loose ends – journal entry, undated (spring 1992?)

Racing to finish so many loose ends…

Tick, tock.

Kitty is guarding one corner of the bed.

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journal entry, spring 1992(?)

People really should get a second chance at life.  What good are the lessons of destiny if you can’t apply them to fresh material?  Therein lies the allure of reincarnation.  I’d like to be on permanent vacation in my next life since this one has been so exhausting.  Not that I’d be a denizen of the leisure class—I’d work at something, I’m sure, only I’d do a job out of pleasure and not necessity.  I could probably accomplish this by ending up as a nun, only I’d prefer a nicer outfit.

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On quilting—Journal entry, San Francisco, February 1989

112 Pieces, or so

The idea of constructing a quilt first came to me with a gift from my very important friend Michael.  He was taking an architecture course for which one of the projects was to design a permanent home for his university’s quilt collection.  Michael intuitively sent me a catalogue of the collection for my birthday, and thus provided the first real stimulus to the project currently under completion.

Although the catalogue’s illustrations of quilts emphasized the more elaborate museum pieces, a few simple block piece works gave me the idea that I might in fact have a hand at this craft.  What made me so susceptible to the charms of quilting?  The idea of working with fabric had intrigued me since the years I had lived in West Africa, where some of my happiest moments were spent going from bench to bench at the marketplace, looking at the bolts of choice lagos, the simple printed cottons of Senegal.

The actual construction of the quilt began late December as I visited my lover John at the hospital.

At this point it is absurd to begin a quilting journal, as the piecework is practically finished.  At best all I could do is write a memoir on the quilt, but then there are so many details involved that I can no longer begin at the beginning.  That, I suppose, has always been the charm of quilts, which stand on their own as silent biographies whose narrative can only be understood by the quilter.  Unless the quilter kept a journal, her project (for it was usually a woman) would be a relic of a riddle to later generations who might appreciate the curiosities of fabrics or patterns chosen without understanding the stories behind those choices.  Inversely, the quilter may be at a disadvantage for knowing too much of what there is behind the actual appearance of the work—well might the quilter envy the curiosity of the onlooker generations later, who reads mystery into a shirt scrap and some deep Freudian interpretation for an accidental pattern or color scheme.

The vantage point of an outside onlooker provides a point to begin this memoir of the quilt for the child of Debra Stretch and Mark Kitchell.  As the child has yet to come into the world, the quilter hasn’t been able to take his or her tastes into account and probably wouldn’t wait to consult the child anyway.  Interestingly enough, it is thanks to this unknown child that the quilt ever happened.  As it was to be the quilter’s first project, the occasion of a baby gave the prospective quilter an excuse to make his first quilt a smaller project.  The project thus shrank from a wedding quilt for Debra and Mark of 60” x 80” to a baby quilt of 40” x 50”.  If the parents regret having missed out on a wedding quilt, they can only blame their reproductive precocity as well as their scheduling the wedding considerably in advance of their first estimate.  Having thus missed the boat, Mark and Debra can only hope for the longevity of the quilter, who may be able to throw something together in time for their silver anniversary.  In the meantime, perhaps baby will lend them his/hers as a lap warmer as long as baby rests on top, of course.

The size then is 50 inches in length by 40 inches in width, which have been very comfortable dimensions for a first-time quilter who deserves a modest début into this craft.  It also allowed for a certain degree of mobility, since the majority of the construction has taken place during the quilter’s long vigils at the hospital bedside of his companion.  If anything good can be said about John’s stay of over three months in the hospital, the quiet moments provided to the quilter for his craft may be a slight glimmer of the positive in that very difficult medical sejour.

As the hospital has provided the quiet time, so has the quilt provided a refuge for the quilter.  Very little of anything positive can be said of the course of John’s illness.  Many good people suffer, of course, and it is never fair, but these generalities couldn’t diminish John’s pain or the despair of his bedside companion.  The quilt, with all the imperfections built into it by its neophyte creator, has been a faithful, silent companion through the nausea, tube feedings, injections, chemotherapy, surgeries and recoveries.  It has brought some color into John’s room, and some comfortable finiteness of purpose to the quilter.  When the quilter was powerless to do anything for John, at least he could make a stitch in the quilt.  Even before the baby, who has been the unknown patron of the project, has any use for the quilt, it will have already served its quilter and companion very well indeed.

