One might make a start today, this day, to tell the story of a life.
For a life must begin somewhere. Peter Walsh was his name;
and someone had written that name in thick white ink
beneath the image of a child in short pants who looked down
at his cupped hands, and in his hands sat an egg;
a goose egg, was it? or perhaps the egg of a large duck,
or perhaps simply a hen’s egg in a small boy’s hands?
And behind him, was the sea rolling? or was it a field of ripe
hay? And why had someone dropped a spotted scarf at his feet?
In the doorway, his mother tormented herself with dust and disarray:
yes, look at these photographs, waxy with dirt; piano filthy
as coal. And yet there was Peter. And yet there was herself.
A mother brings forth a child and calls him by name;
but what, in the story of his life, does her travail signify?
Merely nothing, perhaps. A signpost to wander away from.
Curtains spoke to wind; a fly complained. The parlor was empty
now but not silent. The kitchen intruded: click of china, rattle of steel.
Voices. On the pianoforte the snapshots smiled, or did not,
each fenced in its solitary room: once he was this age; then
he was that tall. His mother had scattered them with no particular intent.
She rarely saw them, for she saw her child every day as he was.
He rarely saw them, for as documents they had no meaning.
They were objects only, settled on the piano as dust also
settled there. Sometimes they shivered, gently, when Peter
struck the keys. But he did not watch them tremble.
One might make a start today, this day, to tell the story of a life.
For a life must begin somewhere, birth or otherwise,
and Peter’s life (as much as he thought of it) might thus far
have never begun at all, except as explained by its regalia
of framed smiles and comic punch lines, the shabby
trousers and terse adventures trapped in the snapshots
lining the dusty pianoforte (the soft-loud, he named it in his mind,
and sometimes he struck out the words, soft-loud-soft-loud
on the stained keys, like a password or an incantation,
for no one else seemed to notice them at all, these sounds
distracting him, sucking him away from the nothingness
of childhood: of chewing rhubarb and running haywire
across a stubbled field, of pissing against a tree and watching
his own hot stain leak down the bark runnels, quenching the dirt).
One might call life a tale of noticing: a span of intensities,
moments when we suddenly attend to eye or hand or ear;
more, they exact our attention, like an internal command:
Now you are alive. On the pianoforte Peter struck out the words
soft-loud-soft-loud in a sort of dream idleness,
fingertips against keys, muscles contracting, each pitch,
each duration, a subtle, unintended chant, and all the while
bees shimmered in the bright air outside the pocked
window, motes danced in the streaks of sunlight resting
like calm hands on the chairs and carpets, and Peter
lived it all, lived everything: in the parlor, in the unseen
rooms beyond, in the long, low gardens stretching
toward field and forest; and yet he lived none of it:
for life, the richness of earth, sought him out,
claimed his open eye, his voluntary ear, as he lingered
at the piano, striking soft-loud-soft-loud on the stained keys,
idle and untutored, shirttail thrust into his frayed
belt, a smear of green willow on the seat of his shorts.
In the kitchen his mother half-heard his plink-plonk-
plink-plonk; more, she felt it, like a tremor, an emanation,
safe and dull as a drip down a drainpipe:
a comfort, in truth; for now and then she faced
the facts of tedium with a sort of satisfaction,
a release from this ever-lasting hunt for bliss
that seemed, to her surprise, to have been her task
all these years of her life: chasing down the next
thing and the next, and was it squalor or success,
her plans for dinner and the garden and the fruits
of her own mind? She half-heard Peter’s plink-plonk
and half-felt the chimes of her own future clang
in step, then out of step with his idle fingers, uneven
as a ticking clock on a crooked shelf. On the porch
rail two jays sparred; new potatoes bubbled on the stove;
she was making salad, her hands tore lettuce; her hands
were red and worn; they were her grandmother’s hands.
How strange! She watched her grandmother’s hands tear
lettuce, the jays quarreled on the railing; a sparrow
cried, Oh, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody; Peter played
two notes on the piano, and would he ever stop, would
they ride on and on forever, two notes clanging in the summer
air? It was unbearable, and she cried out, Stop it! If you’re
going to play the piano, play a song, for God’s sake!
and at the sound of her voice, the notes crumpled up
on themselves and vanished, as if they had never lived at all,
as if there were no such notes in the history of the world.
Somewhere a screen door snapped open, and shut.
Peter never thought to love his mother less because she
interrupted these small commas, these accidental
obsessions, which were not knowledge but merely time
stopped in its tracks, no more vital than sleep. His bicycle lay
on its flank in the dooryard, dead as a shot horse; he scooped it up,
he shook it back to life; he mounted and cantered down
the ragged lawn: sedate robins burst into flight, horrified;
he drove the bicycle harder, grinding into mole-holes, through humps
of weed; wind snatched at his hair; the bicycle lurched and galloped
under his hands and the forest rose up from the distance
and became tangles and trunks and shadow, and with a flourish
of tire, Peter pulled up his horse and threw it to the ground
and threw himself onto his back beside it and stared at the clouds,
which leapt in the air like starlings and swallows, until his eyes
shut of their own accord and he stared at the magic swirls
behind his eyelids that also leapt like birds, and it was not sleep,
not at all like sleep, but like gangster movies, in a way; and also
like getting sick on the merry-go-round; but it didn’t matter,
nothing mattered: there was not one thing more important
in this world than another, unless it was his knife, which had
three dull blades and a fold-out spoon. One might make a start
today, this day, to tell the story of a life; yet a life is the story
of nothing, the story of Peter on his back in the grass,
squirming a hand into the right hip pocket of his shorts,
curling his hand around the hidden lump of knife
that his mother had given him for his tenth birthday;
and nothing ever happened because of it: he never
killed anything with this knife; he never even cut himself;
and when he was sixteen, riding a wooden roller coaster
with his cousin, it fell out of his pocket, vanished into the salty
mud, and he never missed it, not once, for the rest of his life;
but a life is also the story of noticing just now, just at this moment,
what we never notice again: and just now the knife lay curled
in Peter’s palm and he caressed it blindly, with thumb and palm
and fingertip; he lay with his eyes closed and leaf-speckled sunlight
stippling his cheeks. A life is the story of nothing, yet once a watcher
believed a moment meant something more than nothing,
believed in the story of a child named Peter Walsh. It began,
that story, and ended, and no one ever knew what became of him,
the child who carried an egg in his hands, beside the sea.