By Frederic Tuten
His father, the county doctor, loved him. He read to him even when he returned tired from his rounds, from Miss Biddle with her gout and Judge Jackson with his ever-weakening heart and all the others in the countryside who needed him. When he turned eight, the doctor gave the boy books for his birthday.
“You have reached the age of reason,” the doctor said, “and I will leave you to tell me why I gave you these books in particular.” The History of the Earth was one, but Our Unfolding Universe was the one he loved the best. The boy looked again and again at the large color plates depicting the world from its earliest days, when the sea churned in a violet light and the sky shone with a gray-blue dullness, as if it were never sure whether it was morning or dusk.
“I think you want me to know, Father, that the world is mysterious and ever-changing.”
“You are a bright boy. Don’t let the world dull you.”
There was nothing the boy loved more than climbing the ancient oak that rose on the cliff above the sea. He went to his window the moment he woke and climbed the tree in weather both fair and nasty. He spread himself along the highest branches and took in the changing sky and the moody sea. He could see his cheerful house and the surrounding farms and he knew that wherever he went in life, he would always wish to return there.
When he was ten, the oak tree grew sick—the leaves yellowed, the trunk withered—and died. Burley men came to chop it down and cart the wood away. He cried for a whole afternoon and many afternoons and the mornings that followed until his father said, “All things die, my son, trees and people too.”
The boy’s mother had died soon after he was born and his father had never remarried. Sometimes, after dinner, his father would withdraw to his book-cluttered study and smoke a wide-bowl briar pipe and the boy could hear him speaking to someone with his mother’s name, but there was no one in the room, only billows of cherry-scented blue smoke.
“Are you talking to my mother?” the boy asked.
“Does she speak to you, even though she is dead?”
“In a way,” the doctor said, rising from his chair and hugging his son.
One day, and without fuss, when the boy had turned eighteen, his father died, leaving him the house and the land and a modest but substantial income. The will read: “My son, live, live all you can.” He had his father cremated, according to his wishes. The young man poured the ashes in an urn and buried it beside the oak stump.
“Ashes,” he said, “to think that a life ends in ashes that have no memory.”
He left his home soon after and sailed all the seven seas and the five oceans and rode over all the continents by rail and car and bus and by a plane that he himself had piloted. He traveled by foot and bike and motorcycle, too, for the intimate feel of the road. He saw towns and cities with their giant buildings pulsating with life. He saw bombed cities that had crumbled into shards of glass and bright steel and saw in everything mutability and transformation: his oak tree into a stump; his father into ashes.
Then he came home. He married a plainspoken woman and they had a son. He loved them both in a respectful way and hid his restlessness and his longing. Longing for what, he did not know.
No one knew who had constructed the tower or had witnessed it being constructed. One day, there was nothing but the green, hilly land of his childhood, and the next day, a tower arose where the oak had stood, on the edge of the cliff that overlooked the sea, a tower that pierced the clouds and that surely went beyond.
In his sleep one night, it came to him that he must climb it.
“Who told you to?” his wife asked. “Who told you to do such a foolish thing? Was it that idiot down the road who eats only plants that face the sun?”
“Not him, no.”
“Was it that bald woman who wears a cardboard sign saying that the world is doomed to suffocate itself?”
“Not her, either,” he said.
“The tower itself.”
“It spoke to you, the tower?”
“In my sleep.”
“Are you sure it was not a burning bush?” she asked, “or a talking snake?”
“The tower. And I’m going to climb to its top.”
“Maybe there’s a beanstalk and a giant up there, Dad,” his ten-year-old son said.
“Maybe Jack will be there, too, my son. I will tell him you said hello.”
His wife walked him to the door of their cottage and gave him a thermos of water and a blue sweater she had knit for his birthday. “I will have dinner ready, fool,” she said, kissing him on each cheek.
It took him hours to climb to the first tier of the tower. He rested there and took in the view. There was his teacher’s house, where she lived with two yellow dogs and a tall woman with one arm; there was the volunteer fire station where his father had played chess with the Chief, an atheist who prayed when the alarm-call sounded; there was Mary Cook’s saltbox of a house with its sugar-white clapboards and slanted chimney. She had been his first love and had gotten married when he was away on his travels.
“Come home! Come home!” His wife shouted to him from far below on the lower rungs.
“Not yet,” he said, climbing higher.
She shouted again, but he cupped his ear and waved to her as if to say: Don’t worry yourself; I will be home one day. He wondered if he had conveyed the message with his wave.
It was bracing, the land with the screen of the sky and the iron rungs with their thickness and certainty. He was sure they would never give way under his foot or break under the grasp of his hand as he reached above and pulled himself higher and higher toward the faraway turret that capped the tower.
He saw the rivers and valleys, forests laced with streams. He felt the chill of snow-capped mountains just yards from his feet. When he arrived at the next tier, he felt himself lighter and, dare he say, younger, as if the weight of the years and loss had vanished.
By his second day of climbing, he had forgotten hunger and thirst and sleep. But he had not forgotten his wife and son and their cozy home always smelling of cinnamon and baked bread. He paused to picture them.
A hot air balloon with a basket carrying a man drifted up alongside him. “Dad, time to come home,” the man said.
The man looked too old to be the boy he had left behind only days ago, and he asked, “Who has sent you?”
“We who love you, Dad. Come back to earth; come back to terra firma, Dad, and to what loves you.”
“I want to reach the top first and see what is to be seen from it,” he said, at last recognizing his son’s features.
“And to what you love, Dad,” he added, as the balloon suddenly descended in a powerful downdraft.
What did he love, or had he ever loved, on earth? The giant oak tree of his youth that he climbed on summer days and looked out to the sea in the distance. The sea that one day he had come to know like a brother from another time. His father, his father and the billowing smoke of his pipe in the room of his loneliness.
The call to return home and to those who loved him was strong, but the drive to continue was stronger. “Inexorable,” he said, as if to explain the force that propelled him.
The earth far below sent up waves of ominous heat and the rivers looked like threads of blood; the ocean had congealed into a mirror-like sheet, the winds having sanded it to a high, dead shine, although here and there a toy-like ship broke the ocean’s uniform skin, rising like a pustule.
“Beautiful,” he said, “beautiful, the world.” He had said the same at the Ganges, when he watched the dead fuel the wooden pyres and their bones and ashes scattered into the sacred river.
When he was a boy, he had asked his father, “What is the world made of?”
“Made of nothing and is nothing,” his father answered.
He knew that was not true, that the world was made of oceans and mountains and glorious trees, like the old oak he had loved.
“Then what is it that we see and touch, Father?”
“A phantom, my son.”
He began to despair that there was no end to his climb; the higher he reached the further seemed the top. It struck him, too, that he was the only one climbing the tower; he looked below and saw no one, and no one above, either. But as he went higher, he thought he had spied someone in the upper reaches, only to find a golden condor perched on a rung. It spoke to him. “Only a bit more,” the bird said in the reassuring voice of his father, “and it is done.” Then he spread his enormous golden wings and disappeared into the sky.
When he stepped on the final tier, it was carpeted with his childhood books, and scattered about, the six missing crayons from his classroom desk and his comb, with all its tines, that had dropped from his pocket in a fight on his way to school. He recognized there, too, resting on its side, his father’s briar pipe. He picked it up and sat down.
He looked out and saw that beyond the tower was a green, hilly land with a giant oak tree in full bloom on a cliff overlooking the sea.
* * *
Previously published in The Photographic Work of Robin Broadbent. Italy: Damiani, 2017