PHOTO BY R. PERKINS, GEORGETOWN ISLAND, MAINE, 1977
THE ISLAND OF POLYPHEMUS
a short story by
Edward Crosby Wells
COPYRIGHT 2009 , 2012 EDWARD CROSBY WELLS
Polyphemus Newman was only two years old when he crawled out onto the window's ledge and dove into the crowded street below, circled the block before flying over the old sumac tree in the park near the entrance to the Promenade before hearing his mother’s agonizing screams from where she leaned precariously from her fourth story Brooklyn Heights windowsill mourning the certain death of her son who——because he did not know he could not——flew safely back into her waiting arms.
Fifty years later Polyphemus watched as his mother’s body slowly descended into the hard winter ground after quietly dying in her sleep because she knew that one day she would. As the casket was slowly being lowered, Polyphemus visibly began to shiver with terror, horrified by what had never before given him cause for concern. It was the immobility of shock that struck him like a bolt of lightning as he stood beside her grave in fear and trembling, not so much from her sudden death, but more from the acute realization of his own mortality.
Polyphemus possessed the long-held conviction that if he could position himself in an omnipresent state of being——that state being the Here and Now——he could, while fully conscious, go into the invisible hereafter. However, fear had now entered and threatened all optimism. It was fear that enshrouded and denied him entrance to an understanding of the nature of existence and nonexistence: that great unknown that was filling him with fear so out of proportion to anything that his mind could consciously conjure and was capable of threatening him so thoroughly, so profoundly——real or otherwise. Death, like a bottomless pit, an endless fall into a sleep where mornings no longer come and the body no longer wakes into consciousness was but a breath away; he felt it and he felt it profoundly. Polyphemus's thoughts turned to his newfound dilemma and so he set out to devise a plan of action——a method of investigation that could direct him towards an immortal truth for being and not being.
After the burial, attended mostly by the tenants of the deceased (there were no living relatives other than Poly——as everybody called him) along with some of her Montague Street neighbors with whom she had remained on good terms for nearly eighty years, there was the traditional potluck. Death was a frequent visitor to the retirees living in The Montague Apartments. Rose Green in 2-C laid out an impressive deli which easily fed the nearly three dozen renters who had gathered to mourn the passing of Gal Newman and to wonder of their own tenuous futures.
"Life is for the living, Poly," consoled Mrs. Cohen from 4-B and widowed ever since Polyphemus could remember, "and the living have needs the dead don't know to need. Mister Cohen, bless his soul, he did what he could to provide. But a dollar don't stretch like it used to. You know from what I’m saying? Your poor blind father, a decorated war hero——the Purple Heart——and my Daniel were partners in business over in Sheepshead Bay. Daniel was your father’s eyes, you know. Then that terrible accident——whose fault it was I couldn’t say——you were too young to remember. Oh dear, you weren't even born as I recall. They were more than partners. They were friends to the end when they died together in that terrible fire on that horrible old boat, The Galatea, named after your mother, bless her soul. Poor Daniel provided what he could. Your father, so rich in blessings, left this building to your mother, may she rest in peace. It's a struggle, keeping up a building like this what with the cleaning, scrubbing, painting——maintaining. By the way, that old boiler’s not working like it used to. You know from what I’m saying? Ethel on six says foul odors are accumulating outside her door and likely to suffocate her anytime soon. The Katz's in 5-B swear someone's been coming up the fire escape and watching them while they sleep. I don’t imagine there’s much to see. Somebody urinates nightly in the vestibule. Filthy swine they are. Jehovah's Witnesses bang on our doors every other day. And, all that senseless graffiti, Poly, what does it all mean? Like dogs they leave their marks. Your mother, she left this building to you, yes? And such a good son you are," she smiled through cream cheese and bits of chives, "who always loved his mother, I know that. You'll be moving back into our building, yes?"
Exhausted from Mrs. Cohen’s garrulous windiness that could fill the sails of the tall ships currently moored to the piers across the Hudson, he gathered his breath and said, "No. I'm selling the building."
Mrs. Cohen swallowed hard before speaking, "Selling the building?"
"I'm buying an island off the coast of Maine."
"So what's on an island in Maine there's not here in Brooklyn?"
"I don't know. Time, maybe. Time to sort things out."
"Oy, sort things out? Like Onassis already!" she snapped, rose, and disappeared into the congestion of hungry mourners where slivers of most every food item from the deli and crumbs of every sort were ground into the old, frayed rugs under swollen feet, cautious walkers, unsteady canes, and the wheelchair of Mr. Padilla-Bruno from 1-F. The news spread like wildfire across the deli-littered plains, igniting contempt in the eyes of the mourners, as one by one heads turned toward Polyphemus, nodding negatively before turning away to avoid having to look any longer upon the offending face of this stranger in their midst.
