Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The Witness

In a stable nearly in the shadow of the new stone church, a grey-eyed, grey-bearded cowherd lies amid the stench of cattle and quietly seeks death the way a man seeks sleep. Obedient to vast secret laws, the day's shifting light and gloom play on the rough walls of the hovel. Close by are tilled fields and a dry ditch clogged with dead leaves, and in the black soil at the edge of the forest the tracks of a wolf. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The bells for evening prayer awaken him. By now the sound of bells is one of evening's customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a child the man had known the face of Woden, the holy awe and loud exultation of his worship, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and coarse vestments, and the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before daybreak he will die, and with him will die - never to come back again - the final first-hand images of heathen rites. When this Saxon is gone, the world will be a little poorer.

Events that fill up space and reach their end when someone dies may cause us wonder, but some thing - or an endless number of things - dies with each man's last breath, unless, as theosophy conjectures, the world has a memory. In the past, there was a day when the last eyes to have seen Christ were closed; the battle of Junín and Helen's face each died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die, what poignant or worthless memory will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a brown horse grazing in an empty lot at the corner of Serrano and Charcas, a sulphur candle in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

[1957]

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