The size alone thus says a great deal about the quilt’s conception and creation (neither being immaculate).  Another formative element in this quilt’s development (child psychology language—prospective parents and children alike must accustom themselves to it!) was the source for some of the fabric.  The paisley prints originate, in fact, from handkerchiefs purchased by John, the quilter’s companion, at the Oaxaca marketplace after New Year’s, 1988…

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journal entry, 25 December 1987, from Morélia Michoacán México

“In the Old Style” says Winnie in Happy Days: I lit a candle and meditated in the Virgin of Guadalupe chapel of the basilica—wax melts, fire evaporates.  I kneel my profane carcass before a symbol of pious devotion, reminding myself I can expect nothing, but only reaffirm my humility and gratitude for life: Gracias a la vida, for time in a labyrinth well spent, thanks.  And for all those people of faith who have that constant recourse to their despair, how I envy you!

(later)  The sigh, the rush of emotion, the incredulity over the physical presence of the book that had transcended the material world into that of the mind.  The book rests on the table; it should burst into flames, disintegrate, cede to its violence of ideas, power of language.  But it is still there, with its library code on the cover which, after the passage of time and its accompanying sobriety, will guide it back to its place on a shelf.

(10:30 PM, Morélia)  For once I can congratulate myself for la buena suerte; old infidel that I am, nuestra virgen de Guadalupe is watching over me.  After all, had I not arrived at the Pátzcuaro bus terminal by nine o’clock, I’d have had the rude surprise of having to do Pátzcuaro-Morélia-México D.F. at a much later and more aggravating hour.  Ah, the adventure of travel!  Having one’s bus stop at a filling station en route, and back-tracking to Morélia in order to get to México D.F.  Of course I’d have never thought of it, and of course no one at Flecha amarilla could have told me that when I bought my Pátzcuaro-México D.F. ticket.  The moral of the story: Always get to the station two hours ahead of time in México (and two days ahead of time in Tijuana!).

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an affirmation of life

Monday, 4 July, 1994

He is in an entirely different part of the world, feeling his lesions and thinking about death.  Yesterday he looked at the joyful Mediterranean, and imagined a time when his body would not have limited him to an observer’s role in a beach chair as others dove into the salty water.  Visconti’s protagonist in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice came to mind.  And yet he was not a fictional character; he was a real human being who needed to remind himself that this trip to Israel and Egypt, however difficult it may be in underscoring his limitations, was nevertheless an affirmation of life, to see another part of the world and to gain a new understanding of it and, yes, even his own ever apparent mortality.  Perhaps yet his visit to the earthly Jerusalem would bring him closer to God’s kingdom.

[journal entry, his last summer, while traveling as a Fulbright fellow]

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the weight of my words

Very few moments in life do we feel the luxury of absolute franchise, openness, honesty.  But after all, once there is nowhere left to run, who has the time left for deception?  How nice to have reached the end of the line where one no longer has to bandy words with a person.  You and I have finally reached that point, old friend.  The compulsion to window dress with words is over.  How strange to think that at one time everything between us seemed to depend on words.  Through their construct, I hoped to win your heart; through them again, I hoped to keep it.  I wasn’t merely as good as my word—I was my word, so much I depended on it.  Now, finally, the words come so effortlessly we need no longer weigh them to measure their potential to please, wound, convince, expel, conjure, abjure, injure.  When I used to worry you with my silences, I was mired in a loss for words.  I could never see past my addiction for the verbal and simply reach out my hand toward you with a reassuring caress…

Well, you are no longer here to caress, but at least I can stop my calculations and let someone else judge the weight of my words.

[From Peter’s journal, December 1990]

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From “Love poems for Raymond”

Sweetheart, I was thinking

[Untitled]

Sweetheart, I was thinking this afternoon

How I might understand you, love you better

And enter a greater part of your world.

So I came up with a brilliant idea:

I need to study Chemistry!

 ~

Now I do not intend to make you work

(You already put in long enough hours)

And I would not wish myself on any

Scientist as his pupil given

My own considerable limitations

(I am scientifically illiterate and

Never even got through trigonometry).