“So, where should we go? On the street?”
The whispering patter of bitter conversation rolled through the room. “I’ve lived in The Montague all my life. You know from what I’m saying?”
Talk continued without thought to the late Gal Newman.
Two months later the building sold to a developer from Jersey City. A few weeks after that all the tenants of The Montague were informed that the building was going cooperative. They were asked if they would be "buying or leaving?" Now, six months after his mother's funeral, almost to the day, Polyphemus stepped off the launch and onto the wooden dock of his very own island.
The island last belonged to the late, great Sarah Langford, an actress of the silent-era who, after amassing a fortune significant enough to retire to her personal island estate, built a mansion among the boulders and the pine where she lived out her remaining years comfortably in the tranquil solitude she could not find in those swarming hills of Hollywood.
The island remained vacated for many years after her death due to legal complications surrounding the exhumation of the body of Norman Knolls. The heartthrob of the silver screen and rumored lover to Sarah Langford, was discovered buried in her basement. According to old newspaper accounts, he had disappeared without a clue as to his whereabouts which ultimately led authorities to surmise that he had vanished of his own volition. However, after the body was discovered, forensic investigation determined that Norman was murdered with a blow to the head by an undetermined blunt object. Also discovered throughout the house were paraphernalia identified as instruments used in the practice of witchcraft. When, after many years of litigation, the island and the grand old house with floors of jade-green marble, magnificent antique furnishings which turned every room into a bravura performance of tasteful opulence reminiscent of the actress herself did finally go on the market, it remained unsold for many more years,——presumably due to superstition surrounding its macabre history——until the multi-million dollar sale of the late lady's island estate to Polyphemus. The amount of the sale was considered by all who claimed to know the market value of real estate to have been a bargain-basement transaction. In memory of his mother, he quickly and unceremoniously, christened it Galatea Island.
Polyphemus could still fly; not very high nor very fast and not at all like he did in the old days when he could soar over the Brooklyn rooftops, swoop down along the piers in the bay of the East river that separated the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan before flowing out into the Atlantic beneath the Promenade of Brooklyn Heights. He would head out to sea to catch a glimpse of the oncoming sunrise before returning to his bed in time for his mother's calling him to get up and ready for school. Now, Polyphemus rarely flies and when he does he flies very low and very slow, taking great effort to concentrate since only through deliberate, steady and unbroken concentration can he now keep himself aloft. He may try to fly from Galatea Island to the mainland one of these nights when the spirit moves him and when feeling himself with the stamina required for so arduous an undertaking.
He could also make himself invisible. Not like in the old days when he had to really work at it; when he had to concentrate with all his strength to disappear. In his youth he was forced to attend his mother and her mah-jongg friends in the parlor. The “girls” continuously threw him their attentive gaze and would blink and smile. At times they took liberties with him by touching, fondling and petting him in the most troublesome of places. Now, effortlessly, Polyphemus is often rendered invisible. In fact, as he passed through the years——or the years through him——he discovered that it often took a concerted effort just to remain visible.
There, too, was that "terrible thing" of which he seemed not to have any conscious control. If, for whatever their reasons, others took it upon themselves to insult, injure, or to "cross" Polyphemus in any way, terrible calamities would soon befall those foolish transgressors. This would happen in the most unsuspected and ironic way upon those who had inflicted him with pain or injustice. He first noticed the “terrible thing” when the barker of the kewpie doll concession at Coney Island awarded him a Chinese finger trap instead of a prize from the top shelf, which he clearly had deserved. The cheater was suddenly taken with a seizure and fell backwards, knocking all the dolls from off their shelves. Later, when a school bully stole his lunch from out the coatroom, the poor boy nearly died from choking on the purloined cuisine. Many years later, while driving down Atlantic Avenue, a very rude trucker cut him off and nearly caused him the loss of his life. After collecting himself and continuing along his way he came upon the trucker quite dead from being cut off by an even larger truck. There was no longer any question in his mind as to his powers. From that day forward he knew with absolute certainty that he was responsible. As a consequence of this responsibility, he soon gained intuitive insight and material wealth after each ill-willed action of others. Now, however, all seemed of little consequence to him as he opened the front door and entered his island mansion. He caught his reflection in the jade-like marble underfoot and it startled and satisfied his sense of luxury which, indeed, bordered, if not crossed, into an Epicurean nature. The many-tiered crystal chandelier lit his way. Yet, little of the mansion’s opulence did much to lessen his uneasiness from the uncertainty of his own immortality.
