perfume of memory

Erlkoenig_Schwind

This morning as I read Linda Pastan’s poem The Months in The Writer’s Almanac, I was once again reminded to live in the moment, not to think too much about upcoming calendars or events planned days, weeks, or months from now.

She begins her thoughts with an allusion to the German Romantic-era poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s haunting poem Der Erlkönig or The Elf King, an image of Death pursuing a child held by his father as they both race forward on horseback.

When I first read the poem eons ago in a second-year German class, we had a wonderful recording by the Austrian actor Oskar Werner to listen to as we followed the lines in our book. Being a young man with no responsibilities of fatherhood, I read the tale with a certain detachment, removed from the growing concern of the father whose son was obviously terrified by some life-threatening specter. In the opening lines,

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Who rides so late through the night and wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
It’s the father with his child;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
He has the boy safe in his arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
He holds him secure, he holds him warm.

The father does not see the supernatural creature slowly luring the child away with promises of another existence full of delights. Nor does the father hear the Erlkönig finally tell the child that he will take him by force if he won’t come willingly:

Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.

When the father, who is finally alarmed, arrives at his destination, the child is dead in his arms.

The story and Werner’s reading of it still raise goose pimples on me. This past weekend I heard another story of a child pursued by demons others cannot see. Her mother is aware that something is amiss in this otherwise lovely young lady, but is stumbling along trying to figure out what to do to help her child. There is a definite sadness about the story, since there seems to be a bit of foreboding that little to nothing can be done and that the child’s future is clouded. I want to help but can only stand by, sensing that the story will not have a happy ending. There is no clarity in intervention.

With these thoughts in mind, I returned to Pastan’s poem where the father tries to console the child, urgently seeking to comfort him by urging him not to be afraid since it’s “only” the wind that has spooked him. But as Pasten adds,

As if it weren’t the wind
 that blows away the tender 
fragments of this world–
leftover leaves in the corners
 of the garden, a Lenten Rose 
that thought it safe
 to bloom so early.

As we move into June and summertime, we often think these days will linger, that life will stand still and all the good things around us will endure forever. Now is the time we can relax, slow down and enjoy the languid moments. Time itself is supposed to take on a different nature, not hurrying us along a slushy sidewalk with a cold wind in our face. We should take full advantage of these moments, these opportunities to inhale the fresh smells of lilac and the honeysuckle that can stop us in our tracks. The good earth has shown us once again its regeneration, that new life is there to enjoy in sight, smell and song, as the Thrasher high in our canopy sings out a song of desire that would awaken the most suppressed thoughts of a confirmed old bachelor. The world is alive again and gives us the promise that this is what we have been waiting for throughout the harsh winter and erratic spring that toyed with our affections. In our imagination, this is supposed to be the summer without end, a time without even the faint hint that leaves do eventually indeed fall from branches and birds fly south.

As I read the poem, I saw my mother hanging wash out on her clothes line, singing a quiet song just to herself, alive again to the pull of the warm sunshine and the cherry blossoms in our yard. In another fleeting image, I see her also worried with building alarm clearly in her face, looking down on me in my bed as a 14-year old with appendicitis that she, a nurse in an earlier life, had not spotted and which threatened me now. With my father driving and she consoling me, we drove to the hospital after our family doctor, who still made house calls at that time, had diagnosed my condition and called ahead for the staff to be prepared. Fortunately for me, I didn’t die of a ruptured appendix, but she would often refer back to that time, shaking her head at what might well have happened. She, too, had not seen Der Erlkönig in hot pursuit.

So as I think of the little girl who is tormented by demons of her own, I can only wish the best for her. I want her to grow up to enjoy a multitude of summers, aware of all the promise this world has to offer. I want her to be happy, to be secure, to know that love will always be her companion.

I want her, in Pasten’s words, to be “…the daffodil, the hyacinth, lily, and by the front porch steps every billowing shade of purple and lavender lilac, my mother’s favorite flower, sweet breath drifting through the open windows: perfume of memory–conduit of spring.”

I want her to live in the moment, to enjoy her every second of adventure as the world unfolds to her ever-wondering mind.

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Image: "Erlkönig" illustration, Moritz von Schwind - public domain via Wikipedia.org.

David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.