Friday, May 27, 2005

Rumors of Atlantis

Let’s say that you are going to a strange city to visit distant relatives. You have heard much about them all your life. You are excited, looking forward to the reunion, brushing up on your language skills. Your old uncle gives you explicit and careful, but complicated directions. You copy them down, read them back to corroborate. You ask, have these people moved, are they still alive. The old fellow says yes, yes, yes. They will be there. He got a letter from them not too long ago. How long ago was that Uncle? Just then, the old fellow, starts coughing violently, not feeling well, he is getting old. His wife urges him to bed. The next day, you are off, you go to wish him goodbye. He waves from his chair, but cannot talk.

You take the train to the airport, wondering if he will be here when you get back. He would have so loved to go with you. You take the plane, and then another train. There is a mountain to your left at the station, shaped something like a resting lion. It triggers memories of the old stories. I’ve heard of that mountain you say to yourself. You take a taxi to the ferry. Two hours on the ferry gives you time to reflect on those old stories. The little town at the quay seems familiar. You speak to the bus driver, telling him the name of the town. Yes, yes, he says. I’ll tell you when we’re there. You practice reading the signs you see along the way, savoring the old, hauntingly familiar words and place names.

Dismounting the bus, you look at the directions. Five streets go from the station. You want the one closest to the north. You look at your watch and then the bright sun. Still not sure, you dig a compass out of your backpack. Yes, there is one due north. Another runs close, but this is definitely the one. At any rate, you should know by the next turning. Three intersections and then a red house with a horse trough out front. Exactly as he said. You look at the street you have turned on. It should be stone or block but it is macadam. Oh, there on the side, under a pothole, you can see the old stone. Everything is fine. Next a public building with a dome. The walk is a little longer than expected, the dome is grey, but could have been white once upon a time. Up the hill, look for three houses connected and a winged statue on a pedestal.

Well the pedestal is still there, but the statue is gone. Looted in the war perhaps. Knock at the middle door. An old woman answers. You smile and guess at her name. She shakes her head. You tell her your mission. Talk of other people she might know, but nothing triggers recognition. You must have the wrong place, she says. Maybe she misunderstands your accent. You try again more slowly. She shakes her head and closes the door.

You ask at the neighbors on the left. Same response. Inspired, you ask about the old statue on the pedestal. When they were young, it was a statue of a woman, but the town leaders did not approve and had it removed. Did it have wings, you ask. No. No. I don’t think so. Have you heard of other such pedestals nearby? Yes perhaps a few. You could get a map at the library down the street.

OK, you say, looking at the map. Three statues marked on the map. This one you know of isn’t marked, but it is in a little circle at an intersection. Seven little circles can be found in the town, and a possible circle on the edge of the page here. Could I get to any of these by following Uncle’s directions? Well, if I take the second northerly route, there might be a red house, with a horse trough. There might be another house further along the first route.

At the first place, you knock and ask about the horse trough. How long has it been there? Oh, it’s been here as long as we can remember, but it’s not really for horses. Oh, what does a horse trough usually look like? Don’t know, never seen one. What is the name of this town? Your interlocuteur looks at you strangely, but answers, speaking slowly. Has it always had that name? Oh yes. He shuts the door. You wanted to ask if there were other towns with the same name.

After finding a place to stay, you call your uncle. Can’t come to the phone. After scouring the regional maps, you find several places with similar names. Some of them have familiar sounding street names. You mark them down to try later. In your memory, you go over everything your uncle spoke of. You look at your notes. They have been damaged in a few places where they were folded, but you can still read them, since you knew what they said when you wrote them down.

The next day you decide that you won’t let anything bother you. You had hoped to meet your relatives, but you can at least enjoy the feel of the country. You keep looking, hoping that something will make sense, but you spend most of your time touring the area, sitting in cafes, speaking with the locals about sports and weather and winged statuary. At the end of your two weeks, you realize that you’ve had a great time and learned a lot. You go home content, if not completely so.

When your uncle feels better, you tell him what you saw and ask where you went wrong. He listens rapt with pleasure, asking lots of questions of his own. He says that it was not like that at all when he was young, but you should have tried such and such. Everything he tells you, you write it down and put it with your notes. Your uncle dies and leaves you a couple books and trinkets from the old country.

Thirty years later, you give all these things away to one of your children, and tell all the stories you remember. The stories are written down, because that’s what we do nowadays. Oral tradition and all. Perhaps someone will be able to find it this time, but I guess no one will be there to answer the door.

5/27/2005 12:56 PM

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