 ~

But somewhere must exist a chemistry book

For the clueless, liberal arts refugee

Who ended up loving a master of science

And wants to see that much more of a

Glimmer of the intellectual life

Of the man he loves.

~

My love, help me discover

More of your world.

[San Francisco, August 1994]

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From Peter’s journal, December 1990 (or somewhat later), following John’s death and his own HIV+ diagnosis

Very few moments in life do we feel the luxury of absolute franchise, openness, honesty.  But after all, once there is nowhere left to run, who has the time left for deception?  How nice to have reached the end of the line where one no longer has to bandy words with a person.  You and I have finally reached that point, old friend.  The compulsion to window dress with words is over.  How strange to think that at one time everything between us seemed to depend on words.  Through their construct, I hoped to win your heart; through them again, I hoped to keep it.  I wasn’t merely as good as my word—I was my word, so much I depended on it.  Now, finally, the words come so effortlessly we need no longer weigh them to measure their potential to please, wound, convince, expel, conjure, abjure, injure.  When I used to worry you with my silences, I was mired in a loss for words.  I could never see past my addiction for the verbal and simply reach out my hand toward you with a reassuring caress…

Well, you are no longer here to caress, but at least I can stop my calculations and let someone else judge the weight of my words.

No I do not believe in luck but I do believe in fate.  Although fortune has rarely smiled upon me fate has spun me like a top.  And I am not sure I would prefer the former to the latter.  I suppose I’ve had dreams of a life of ease, the garden of Eden where ripe fruit would fall into my lap.  Apparently ever since one of my mythological ancestors got kicked out, however, all the rest of us have been banished as well.  Christians would have us subject hereafter to the wrath of God.  I prefer to think of it as the work of the Fates.

And yet I want to be loved for my artifice, my design, my calculations, and still hope they are a bitter distillation of who I really am.  Imagine seeking the truth through so meretricious a device as language!  Well, some of us are not slated for an enlightened existence.  For every Buddha or Saint Francis legions of us remain to confound ourselves in a dim and prosaic material world.  Mistake this not for derision.  I envy the saint, the modest monk, those lucky few who have opted for the simple beauty of a life of the spirit.  Think of Phèdre: “Que ces vains ornements, que ces voiles me pèsent!”  Had she only had the foresight to shirk her worldly passions and escape to a nunnery.  But our mortal weakness for ephemeral possession bends us like gravity to this muddled earth!

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if you find it, an eternal curse if you read it

1 November 1987 [the first entry in Peter’s extant journals]

Beginning from an enormous desire to write—and then?  Thoughts escape me like so many days, and where is the journal then?

My ears are clogged up from swimming and it’s hard to think.

The ostensible reason for this journal is my current crisis—J’s diagnosis.  Was “La Plaie” a premonition?  How much more difficult it will be to live the scenario, not having any control over the denouement.  And how empty that story seems now.  And here am I on these pages now, trying to objectify the experience.  Since I wrote “I” in the short story, why not “he” here?  “He is very sad, very confused.  He sometimes looks at J when he is asleep and imagines him dead a second later.  When will that moment come, he wonders?  He is sometimes distraught in public places.  He is on edge at work.  But all in all he is holding himself together remarkably well.  But he is only going through the motions.  Going through them so well, that he doubts whether a single gesture of his is at all genuine.  I am a cliché!  His imperfect modesty sometimes reminds him that he is not alone in this mess.  But in his life he feels that he has had an immoderate share of the mess.  How many ghosts can one man support, especially on a teacher’s salary?  Well, we’ve seen repeating patterns before and we shall see yet some more.  The well-seasoned survivor always plods on and, as Samuel Beckett wrote, only grieves for himself.”

Autumn is here, and the weather is appreciably colder.  The sun hasn’t warmed the ground for a few days.

“He returns to the front line—will he tarry on the way?”

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Remembering Peter Marshall Bell

Dear friends, former colleagues and students of Peter Bell – Welcome!

I am in the process of publishing our dear friend at long last. Until I began this work in earnest a couple of months ago, I had no idea how much Peter had written. There are many poems, short stories, a 1-act play, and  several other works that I think will be a pleasant surprise. I hope you find the selections as wonderfully readable as I do – and that they will leave you wishing there could be a lot more from this very creative man. The collection will be published, I expect, later this year. It is my fervent wish that you will choose to participate here.

