It was a cool early-autumn day in a beech wood. Most of the leaves had fallen, and the splendor of the great gray-silver trunks began to come into their own. The woman and I were both staring at the many sets of initials carved in the trunk of one particular tree. Most of the etchings were readable. "JH Loves HS." "BM Loves WE" and so on. Less romantic souls had carved "Wolves in '76."
We nodded to each other, smiling. I assumed she was a professional woman, a teacher, perhaps, or business woman. We never really introduced ourselves.
We circled the great trunk, casting occasional glances at each other, each resisting the thought that our private solitude now had to be shared.
She smiled and I smiled in return. Two small girls came rustling down the leaf- laden slope, circling us like Indians on the warpath. We both stood still , hoping we would not become an active part of their game: then they were off again, heading for a small grove of oak trees up the hill.
"The blazing evidence of immortality is our dissatisfaction with any other solution."
I turned to stare at her, startled at the directness of her statement.
"Emerson," she answered my questioning look. I continued to stare as though she had just reeled off a Euclidean equation. I wasn't familiar with the quotation.
"I was looking at all these etchings, and it occurred to me that each carver needed to claim his share of immortality," she said, and she was right. The tree would continue for many years more, and the artists' work would grow out and up with the tree, but always embedded like words in stone; a kind of immortality.
We deserted the beech. By now we knew the familiar carvings, stopping only to check on any fresh ones. We began to naturally assume the comfort of the other's company.
The park, seemed set in the eart as though they had always been there. We began to speak about a great human need, the need to be a part of immortality, a desire to claim some kind of everlasting fame for ourselves such as the unknown carvers on the tree.
"Andy Warhol once said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," she said. We sat in the pale sunshine, watching the last of the leaves sail to the ground.
"A fifteen minute immortalization." I laughed. It seemed absurd. But it seemed to reflect the world's strange desire for instant fame.
As we spoke, we grappled with the need to identify immortality. We swung back and forth between those who would stone buses and hijack planes to great men and women who had left their mark on all our lives. Using quotes, we pierced the commonplace of our surroundings, and time became unknown and unnoticed.
"When one loves, does one love forever?" she asked suddenly.
I looked at her closely to see if she meant her question to be only rhetorical, or personal, or if an answer was expected at all. I did not know if I should be embarrassed by the directness of such a personal statement. I do not think she was aware of the park, the distant children, or me. It was as though she had been caught up by some invisible wind and was being carried across those "fields of immortality," as Shelley puts it.
Often, in the middle of a seemingly normal conversation, one will say something out of context. A word, perhaps, or a line will change the direction of one's thought, and the direction of the conversation will change with it. I assumed this was one of those times.
She picked some wild mint and rubbed it in her palms and brought the fragrance to her face. She appeared to have forgotten her last question, which now lingered in my mind like a small flame.
"I was just thinking how many forms it takes -- immortality, that is," she said. "Mankind has been smelling this mint for as long as it has existed. Yet here I am smelling it also. Isn't this being a part of immortality?"
A strange feeling came over me as I listened and walked with this woman. It occurred to me that I wanted to remember her, and be remembered for the rest of my life. In her future, when she would return to this park, I wanted her to remember something I had said, or did, as I did of her. It was an odd wish, but it seemed to reinforce my own need to claim a little of immortality -- even if it was with a perfect stranger.
"'Immortality.'" I said, "'is to labour at an eternal task.'"
"Who said that?" she asked. I thought for a moment how easy it would have been to say "I did." But she would have known.
"Ernest Renan," I replied.
"Yes," she said, "that would be immortality." Then with a smile, "Much more than carving impassioned initials on some tree."
It seemed as though we had built a castle in the air, and now seemed to want desperately to put a foundation under it. The children cam whooping and hollering upon us once more, breaking our daydreaming.
The shadows were longer and darker now. The sun leaving us was rising elsewhere. we shook hands and thanked each other for the company, and I watched her go through the beeches until she disappeared from view. My last thought was that I had not asked her name.
I whistled for Nicky and we both set out for home. I had forgotten to ask her name.m Did I want to carve our initials on some beech tree? I stopped, half turned, causing Nicky to look at me expectantly for another hour outdoors. But the woman had already been established in my thought for all time. We had spoken of, and with, immortals. We had, in one conversation, overcome youth, old age, and death. Her quoting of Dickinson had left me speechless. Because I could not stop for Death,m He kindly stopped for me --m The Carriage held but just Ourselves,m and Immortality.m
"When one loves, does one love forever?" she had asked, I have formed a hundred answers in my mind as to the reason for her sudden question. Of course, I never found the answer. Now, as i go over the question again and again, I seek that to commit oneself to an "eternal taks" is not only an act of immortality, but of love. Love and commitment are one. Commitment without love becomes a necessary task, a duty, perhaps, efficient but lacking in warmth and real communication. Love without commitment is too fragile, easily swept away by the weakest attack upon it. It is the commitment to love itself, and thereby immortality, that preserves both love and immortality.Committed love is part of an eternal dialogue between ourselves and immortality.
I still think about our conversation and why the subject intrigued us both. Perhaps we willm meet again. I am very eager to ask her if she ever answered her own question.