Worlds apart?

I run my dry fingers over those moist names: Singosari, Singapuru, Surabaja, Sumatra. Papaya names sprinkled with their own peppercorn seeds. Names strung out like skipped stones on apond: his ports of call.

His,m Cousin Henry's.I must remain here this time, "We have no ties," Cousin Henry has pointed out. Then, gruffly, he says: "Goodbye."

The chain of names forms a charm: Singapuru, Singosari, Surabaja, Sumatra. Freely he will wander in warmth and the music of gamelans, swim the phosphorescent surf, tastes cinnamon, cardamom, cuttlefish, coconut honey. A moon will ripen for him at the volcano's edge, frills like a flower in Japanese shell, unraveling surprise in a water glass. Falsetto street operas will play to him in Singapore, gongs beat nightlong on the beaches tracked by gravid sea turtles. Ambivalent water buffaloes will poise between padi and path, laterite dust swirl under the citrus sun, turn to mud in monsoons; then, as if in his honor, seeds will sprout into fantastic plants.

I remain rooted to clay, clutching a bit of rag from the tail of a kite that refuses all string.

And here it is Im the adventurer, Im who have climbed a hundred Everests in my mind and one Fuji in reality, I who must stay behind now . . .

I try to follow his course through the skies.Now we no longer share the same stars. Different constellations reign at the antipodes.

I cannot follow him into the ginger jungles, among blue fungi and indigo moths. No Hansel and Gretel trail of crumbs. No string unravels through the maze of bazaars. Only the unraveling of names: Nicobar, Mandalay, Chittagong, Calcutta, Bombay, Vermilion saris swish through the dark.

I wait in these chilling graying climes, wallowing in envy.

We have no ties. Were he a spaniel, I could not hold his leash. But were I an organ-grinder's marmoset, he could not hold mine. We share old worlds, new worlds, but alas, we are so terribly free.

Still I calculate his progress as if on an abacus: Bangladesh, Kabul, Isfahan , Kerbala, abu-el-Mutabar. . . . Like amber beads, they twist in my fingers, lead in a circle without conclusion. Nor have we any conclusions.

Dust in my mouth. Sand in my eyes. Stones in my disconnected heart.

Then suddenly one windy midnight, Cousin Henry bursts in the door. His silver hair is ruffled under the exotic cap, which is dusted with snow. His ancient trench coat is soiled and snowy over his six-foot-four frame. His violin case is scuffed and covered with strange labels and customs stickers. His typewriter is worn out, he says; he also has been working.

His battered canvas bag cornucopias dirty socks and half-completed manuscripts, bits of tickets, ripped shirts, dusty shards, and broken anecdotes.

"And what have you done in my absence?" he asks as he unties his shoes, where coral dust and desert sand still stick in the stitching under the clinging snow.

"Only landlocked banalities. . . ." I deflect his questions with questions of my own. He unpacks his travels with his treasures. The smell of mildew mingles with sandalwood. Tattered maps and golden coins shuffle and clink. A Nepalese shawl for Great-aunt Emma bundles a Byzantine bell for his son. Post cards he might have sent mark the pages of unfinished books.

"And did you see -- did you meet -- ?" He runs through an alphabet of rival claims on my interests. "And what did you -- "

"I intended to see everyone, do everything. . . ," I answer ambiguously. "Somehow, I was too busy."

I don't tell him I have not finished writing the books intended. He will ask me tomorrow. He will see tonight that I haven't straightened my study and that my desk has added more geological strata of half-completed drafts, unpaid bills, unanswered letters. No, I have not been anywhere. But the world has come to me.

Yet always I kept looking beyond, as if for the shadows of flyaway kites caught on the clouds . . . kites without strings.

Cousin Henry continues to shake out his suitcase. Finally he opens his violin case. Here it is midnight, and, notwithstanding, he will insist on practicing his Kreutzer exercises. The black-and-white cat has not forgotten his favorite spot. He curls on the green velvet lining of the violin case. Cousin Henry is poking his big fingers into the cubbyhole where he keeps his resin and extra strings.

"Here -- I got you this -- in a Kuwaiti souk." He extricates a chain. A million intricate links, tightly meshed, dipped and redipped in liquid gold, weighed out gram by gram in the goldmongers' alley amid the fragrance of pistachios, mint, halvah.

I am surprised into tears by his gift.From him, the simplest gift would bring joy. But what led him to choose a chain? We are free, after all, no ties.

Or are we quite so liberated . . . ?

Yet did he think it required a chain of gold to reconnect us?

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