Any help that you can provide – commenting here or via email – will be very much appreciated: dates of events recalled; names of people I should contact; suggestions for the translation of the many entries that Peter wrote in languages other than English (such as the Wolof in the first selection below); assistance in naming people and places in some of the photographs I will upload; and, of course, your own stories of the time you shared with Peter…

I will post here only a portion of Peter’s manuscripts and journal entries with the hope that they will spark discussion as well as recollection. With your permission, I may annotate Peter’s work with your comments alongside mine. Rather, let me put it this way: if you post here, I will assume that I may indeed use your comment in the later publication.

So, to begin, here is a sample of Peter’s writing – I believe the first piece is from his time in the Peace Corps (Senegal, 1981-1983). I have given it a working title, but have otherwise made no change to his typewritten manuscript.

Sincerely,

Raymond L. Boyington

~

Aminata Toubab

You think those rows and rows of buses will take you home?

Forget it.

Twenty-four others have to go home with you first before

the apprenti will even lift a finger.

You’re the only passenger at the station.

Everyone else is already at home.

Because, they know the ropes, and you don’t.

Perhaps you feel a bit … funny, all alone at the station,

with all those buses lined up going nowhere.

Gloating in their supreme power over you, the chauffeur and

apprenti occasionally glance in your direction, where you

are leaning against a white Peugeot 504.

They’re saying, Dumb, dumb, honky.

You say, Who, me?

The only people in the world who care about you anymore are

the station vendors haranguing you with neon-yellow baked

goods and all the metal, plastic and polyester that a single

man can carry.

You don’t want neon-yellow bread.  You don’t want toe-nail

cutters.  No thank you.  Please, no baby clothes, no bananas.

No, no, NO.

Just take little Aminata Toubab home.

But will they?

No.

At least not yet.

In the meantime, how about some lip balm?

In frustration, you buy a carton.

Just as you’re counting out small change for 100 cartouches

of lip balm, you see a mob chasing a minibus with back doors

flying half-open, half-shut as the vehicle makes its tour of

the station.

It’s your destination, but you were too busy buying 100 car-

touches of lip balm to force yourself through the mob and

get on the bus.

Now you’ll never get home.

Dumb, dumb honky.

Poor little Aminata Toubab.

Somewhere in the heavens, some nice muslim mother of 12 et

quelques is watching over you, shaking her head with a sad

smile as she fingers her prayer beads and sings your song:

Ndey saan, waay, Aminata bu ndaw.

Xaral rekk, sume xarit.

Sa car rapide, mungi ñow ci kanam tutti.

Ndey saan, Aminata bu ndaw.

Fanaanal ak jamm.

And you will wake up, under the gauze of mosquito netting, and

realize it was only a dream.

~ ~ ~

The second piece, below, is a story with a few words that I am unsure of. (I know far too little French. One of these days…  Even so, I have, thanks to partner Jack, a very fine translation of this beautiful work.) I direct your attention to the questionable words with the notation [sic] following. If the word choice, or spelling even, seems wrong to you, please advise. Offer a translation of the word or phrase containing it, if you would. Thank you!

~

La Plaie

Il lui fallait un an pour mourir.  Pendant ce temps, je le regardais.  Ce qui changeait le plus, c’étaient les yeux.  Il avait de petits yeux bleus, mais au fur et au mesure qu’il mourait ils devenaient de plus en plus grands et de plus en plus gris.  A la fin ils ressemblaient à deux lacs jumeaux, glacés par l’hiver de sa mort.  Rien que de les voir m’entrafnait [sic] des frissons pénétrants et malsains.  Je n’arrivais à regarder ses yeux qu’avec un énorme effort.

Durant cette année-là, tout ce qu’on faisait était fait pour se dire au revoir.  Notre vie commune nous avait créé un langage de signes et de sons dont nous seuls connaissions la signification.  Cette année nous nous servîmes [sic] de ce langage pour nous souvenir de nous-mêmes, pour célébrer la complicité qui allait bientôt se terminer.  Nous recevions toujours nos amis; en outre cela nous aidait à nous régaler de notre exclusivité.  Devant nos invités, nous servions un plat dont personne sauf lui et moi ne savait l’histoire, l’ultime valeur communicatrice du mets.  Ou l’on passait un disque pendant la soirée pour surprendre l’autre, et nous rougissions en nous regardant avec des sourires coquins tandis que les autres bavardaient, ignorant les messages qui s’échangeaient entre nous.

