The Garden of Seven Twilights

Miquel de Palol

Artwork by Jiin Choi

The Story of the Swing and the Stars

My American childhood, super-protected, closed in on itself, took place between Long Island and New England: Providence, Boston, Salem . . . Now they seem to me like places from a dream. My godfather Kaspar had a house on the outskirts of Boston, and I stayed there for long stretches in the summer, until my mother died.

​There was a swing between two apple trees in the garden behind the house, but from a very young age, I preferred to kill time staring at the cockroaches and butterflies.

​I remember that when night fell, before they made me go to bed, I liked to lie on my back on some dunes on the northern edge of the garden, some thirty meters from the house, and when the moon was out, I would contemplate the stars. For the first few minutes, the turmoil of the world would remain inside me, I still heard the wind in the trees, the distant noises, and the domestic presences, which would sooner or later vanish. Little by little I would home in on the stars, and I would begin to feel the soil where my back and the rear of my head reposed, my arms and my legs, and grew aware of the immense distances spread out in front of me, breathing for me. The noises, the objects, and the immediate physical presences disappeared, reduced to nothing by the monstrosity that had materialized before me, and there was nothing but silence and an abominable void. My pulse and my breathing sped up, but not at all the way they did when I ran or broke into shouts . . . Suddenly the stars, the constellations, the universe became an adjacent horror, one that grazed my hand, that was grazed by my respiration; and then I was no longer resting on the earth, instead the earth was bearing down on my back, and a chance movement of my hands would return it to its true dimensions: a minuscule sphere like the one I’d seen in the geographic museum, which could disappear to leave me floating aimlessly in the void . . . I could never go past that point. Panic and vertigo forced me to sit up, and in a tenth of a second things returned to their proper place. I would stay sitting there a few minutes, rubbing my face, I would take a deep breath, and it all would pass.

​I would start the process over another day, with the express intention of surpassing the time before, of crossing the threshold to see what would happen after; if the earth really would disappear, if I would lose consciousness, if I would fly like a rocket to another world, or if nothing would happen at all. I never managed; I don’t know if it was some overwhelming physical sensation, or perhaps the desire to conserve a boundary to which I could direct my dreams, but the fact is I never could hold out during that point of falling (or of expansion) without some instinctive reaction that immediately annulled it.

​One night I discovered that I could enter into that state in a more sophisticated way from the swing. Substituting the silent and supple contact with the sand from the dunes for the intermittent, uncertain, uncomfortable feel of the swing’s ropes was a disadvantage, and I wasn’t able to feel myself losing physical contact with the planet; but once I was accustomed, the effect was much better. My relationship to gravity disappeared far earlier, and the movement of the swing became a vagary of the most incomprehensible distances, taking me rhythmically closer to, then further away from, the stars. An oscillation that might equally represent nothing (stillness, that is) or a distance of millions of light-years. The need to lower my head and return to the world was more urgent than when I was stretched out on the dunes, and then there was an extremely unpleasant desynchronization with the back-and-forth of the swing. Now and again, when I arrived at this point, fear and bewilderment overwhelmed me, and I fell on my head. Luckily there were no stones below the swing, but I still remember how I scratched myself and the rather confused excuses I gave for what had happened.

​I remember that among the neighbors’ children, there were three who were close friends. One day I told them my secret, and I invited them and my cousin Beth to try. I hoped we might form a kind of secret society, and share our experiences and our thoughts about them, but I was deceived. They got nothing out of it, and the experience ended with them looking at me as if I were crazy or were pulling their leg, and I asked myself what could have gone wrong, whether it was my instructions or they lacked an aptitude for the vertiginous way of life. I never spoke to them about it again, and I never lost that sensation of singularity.

​To what extent is a person different from everyone else?

​Many times I looked for the origin (or at least an explanation) of my yen for the unsettling. My godfather, Kaspar, must have seen something in me, because one winter evening, not long after that moment when I’d come to feel so different from my friends, he started speaking, I don’t remember how, of the inconceivable disproportion of distances and dimensions between the outer world and our own, the domestic space where we dwelt.

​I didn’t want to reveal my secret, and I was afraid that if I asked too many questions or responded to certain of his suggestions, I would wind up giving away hints of that prodigious world that I hoped would one day arrive and embrace me.

​My godfather, Kaspar, was a tiny man, and I was fascinated by our proximity in stature and the exotic distance that age, strangeness, and knowledge put between us.

​“Would you like me to tell you an amusing story?” he asked me.

​“Of course I would,” I answered; he had me sit down in the most comfortable chair, and I listened to him with the tireless attention that only children possess.

translated from the Catalan by Adrian Nathan West

Click here to read Mireia Vidal-Conte's essay on Miquel de Palol, elsewhere in the same issue.