During the year that followed, Polyphemus dedicated the greater part of his waking life to reading and to writing. He read every book he could get his hands on having something or anything to do with the resolution of his pressing dilemma. He wrote regularly, developing some new insight into his craft, into his being. He and his work became a single living organism; each inseparable from the other. His living had become a metaphor for his work, his craft, his writing; which, in turn, became a metaphor for his life. They were as welded into a single entity: He was his work and his work was himself, though in the broader, a more common sense, he understood the difference. He was a man of great determination who would yet find a way either to remove himself from under the gathering, dark and brooding cloud of self-doubt, or to remove the cloud itself; thereby resolving his seemingly unsolvable predicament for once and for all. If writing was the expression of his spirit, then reading was its life's blood. Polyphemus had now become an initiate to the wonders of a metaphysical life he could not have imagined before coming to Galatea Island. And, if reading was the life's blood in his writing, then his writing was the manifestation of his animating spirit——his god. Polyphemus grew certain in the knowledge that his god would guide and instruct him in the mysteries of the invisible hereafter.
The ghost of Norman Knolls also lived on Galatea Island. It was shortly after Polyphemus's first week on the island that the first visitation took place. The actor found buried beneath the mansion was in the nude and walking briskly towards Polyphemus where he lie in his bed reading some essays by Michel de Montaigne. Suddenly, there was Norman Knolls and every bit as attractive as he was in those old silent movies——in fact, more so. Film didn't really do him justice. It captured his hard and lean physique all right; those piercing eyes so brown they were black; no small sense of masculine virility. But it didn't capture the essence of the gentleman, the real beauty of him, the magic scent of him; not the rose but the essence of rose, the idea of rose. To breathe him in, one breathed in not only another’s soul in time and space, but time and space itself; another reality, unique and separate, complete with new and unexplored ideas and images, alien thoughts with a language all its own. Norman Knolls was the essence of freedom; a sublime and omnipresent spirit.
“You flatter me,” he said, reading Polyphemus’s thoughts. “But, I am not free. More free than you, but not free at all.”
It was the oddest sensation. Polyphemus knew that Norman was dead. He also knew that he was seeing a ghost but he remained calm and wasn’t the least bit apprehensive. He supposed Norman’s being naked and his seeming so unselfconscious about himself set a tone of acceptance that could not be construed in any way alarming. He just looked up and there he was, beautiful and overpowering, as though he had always known him but only now recognized and remembered him. Norman was there because there was where he belonged. It seemed so natural.
"You are free to express your mind. But your mind is not free” Norman explained. “You are bound by the limitations of the symbols you use to think your thoughts, to interpret your reality, to express yourself. Only in dreams do you come close to the experience of a free mind. I am not restricted by the limits of those symbols or by the material world itself. I have my own thoughts about my own reality. In a certain sense I am free of material reality, yet still constrained by the substance of another.“
He spoke artfully and with that salacious grin that had become his stock in trade, the impression one remembered of him, the hallmark of his career. His acting took second place to his power for projecting pure sensuousness from off the silent, silver screen.
Polyphemus had been lying in nearly the same position and in the exact same spot where the late lady of the mansion lay in another life. He could feel Norman’s breath upon him like liquid and heavy quicksilver moving through his body, his veins, his Being, filling him with wordless images and with a never experienced ecstasy.
“I know you can't quite bring yourself to believe your senses, my new friend. However, you must know that to be free, to be immortal, requires your participation in a reality deeper than the material reality of death. You will need to comprehend a fourth dimension. Reaching out for the stars, the sun, the moon—that's all for the material world. Not the heart. The heart is yours and yours alone.”
Polyphemus reached to touch Norman on his head. His fingers reached for his thick and oiled, wavy black hair. Just as he came within centimeters, Norman’s head exploded and blood—deep scarlet—mixed with fragments of skull dripping flesh splattered about the bedroom. Blood-streaked brain matter slapped and slid down the horrified face of Polyphemus. He screamed with terror as invisible hands began to pull at Norman’s blood-soaked body. Norman slid across the Persian carpet beneath the bed, pulled by phantom hands towards the door, towards the hall and then down the long staircase as his head——what was left of it——bounced as though counting each step leading down the stairs. Polyphemus jumped from his bed and followed the body. Across the marble floor of the foyer it slid toward the door leading down into the basement. The door quickly opened and his body dragged itself down into the darkness below. Polyphemus ran back to his bedroom, locking the door behind him. The blood that was so vivid, so real, began to fade and disappear. Exhausted, he got into his bed, covered himself with the warm blanket, feeling alone and empty, drained as though a part of him had escaped into another dimension.
