Note: For many years – maybe more so in the past than in the present – artists learned from the old masters by copying their works. Writers from the 19th century often write about how crowded museums were with artists and easels, and many homes had handmade copies of the Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” on the walls. In such a spirit, I take on Borges’s story “August 25, 1983;” it is three things: an exercise in writing, an exercise in acknowledging the possibilities and inevitabilities of the future, and a tribute to Borges. It is the most humble form of plagiarism. That being said, the place, characters, and ending are different. Take it for what it is worth. But do read the Borges story and do try it yourself.
After a long and tiring drive, I turned down the low and narrow road that connected Ram’s Head to the mainland with the same relief that I felt every time that I got to this point. While the whole three-hour route was familiar, I felt completely at home once I made that last turn and saw the little bridge over the tidal inlet. I scanned the sky over the tops of the bayberry bushes along the shore to see if anyone had put the flag up. When I had a dog, it was at this point where he would become beside himself with excitement; the smell of the salt air meant long walks on the tidal flats with no leash. I knew how he had felt. My leash was soon going to be disconnected.
While I could not help looking for the flag as it was part of the ritual of homecoming, I was very surprised to see it flying. No one had been at the house since Thanksgiving, when we had all met there one last time before the water and electricity were turned off for the season, and we turned to our winter lives. Since losing my husband several years ago, I had tried not to be the first one to arrive in the spring. Even though the house was opened by a local handyman (had he raised Old Glory?) and the water, heat, and electricity would have been turned on, there were still physical things to do, the debris from winter mice and inevitable roof leaks to be dealt with. This year, however, I could wait no longer. I needed the comfort of the old house.
The car crunched onto the shell-covered drive. I had been confused by the flag, but was further confounded by lights on inside the house, and just sat in the car looking at the familiar old weather-beaten house. The Victorian architecture looked like it belonged on Main Street in middle America. It was completely out of place on the spit of land where the wind, water, and salt worked relentlessly against its primness. To look acceptable, it would have had to be painted yearly; yet it had not been touched for at least a decade. I finally shook myself, found the keys in the glove compartment, picked up my satchel, and mounted the wooden steps carefully, not sure how much rot might have set in over the winter. The screen door swung open, as did the front door upon the slightest pressure. It was neither locked nor firmly latched.
I dropped my bag in the front hall and called out. While there was no answer, neither was there the echo of a completely empty house. Everything was silent, except for the ticking of the grandfather clock, which must have been wound within the past seven days. The sharply skewered hands on the yellowed face were even set to the correct time. I picked up the wall phone, but there was no dial tone. Taking off my coat and dropping it over a chair, I realized that the house was very warm and had none of the musty smell that we usually lived with for the early summer. The dust covers had been removed from the furniture, and there was a faint smell of singed bread in the kitchen, as if someone had recently been making toast. There was nothing else to do but to go up to my room and hope that the bed linen was as clean and warm and dry as the rest of the house. I picked up my satchel again.
The only door in the house that was firmly closed was the bedroom to the right at the top of the stairs, the one I had been using for the past fifty years. I opened it with my free hand. Strangely, I noticed that the bed-clothes were rumpled before I realized that the bed was occupied. I looked and then looked away. The figure I had glimpsed in the bed was gaunt and yellow, with wispy hair and a toothless mouth; even in the brief moment of encounter, however, I realized that it was I. To avoid another confrontation with my aged body, I looked around the old, familiar room with its remnants of my childhood and the one small window with the wonderful view over the salt marshes and out to the bay. My first books were in the bookshelf, along with the few of my college texts that did not get resold for drinking money. Old clothes and holey sneakers for clamming were in the closet, along with warm sweatshirts for summer walks. The walls were festooned with pictures of the people of my life, some still living and many not. Most were faded or worried by mice. Some of the photos seemed, however, to be missing, and there were new ones – children mostly – whom I did not recognize. As the voice in the bed spoke, I turned again in recognition of what I had been taught over the years was my voice – the voice I cringed to hear on answering machines and video recordings.
“I am glad you are here,” this older self said in that voice of mine, but more slowly than I ever spoke.
“Is this a dream? This must be a dream. There cannot be two of us.”
“I suppose it must be a dream. It is probably my last dream. Meeting you again after all these years. But you must be dreaming too. Where do you think that you are in your dream? When is it?”