Tout d’abord j’hésitais à jouer avec ce langage pour revivre notre vie à nous—cela me faisait trop de peine.  En fait c’est lui qui me donnait l’exemple, qui encourageait ce jeu et finalement qui m’apprit comment m’y mettre, c’est-à-dire comment lui survivre et comment l’aider à mourir.

Pour lui il n’était pas question d’héroïsme.  Dès que son corps lui fit comprendre qu’il allait mourir, il ne trouva rien de plus naturel, car il avait toujours eu confiance en son corps.  Il avait peur, mais la peur l’excitait, l’aidait à se sentir vivre.  Il ne voulait pas mourir, mais il ne voulait pas non plus renier la mort.  Il voulait rester conscient de tout ce qui se passait en lui.

Ainsi nous attendions ensemble, mais il était toujours le guide du voyage, le savant devant son expérience—après tout c’était lui qui allait mourir; moi je n’en savais rien.

Rien de particulier ne changeait dans notre vie quotidienne, mais avec la conscience de sa mort autour de nous le quotidien devenait assommant parfois.  La tartine, le pli de la serviette, la cafétière [sic] au petit déjeuner nous devenaient des objets sacrés que nous manipulions[sic] pour renforcer encore notre langage à nous.  Les choses et les moments de notre vie acquéraient une importance remarquable.

“Et moi,” posai-je la question inévitable, “quand vais-je mourir?”

Il répondit sans gêne.  “Quand ton tour viendra, tu le sauras.”

Je n’aimais pas pleurer devant lui, je considérais cela comme une perte de temps tant qu’il était là—après j’aurais tout le temps pour pleurer “comme il pleure dans la ville.”  Mais quand il se mettait au piano, je me permettais le luxe de sortir dans le jardin pour m’asseoir près de la fontaine où je pouvais pleurer à mon aise.  Pourvu que la musique continuât, je pouvais céder à mes larmes et à mes sanglots.  Quand il cessait de jouer, je me plongeais la tête dans l’eau fraîche de la fontaine, ce qui me débarrassait des traces redoutables des larmes.  Quelques instants plus tard il me retrouvait au jardin.  Il me regardait, souriait, et plongeait lui aussi la tête dans la fontaine.

Lorsqu’il reconnut certains signes de l’approche de la fin, nous partîmes pour la côte où nous avions loué un pavillon pour l’occasion.  Nous avions décidé que j’écrirais à nos amis après l’événement, mais ne retournerais pas avant que le choc de sa mort n’eût été un peu dissipé.  Nous ne supportions [sic] pas l’idée qu’on me traite en tant que veuf; cela serait trop déprimant pour moi.  Au contraire, nous décidâmes que je partirais juste après sa crémation pour prendre des vacances à Acapulco, ce qui scandaliserait tellement les gens qu’ils auraient du mal à me manifester de la pitié.  Mon ami voulait  même que j’envoie des cartes postales d’Acapulco à tout le monde pour les froisser davantage, mais je le convainquis que ce ne serait pas nécessaire.

Le pavillon que nous louions avait une véranda qui entourait la maison.  Pour aller à la mer, on quittait la véranda et suivait le bord d’une rivière qui menait à la plage.  Ce n’était pas loin du tout; pendant la nuit, on entendait le murmure de l’océan, une voix profonde qui accompagnait les soupirs du vent.  La maison où il avait passé son enfance était au bord de la mer, et il désirait s’entourer de l‘atmosphère qui avait nourri ses premières années de vie.  Je dormais très mal—la mer et la vent envahissaient mes rêves en chuchotant et répétant sans cesse une phrase à peine articulée: c’est l’heure, c’est l’heure.  Mais ma santé excellente me permettait de me passer de sommeil.  Par contre mon compagnon dormait très bien, se levait à onze heures après treize heures de repos.  Il mangeait très peu et ne buvait que du thé.

Parfois quand je me promenais tout seul au long de la plage, une voix me parlait:

“La plaie est ouverte.  Nous sommes sur un champ de bataille.”  Et, “Cela m’arriva avant que tu ne m’aies connu.”

