A Celtic Harp

Junius dreamed of hyperspace, of commerce, of stacking up valuables that would not devalue, of owning his own planet and ordering it for his convenience, comfort and . . . he groped for another C. Small-minded Junius the merchant wanted swifter passage, faster-than-light commerce between the worlds: the spices, the textiles, the nanos, the minerals—the great exchange dancing between planets at the speed of thought, at his beck and at his call.

He had recently discovered the book traffic, the traffic of hot new books and of ancient books, and the rather disappointing traffic in contemporary books he had already forsaken. He thumbed the old volume: from earth and it cost a fortune. In pretty good shape, too. It had an arresting picture; Junius never would forget his first sight of it. He knew the value of things, he knew enough of history, enough of the shallow epidermis of history, that is, to place everything in its place. He knew William B. Yeats was a famous and desired poet, that his poetry was considered the real thing and worth paying for. He had tried to read the old book, but it hardly interested him—except that it would sell . . . but he would savor it a while and sell it later. This strange, old volume had poetry, but what was striking and what he would never forget his first sight of, was the detailed picture of a harp, worked in what Junius had discovered was genuine gold leaf, on which was an image of Yeats: arresting, almost alive. He couldn’t stand to look at the image long, but that first time it had drawn him, mesmerized him, stared at him out of the gold like life itself beckoning. Ever since, Junius had known a vague unease, and underlying dissatisfaction that gnawed at his idle moments and poisoned his leisure.

So he worked harder, counted his money longer, browsed his wares and searched the market listings to find the perfect match, the ultimate profit. He became even more rich and he deserved it because he concentrated on it, lost sleep, lost health, lost all his friends. His banks called to propose investments and he listened to them quietly, weighed their proposals and with uncanny sagacity accepted or declined. He pondered his problem: “I need a realm of transport,” he muttered. “I need to get beyond the physical limitations of the universe to move my goods.”

Onboard ship there are no seasons. At home there were no seasons either for he lived on the crowded planet of eternal spring, in an expensive tower where six thousand other people lived in vast apartments, fully serviced and attended, in utter luxury . . . when they were home from their vacation getaways. They also wanted: they wanted and they wanted nothing. They had no seasons and they left to brave the heat, to brave the cold, to bear the rain or the intolerable sunshine of Galapagos Nova. Junius did not follow his neighbors. He piloted his craft, worked alone, watched, slept little, ate miserably or lavishly but always erratically, took pills, took supplements, and plotted and got rich. Time measured in flashing, green digits passed, without seasons, without joy.

And he got even more uneasy. He began to feel a strange thing: a dislike for what he did, how he did, where he spent his time, the notice of more money trickling into his accounts. He began to loathe himself and to see it in all his surroundings. The night gathered around him in outer space, deepening to a midnight of the soul on the run between Serpens Cauda and the belt of Orion. He stared around, he ran his hands through his hair and groaned, he took out the book and looked at the golden, intense effigy of Yeats . . . and it spoke to him.

Junius listened, and the image spoke of salmon-falls, of mackerel-crowded seas, of sages and the holy fire.

“The holy fire!” Junius sat trembling. “Where?”

And Sing, and Louder Sing

He sold everything and bought a planet, called it Ireland, offered true descendants of ancient Ireland a place to live and whiskey, stout, soda bread and seafood chowder if they would settle there and awaken in it something of the old spirit of Yeats. Many came, blustering, promising, drinking heavily and falling in the pre-rutted lanes. But no spirit came, no holy fire, only politics, mobs, crime bosses ruling all and derelict hospitals. Junius regarded it from his control center and despaired, he took to drink and staggered around the alleys, between the cottages and into the ruins of his pre-fabricated planet Ireland.

He came to his senses in a cold, morning rain and set out as a traveler, a story teller. Poor people accepted him, gave him stout, onions and cheese and waited for a story, but he had no interesting stories, only the dull stories of his epidermal history lessons scrounged from the world of trade, of shrewd moneymaking hollow men and the unliving trickle of coins and gold. He groaned and headed out into the night, and the curses of his Irish settlers followed him in Spanish, Portufrench, Somali and regurgitated Coptic.

That night both moons were full, and in the weird, rose twilight of the world he found a cave with a glittering inscription overhead: The Artifice of Eternity. Two awful guardians carved in stone he did not remember commissioning stood on either side: weird, bird-like creatures, standing upright, holding staves, their stone capes falling in folds behind their skinny legs. Their ears were pointed, their beaks were hooked, and their obsidian eyes were large and flat, like pools, goggling at him in the rose twilight of full moons. Junius hesitated and they called together, made a sound like a ringing bell that emanated from . . . he knew not where, but summoning, summoning. So he bowed, he twisted himself to look behind at the quiet landscape of the valley, at the mountains rising on either side, at the guardians that seemed to summon him, and last of all on the black entrance over which the words glittered. He crawled forward and came inside.

In those spaces he descended long. In those silent spaces filled with darkness and warm, hard rock he persevered, going forward till after days or months or even years, with long hair and tattered clothes he saw a pale light and heard a woman’s voice. It sang without words, echoing in the caves of the artifice of eternity, and as he followed it, it mingled with the sound of dripping water and afterward the tolling of a bell. He came at last to a hall, where shafts of distant sunlight fell in as from behind a cloud in the late afternoon. He could not remember when he had last looked on daylight: it seemed very bright to him, though he was deep under the mountains and the light was weak. In that place, at he head of the hall and in the path of an advancing shaft he found a lectern. Approaching, he reached into his satchel and pulled out the book, the only book still left to him: the one with the harp and the effigy of Yeats.

He laid it on the lectern, opened it and waited. Watching the gold, he saw the face staring and stared back, intent. The woman sang, sang louder and the bell tolled with a meaning he felt on the cusp of grasping but could not. The sounds of dripping water became a part of that strange symphony and it almost seemed to him there also sounded a creaking of stone, a sifting groan of rock, the rumor of an army.

Then the pool of light touched the book, he looked up, into the light and was dazzled, felt the ground move beneath him, fell and was suddenly drenched.

Epilogue

They did not find the shell of Junius nor the book again. That night, under torrential rain, the rocks shifted, opened to reveal their empty mysteries, and then closed up again forever, making the spent body of Junius and his book their treasure. The population of the planet declined, became extinct. Debts dwindled his bank accounts, and Junius, who had been uneasy and a merchant, found other realms, realms of transport, for he was delivered of his body’s weight and needs, and came to the unending green fields of death on the slopes of the true Olympus. And the soul of Yeats, long imprisoned in that golden effigy, was delivered as well, and he and Junius together passed as a breeze into that undiscovered country, from whence the voice of a woman sang, where there grow grapes and nectarines of metaphysical proportions, and where the tolling of the iron bells is only a distant, silvery echo.

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