. Our whole life withdrew to just one room, just one day, in which, like a sickness suffered over and over afresh, feelings were passed from one to the next.
Finally, it seemed to me as if everything we’d once held important in our lives had been clumped into one long, bizarre hour in which the nameless intimacy of every memory and feeling was concentrated.
The drum that had introduced the act was hardly audible now. A growing hush displaced the music and the noise. It spread, migrated like a chill that freezes all it touches, across the ring and up the rows of spectators. The voices in the stands went silent. Perhaps, in the end, they expected that I too would quit my insistence on living. By now, the acrobats’
displays were much richer and more spirited, a world of greater depth and beauty. When, with a jump and a spin, the last two acrobats joined the group, there was nothing left, and the years of training that had led to this moment were as good as extinguished. At last, only this luminous moment was alive, a gaped-at equilibrium in which the acrobats suddenly froze stiff and, their arms extended, submitted themselves to the audience’s applause, a moment of surprising success, apart from all the effort, cut out from the darkness by a circle of light. They held still in this pose, grasping each other’s hands, standing on each other’s shoulders, their feet propped on each other’s hips; they leaned out horizontally, carrying and being carried, as if at last they had swiftly transformed into an entity woven from all their limbs or indeed the many manifestations of a single being that had emerged from the one acrobat who had walked alone into the center of the ring at the opening of the act. (Like a paper cutting unfolded at once, all the figures were linked, if only by such narrow connections.) This image might have lasted for just a few seconds, but that was enough to realize that this moment had salvaged all the others before it, that all the episodes of my life, from my childhood to my years in Vienna, had taken refuge in this one moment, in the hands of the acrobats, in one point of equilibrium, the precise center of all the directions I had moved in, of all the moods at whose mercy I had been, of everything I had once desired and then discarded. For as long as the acrobats held this position, they all seemed united, rescued, all their lives having ascended into one life, and I myself felt as though extinguished, eradicated from that space. The acrobats spread their hands in invitation. My entire life was theirs. In their fruitless attempts, I myself was often on the verge of being born into the world only to die with them. This time I had succeeded. My life had been fully replaced by the memory of my life.
I had lost everything, my own dreams and views, because everything that I had to say or could say about my life, about who I was, was there in that ring. As if I had always been sitting there all along waiting for myself, for a life that selected me, squeezed through the narrow rows of seats, and awakened me, as if I had just gotten started.
There was no past, no life beyond this sawdust-strewn floor, no other summer, no other sky. There was only the light in the ring and the glint of the sequins on the acrobats’ costumes and the smell of animals, fresh sawdust, and sweat; everything else was gone. I saw us standing there, fathers, mothers, and sons from different years, all of us having fled to this final image, as far from that day as we wanted to be. We crowded together in the light amid the floating white magnesium powder. Around us, it was dark. We had taken refuge on this brightly lit island. I saw us, assembled for one last deep bow before life, leaning on each other, sad and exhausted. Nobody stirred.
Then I heard a soft fanfare. The image began to shift, movement broke out in its edges, and second by second it dissolved and sank into the dark river and drifted off, caught in a roaring current, to the strains of sad music.
My father, who had been carrying me on his shoulders, leaned forward and let me off. The tree behind us faded. I had seen enough. My mother, who had been walking arm in arm with my father, split off and moved to the side. The pond had disappeared. I helped my father to his feet. Behind us, my mother stood and beat the snow off her coat. The ice thawed. When the music stopped, a dancing couple parted, and suddenly, as if an invisible hand had been quietly laid on the twigs and branches like the strings of an instrument sounding a long final note, it fell silent there too. The musicians took their bows.
The two acrobats in the center were the last to be released. I remember their black costumes, fringed with gray frills at the chest. I felt as though they were hesitating, waiting for a nod from my father, as if seeking his permission for this final transformation from acrobats into two carpenter’s assistants. They held my mother’s shoulders and legs and placed her softly in the casket. (She is laid out in a casket, which is open to her waist. There she is again in the bottom half, mirrored like a playing-card figure.) It was this memory that eventually prevailed over the rest and made everything unrelated disappear. I stood behind my father and remembered the light that filtered through the leaves of the chestnut tree outside the window. The smell of animals and sawdust left the house. In a steady procession, voices and noises left the house; the sawed-in-half young women were
carried out in caskets. It has been years now since my mother died, but her casket is still being carried down the steps.
Plenty of carpentry that day. Now the casket is being launched into the years the way a heavy ship slides down from the slipway with a groan. The hearse’s departure is the cue for the musicians from the brass band. The previous time, their steps sounded buoyant like those of guests walking out of a house lit up in celebration, and with them the rooms that the house threw into the night like great dice, chairs and tables whisked up by the music. Now they abscond from the house like marauders, carrying all sounds away in their instruments. I must join them before their music fades altogether. Before long, quiet and tranquil days arrive. They come to collect my voice. It sings along with them, and I am left mute in the house. The orchestra of the world has withdrawn and left town.
The room slowly leaks out. The day sinks like the water of Poseidon Fountain in the park, which is drained at the end of the summer. But even if a whole sea retreats and the falling water level leaves behind pools in the sand of the bay, tiny crabs will remain tucked among the seaweed, startled by the sea’s abrupt withdrawal, stranded on the beach, slowly opening and closing their claws. That is who we are.