“What happened?” Polyphemus asked himself just before drifting off into a deep sleep.
An uneasy certitude of immortality began to comfort Polyphemus's troubled mind. Irresolute as it was, the bottomless pit that he had imagined death to be became more a matter to anticipate. The thought of an endless fall into nothingness began to dissipate. His mornings and his evenings were always in the much welcome (indeed, anticipated) company of Norman who arose shortly after from the basement, his head intact. Polyphemus’s days were for reading and for writing. Polyphemus filled his journal daily with a gathering of evidence concerning the nature of immortality.
“Once a year my skull is shattered on the anniversary of her murdering me with twenty head-smashing blows with a brass ant-iron. She went mad, you know," Norman told Polyphemus during one of their nightly meetings."Who?" Polyphemus asked.
"Sarah Langford. I came up here to be with her. We were going to spend the rest of our lives in solitude. However, she was gone to all reason. She had gone insane. Too much solitude will do that. There would be no strolling around the island in the warm months, staying indoors in our warm and comfortable mansion during the cold and bitter months and, year-round, making love in that very bed. There would be none of that. She wanted something else. Something more. Something better."
"Perhaps she missed the limelight, the parties, the glamour of Hollywood," Polyphemus offered.
"No. She hated all that," Norman said, sadly, almost wistfully. "She had begun to remember her future.”
"I don't understand. How can one remember ones future, Norman? The future hasn't yet happened."
"That's where you're mistaken, Polyphemus. The future continually happens and it happens now; always now. In her madness she had no alternative but to kill me.
"She couldn't bear knowing that another saw her as she saw herself. She accused me of "doing things" to her. Unlike you, she became incapable of accepting my love. Sharing an “I” consciousness is a frightening experience for some. In Sarah’s confused mind she felt she had no choice but to kill me. Some just don't want to know themselves. They imagine all kinds of nonsense. The phenomenon causes some to take refuge within the safe haven of religion, where independent thought is not encouraged. Some develop superstitions of every sort which shelter them and keep them forever in ignorance and from ever arriving at any truth about themselves. Some, as was the case with Sarah, begin to practice witchcraft as a way to explain away the natural magic of Being. And you, my dear Polyphemus, are in love with the idea of merging into the collective."
"Yes," replied Polyphemus, wistfully. "I am.”
As if a great revelation was about to be revealed, Norman looked heavenward and clasped his hands together, took in a deep breath and said, “Through your eyes, Polyphemus, I am immortal. Through a thousand eyes I am but one.”
And then, as it did every night like clockwork, his head exploded.
The following morning Polyphemus flew to the mainland for one last look. At what? Something human, something solid, something to remember. Banks of thick fog descended upon the early morning of Galatea Island. The lighthouse in the sound burned bright. A storm began to gather; a wicked storm.
This had always been the best time to fly——when the air is heavy, and buoyant. However, when he finally reached the mainland he found that he was too exhausted to make the long flight back to the island. At the pier he came upon Captain Ahab and hired his services to bring him home.
Ahab’s eyes were set deep into a weather-beaten face. He stared off into the abstract object of his desire; beholding it as though it were solid——as though it were there within arm's reach.
“Whales. Do you know anything about whales”
“No,” said Polyphemus. I can’t say that I do.”
“They’re a vanishing breed, aye?
“Yes, I suppose they are.”
“All things great and small come and pass."
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Polyphemus sighed.
Ahab turned and looked upon Polyphemus with his dark, deep-set and intense eyes. “When something becomes too great, so mammoth, so fantastic, so dangerous and unforgiving, the odds of survival are not good.”
Ahab tapped the tip of his wooden leg upon the old wooden deck as the launch pulled along the dock of Galatea Island.
Polyphemus watched as the old man backed out to sea, sputtered off to the mainland, toward his wife and the daily grind of his wistful life filled with fantasy and fiction and the odor of fish frying in the greasy kitchen of their weather-beaten clapboard house. And his wife, his high school sweetheart, stands bent against the doorway in her melancholy manner, trying to recall some vague and distant moment of happiness, in her pink-flowered cotton housedress and gravy-stained, blood-stained, apron reeking of camphor and Pall Malls——loneliness and wanderlust.
Polyphemus watched as he disappeared upon the storm-gathering waves of the ship-bobbing sea and the cold mist blowing in ahead of the oncoming tempest. He watched as the world in which he once had lived slowly sank beneath the rising tide, and the darkness of the heavy morning fog.
Polyphemus was fifty-three when he and Norman walked through the pine forest to the island's north shore where the dark and brooding clouds gathered and blew wildly overhead, stood on the edge of the cliff and, because he did not know he could not, dove into eternity.