It was late, fragrant spring, or summer before the burning heat started, and we were on a hike. We didn’t hike as much we should’ve, living in Colorado; I can count the number of times on two hands, probably. My mental illness unmotivated me; the constant requisitions obsessive compulsive disorder makes on the brain depletes you, leaves you feeling fragile and worn out, etiolated.
But we were walking in the foothills, somewhere not too far afield. We were passing through a thick growth of trees: I don’t know their names. One of my insecurities as a writer is my global ignorance of plants and animals: I can barely remember what a pansy looks like, and the differences between all but the most obviously alternate birds are colors outside of my spectrum. But we passed through the trees, following a trail. And probably there was the smell of fragrant pine in the air, because one thing about the Colorado forests was the way they perfumed the air with the sticky, strong, light smell of sap. That smell makes the air feel cool on some level, even when it wasn’t – and it wasn’t that day; everything near-boiled, quivered on the edge of big unhumid heat, the trees and the undergrowth and the pollen in the air layering away in any direction you looked, simmering, druidic.
I was in a mood. I felt like I had violated some OCD dictum, and that it broke something in my soul; I felt beyond repair, fallen. You were reading Anna Karenina at the time. Anything that wasn’t your core art – theater – you seized upon in powerful rages of enthusiasm. One time you became so fixed on playing Pokemon that you barely left the bed for two days. But this particular voracity for Anna Karenina was of a lower decibel than that; there was this other thing you did, where you committed fearlessly to some time-intensive enterprise, like reading a long book, on what seemed to me like a whim – and so you did with Anna Karenina; and we talked about it as we walked through the woods.
“I remember reading this article once,” I said. “I think it was on Salon.com. Anyway the header image was a picture of Tolstoy wearing a t-shirt that said ‘I Heart Tolstoy’ on it. The author was writing about reading it for the first time, and how he challenged it to ‘bring it,’ y’know? Because he was like in his fifties or whatever and had read a lot, and didn’t think that such a known quantity could surprise him I guess.”
“Yeah, it did! I remember him being very much into it.”
Did I ever ask what you thought of it, when you were reading it or when you finished? I can’t think of anything I would like to know more, right now, than what you thought of Anna Karenina.
We kept walking and eventually came to a clearing, passing through the line of trees like a curtain.
No, that’s not how it happened. The path we were walking on took us to the clearing. It bisected the clearing into two segments, before turning past a little rise just beyond.
Both sides of the clearing shimmered with thick grass, bending in the breeze. On one side of the clearing there was a collapsed tree. It had fallen over, in a storm maybe, or otherwise violently, and place where the trunk broke from the stump grisly shrapnel: the exposed pith jutted up like splinters of bone and was a warm flesh color.
On the other side of the clearing, there was the remains of a cottage, a low, one-roomed building made from gray stone. There was no roof anymore, and the walls crumbled down at different heights in different places. There was a doorframe but no door. The short grass grew unkempt right up against the stonework’s feet, and longer grasses were rising up within the cottage itself, nodding in the overbright sunlight. A lone, extremely long plank of wood, maybe 20 feet in length, fresh-looking and professionally planed, like something you’d buy at a hardware store, was canted over one of the broken down walls.
The dilapidated scene brought Tolstoy back to the fore in my mind. I didn’t know anything about him, really. I’d read Hadji Murad a few years earlier and I had no strong feelings about it at the time. And I’d seen the pictures and paintings of the old man with the long beard, dressed like a peasant or a guru, staring beatifically at something offstage.
The cottage also made me want quietness, simplicity, to live in some small stone house in a field of grass, to be pure, strong, confident; to walk home across a long field in a golden dusk, stepping over a fence, and opening the door on someone I loved. This longing, and the image of Tolstoy, and the sunken little cottage half devoured by grasses all coalesced into something unfinished in my head.
These aesthetic corroborations come to me often, and have for years – and I still don’t know what, if anything in particular, they mean. But, last night I was reading Anna Karenina, and came across this passage, when Levin is touring his property in the year’s first triumphant day of spring:
When he came out of the forest, in the immense plain before him, his grass fields stretched in an unbroken carpet of green, without one bare place or swamp, only spotted here and there in the hollows with patches of melting snow.
There was an immediate resonance, a concordance when I read this line. And before I could articulate any confusion or mystery, the image of that cottage rose up, with the memory of that walk following behind it. And I felt like something had been accomplished, something sad and purely aesthetic. The fleeting present turning like a key in that locked memory; a recognition once removed, and drawing sad comparison. Not a mirror, but a correspondence; a circle waiting for closure, closing, and drifting off into the archives.