In the solarium, fronted by large plate glass windows that looked north on the flowering mountains, Horace Becker was sunk in his armchair, bent over his book. Small, it was a thin volume, paperback, as slim and meager as Becker himself; he read:
“He saw a landscape, a tropical swampland under a heavy, murky sky, damp, luxuriant and enormous, a kind of prehistoric wilderness of islands, bogs, and arms of water, sluggish with mud; he saw, near him and in the distance, the hairy shafts of palms rising out of a rank lecherous thicket, out of places where the plant life was fat, swollen, and blossoming exorbitantly; he saw strangely misshapen trees lowering their roots into the ground, into stagnant pools with greenish reflections; and here, between floating flowers which were milk-white and large as dishes, birds of a strange nature, high shouldered, with crooked bills, were standing in the muck, and looking motionlessly to one side; between dense, knotted stalks of bamboo he saw the glint from the eyes of a crouching tiger—and he felt his heart knocking with fear and with puzzling desires.”
It was Thomas Mann; it was Death in Venice; it was the character Gustav von Aschenbach’s image drawn here by Mann. Becker closed the book, raised his head, and looked out on the grounds of the Home. The woman would arrive soon. She would take him by the arm and lead him on their customary walk about the grounds; perhaps today there would be a lunch at the diner, down the hill, in the little shopping center. Perhaps… Becker opened the book and read the passage once more: it was clearly a swamp, a prehistoric wilderness, water sluggish with mud, fat, swollen plants, lecherous thickets, misshapen trees, strange birds, motionless, as though risen from the muck; and then there was the crouching tiger, a glint in his eye. Horace Becker shuddered. The fear he understood, it would be natural in such a forbidding place. It was the heart knocking with puzzling desires that caused him to lift his head from the little volume, to scan the cool green mountains in the distance; beyond the glass. Becker knew, at least he believed, that this paragraph was a premonition of the entire story to come: the swamp, the emotional tangle of Venice; the tiger, the young boy Tadzio, object of desire; and von Aschenbach, caught up in a self-destructive compulsion. These desires were as puzzling to Aschenbach as they are to the reader and probably were to Mann himself. Puzzling, well yes; but also on some literary level, rational.
Becker knew all of this. He knew how to read after all. Books had been his life. So it was not this foretelling of von Aschenbach’s self-destruction that caused him to shudder. What Horace Becker saw in this little paragraph was the state of his own mind. His had been a philosophical mind, comfortable in the world of ideas, concepts; connections leading to the great meaning of things; a curious mind that plucked and analyzed ideas like flowers picked in a field; flowers to be arranged into bouquets of insight that unveil the workings of the world. Fading now, the field of flowers was almost beyond reach. Becker knew himself to be rambling about in a swampy grove, overladen by an oppressive, murky sky. Ideas that once flared with brilliance forming new abstract relationships that revealed themselves with astounding regularity, now struggled hopelessly in murky, algae infested pools of confusion; notions to show for a moment then drown without benefit of light.
This change had come intermittently; ideas would blossom like flowers, fat and succulent, holding promise of… what?…, then morph into ugly misshapen trees, roots crawling across the ground, limbs a canopy against the possibility of sun. There was little horizon now and little perspective that open space brings, only the closeness of the swamp. What was left of the past in Becker’s mind were only isolated moments of memory with little context if any at all. He knew now a subtle fraying of the connecting tissue that wove together a seamless tapestry of what was, of what had been. Horace Becker opened his little book again. What he held of past and future were contained in its pages: they told him something had happened and the ongoing pages promised that something would happen; just as he knew the lady would come and take him by the arm for a walk about the grounds. He sensed there was a future, but it issued from the moment and not from the past.
Memory came as isolated images, sometimes prompted by the immediacy of sights and sounds, but most often, or so it seemed to Becker, images came of their own volition: his daughter climbing onto his lap at his desk to look at what he was reading. He would feel the warmth of her body, the sharp angles of her young limbs. Then it wasn’t his daughter at all, but something ugly, transformative, wet, writhing on his lap until the image was replaced from somewhere in his mind by the damp weight of fear. He saw a lake, people running, pointing, a boat launched, sirens sounded. Someone was taken from the water, a child, coughing, choking. That was all. There was nothing else. But in these moments, Becker would sit frozen, his eyes wide with incomprehension, an uncharacteristic dampness about his face.
Horace Becker felt the edges of his little book now. It was something real; reassuring that focused his mind for a moment. The lady would come soon to take him by the arm and lead him on a walk about the grounds; perhaps even to lunch at the diner, down the hill in the little shopping center. His daughter…What had he done to his daughter? Lisa, was that her name? Was she this girl? The one he remembered now, standing at the edge of the lake, looking out over the water, her back to him. She looked to be about twelve. Her right hand was on her waist; her hip cocked to the left leaving her right leg to inscribe a brazen angle away from her body then down to the sandy beach. Sitting back in his beach chair, Horace Becker had thought her magnificent. His mind could not collect now who she was, only that he found in this image, in this girl from a past dead to him, a new sense of desire. There was nothing sexual about Becker’s desire. It’s difficult to say, but it was simply the perfect cant of her hip, the angle of her young legs, and her look out over the lake that allowed a small glimmer of light to find its way into the confusion of Becker’s mind. There was something of perfection, something eternal he found in her geometry. And if Horace Becker, awash in his deteriorating mental swamp, felt anything of longing, if he felt anything of hope and all it portends, it hung on the timeless image offered by this young girl.
Horace looked up from his book. The lady was there now to take him on a walk about the grounds. She stood patiently before his chair, her hand on her hip, her leg canted to one side and waited for him to place his book on the nightstand. Tall and thin, she wore a stylish black dress cut just above her knees. She helped Horace to his feet, took him by the arm and led him past the glass windows and across the solarium. Horace looked at her and she smiled at him. That he loved her, there was no doubt, but for the life of him he could not remember who she was.