“It is May 12 of 2012. I just turned sixty yesterday. That is why I wanted to be down here at the summer house. It is the one constant of my life. I drove straight down as soon as I could get away.” I stopped. Sixty had seemed so old until I had seen this figure in the bed. How old is she? How old am I? “It seems that you have been here for a long time. Is someone taking care of you?” There was cold tea and untouched toast on the trunk beside the bed that served as a night table, and I realized now that the figure in the bed was attached to an intravenous drip and a catheter, but I had seen no sign of anyone else in the house.
“For me it is May 12, 2036. I am eighty-four years old and I will die before the night is out.”
“That seems a long time to wait to die. Or maybe not long enough. For me, I mean.” I felt ridiculous saying this to the figure in the bed who did not have long to wait. “And what are you doing here in the summer house all alone?”
“And we are not in the summer house. The summer house was sold many years ago when your brother needed money, and you all started to worry about your old age. I have always been sorry, and I am sorry to have to tell you this now. I am dying in a hospice attached to the hospital back in the city, where I have been for over two months. You are probably dreaming that you are at the beach because you always thought that is where you would go to die.”
My sorrow hit me like a wave. I knew that this was the truth and that this would happen. But I had just driven through the night for the comfort of the old house that I was counting on getting me through the time when I would need comfort most of all; I was always sure that I would die in the old house where my parents had died. But if this was my dream and not hers perhaps I was not being told the truth. Maybe the figure in the bed was just expressing my fears; perhaps it was a demon of my imagination.
“Whose dream is this?” I demanded sharply. “Are you dreaming me or am I dreaming you?”
“I fear that we are dreaming each other,” murmured the person in the bed. “I am the shadow of the end you always feared, your neglected double, who has been with you always and now, before I die and leave you, we get a chance to face each other.”
“But perhaps you are just a monster in my dream. Or maybe we are both characters in someone else’s dream. Maybe this means no more than dreams of flying or chasing imaginary trains. Let’s make a test. If you are I, tell me the best moment of your life.”
“Then you must do the same,” insisted the body in the bed murmuring from the rimless hole in her face.
I nodded and hesitated. “My happiest moment was when my first child was born,” I said after a moment.
“And my happiest moment was when I realized that nothing really mattered,” said the old woman with no hesitation. “And we have both lied. The fact that I know you lied should be enough to ensure you that I am you.”
We sat and listened to the wind outside and looked at each other. She gazed at me with the tenderness of a grandmother looking at a rebellious grandchild, and I studied her like the grandchild forced to sit on the lap of an old and unfamiliar friend of the family.
“If I am not going to die for another twenty-four years, what will happen? If we sell this house, how will I spend my summers? What will happen to me in all of those years?”
“First of all, you will slowly realize that nothing really matters. You will master the ability to lose things, until you get to this bed and will be prepared to lose the last thing. The loss of the old house will be one lesson, and it will force you to reach out in other ways. It was only a house, and you will find yourself replacing it with people. You will lose the people, too, or at least many of them – but the process will make you ready to lose the person you care about most of all.”
I was getting annoyed by being talked to in such a condescending way by this old version of myself. Her tone of voice was harsh and I did not like listening to my own intonations exaggerated by the lisp caused by her lack of teeth. “Why are you telling me all of this? Is this a lesson? Is there something that you are expecting me to do so that you do not end up in this bed alone on the last day?”
“You will not even remember this.”
“Yes, I will. I write my dreams down every morning.”
“You will write it down, but you will think it is a story you have made up. Only when you get to this bed will you remember, and then you will probably have this dream again, the dream I am. . . having.” She was getting weaker; her right hand rose and fluttered as if to illustrate something and fell back on the old coverlet.
“At least tell me what it is like to be about to die. You seem so calm. What are you thinking about? Why are you dreaming of me? Are you lost in the past?”
The frail figure raised her hand again, just an inch this time, and as it fell she turned her head to look hard at me. “I have no words to tell you about the end. Communication requires common experience, some kind of common understanding. You would not understand any more than children comprehend what it means to get old. I think of the past because I have no future. You still have a future. I am dreaming backwards and you are. . . dreaming. . . forward.”
As she finished this sentence her head craned back and her breath started to rack her in brief, insistent rasps. I held my own breath until her body stopped moving, stopped heaving, and seemed to settle down further and further into the bed. I closed her eyelids, lifted and examined her right hand, and turned out the light.
I went down the stairs, picked up my satchel and left the house for the last time. When I got in the car, I was immediately parking in the city and in my bed within minutes. And this is the tale I wrote the next day.