Un médecin des environs, recommandé par celui qui s’occupait de mon compagnon en ville, passait pour vêrifier [sic] son état.  Je ne lui parlait pas.  Ce n’était pas mon affaire.  Mon ami me dirait ce qu’il me fallait savoir.

“Il me donne des médicaments,” me confia-t-il.  “Cela se fera sans violence comme si je m’étais endormi.”

Je ne dis rien.

Puis il cessa de dormir au lit, mais s’installa chaque nuit sur la berceuse dans la véranda, avec ou sans couverture.  Il ne voulait pas mourir au lit, me dit-il.  Le matin je me levais plein de morbidité, effrayé d’approcher la chaise sous la véranda  mais déterminé à conquérir le démon qui me rappelait “comme si je m’étais endormi.”  J’approchais doucement de là où il s’asseyait, je regardais sa poitrine.  Il respirait toujours.  Je rentrais dans le pavillon, préparais du thé et retournais m’asseoir au bord de la véranda près de son fauteuil.  Le soleil qui venait de se lever rouillait le sable sur les bords de la rivière.  Je sirotais mon thé, tournant la tête de temps en temps pour contempler mon ami.  Le sable devenait doré, puis blanchissait.  J’entendis sa voix.

“Bonjour.”

Je lui portai une tasse de thé.  Il me sourit.

“Je ne rêve plus,” me dit-il.

“Tu ne te souviens jamais de tes rêves.”

“Justement.  Je n’ai plus cette impression d’avoir oublié quelque chose.  Evidemment je ne rêve plus.”

Un jour on était en train de discuter, lui dans sa berceuse, moi assis à côté de lui sur un tabouret.  On se tenait les mains.

“Il reste des choses que je ne t’ai pas encore dites.”

“Ca a toujours été le cas.”

“Oui, on arrive à s’entendre sans verbaliser.”

Il me caressa la main.

“L’important, c’est que tu es le seul qui m’aies dit volontiers ‘je t’aime.’”

Je détournai mon visage et regardai la mer.  Les larmes me montaient aux yeux.

“Et quand je dis que je t’aime, c’est parce que avec toi, c’était la première fois que je ressentais assez de franchise et de sécurité pour le dire.  Je suis tellement content que cela me soit arrivé une fois dans ma vie.”

Je lui serrai la main.  Je ne pouvais plus rien voir.

Et puis sa main n’eut plus de force.  La berceuse ne bougeait pas.  Je regardais sa poitrine: plus de souffle.  Les yeux: fermés.

Un vent frais me séchait le visage.  Je regardais la plage d’où venait le vent.

Je suis à Monte Albán, au sommet d’une pyramide zapoteca.  Tout a été réglé.  J’ai envoyé les cartes postales, choisissant dans la collection celles du plus mauvais goût.  Dans ma solitude, je me rendis compte qu’il avait eu raison.  Mais à Acapulco je ne passai qu’un après-midi, juste assez de temps pour envoyer les cartes.  Puis je pris l’avion pour Oaxaca.  Rien de plus à faire—tout fut réglé.

Ce qui me reste, c’est ce paquet de cendres.  J’attends que le vent monte un peu avant de les jeter.  Les autres touristes sont déjà en train de retourner au car.  Je suis le seul à rester au sommet de cette pyramide.  Je regarde ce qui était jadis les grandes places de cérémonie , de marché, j’entends le vent qui monte, qui porte les soupirs de musique ancienne jouée par quelques pauvres fantômes condamnés à la solitude de Monte Albán.  Le vent monte encore, les musiciens et un petit public finissent par se matérialiser.  C’est le moment, me dis-je.  Je déchire le paquet et les cendres s’envolent, de la même couleur que ses yeux mourants.  Les indiens fantômes en bas applaudissent, le visage tourné vers le ciel où les cendres se sont dispersées.

~

I now know that this story was written prior to the passing of Peter’s companion John Moe in 1989. In fact, John’s AIDS diagnosis was made just before a journal entry dated 1 November 1987. The writing of the story pre-dates even that!

The grace and openness, the love – and, yes, humor – with which Peter approached his own death are very much foreshadowed by what occurs here.

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