dijous, 2 de gener de 2020

Destination Unkown



"At last," she said, "we can have our martinis." She opened the wicker basket and poured the drinks into the silver goblets. "If you look at the gravestone," she said, "you'll see it's a bit unusual." It was a double gravestone bearing the names of Dr. William F. Aiken and his wife, Anna. "They were the parents of Conrad Aiken, the poet. Notice the dates."
Both Dr. and Mrs. Aiken had died on the same day: February 27, 1901.
"This is what happened," she said. "The Aikens were living on Oglethorpe Avenue in a big brick townhouse. Dr. Aiken had his offices on the ground floor, and the family lived on the two floors above. Conrad was eleven. One morning, Conrad awoke to the sounds of his parents quarreling in their bedroom down the hall. The quarreling subsided for a moment. Then Conrad heard his father counting, 'One! Two! Three!' There was a half-stifled scream and then a pistol shot. Then another count of three, another shot, and then a thud. Conrad ran barefoot across Oglethorpe Avenue to the police station where he announced, 'Papa has just shot Mama and then shot himself.' He led the officers to the house and up to his parents' bedroom on the top floor."
Miss Harty lifted her goblet in a silent toast to Dr. and Mrs. Aiken. Then she poured a few drops onto the ground.
"Believe it or not," she said, "one of the reasons he killed her was . . . parties. Aiken hinted at it in 'Strange Moonlight,' one of his short stories. In the story, the father complains to the mother that she's neglecting her family. He says, 'It's two parties every week, and sometimes three or four, that's excessive.' The story was autobiographical, of course. The Aikens were living well beyond their means at the time. Anna Aiken went out to parties practically every other night. She'd given six dinner parties in the month before her husband killed her.
"After the shooting, relatives up north took Conrad in and raised him. He went to Harvard and had a brilliant career. He won the Pulitzer Prize and was appointed to the poetry chair at the Library of Congress. When he retired, he came back to spend his last years in Savannah. He always knew he would. He'd written a novel called Great Circle; it was about ending up where one started. And that's the way it turned out for Aiken himself. He lived in Savannah his first eleven years and his last eleven years. In those last years, he lived next door to the house where he'd lived as a child, separated from his tragic childhood by a single brick wall.
"Of course, when he moved back to Savannah, the poetry society was all aflutter, as you can imagine. But Aiken kept pretty much to himself. He politely declined most invitations. He said he needed the time for his work. Quite often, though, he and his wife would come out here and sit for an hour or so. They'd bring a shaker of martinis and silver goblets and talk to his departed parents and pour libations to them."
Miss Harty raised her goblet and touched it to mine. A pair of mockingbirds conversed somewhere in the trees. A shrimp boat passed at slow speed.
"Aiken loved to come here and watch the ships go by," she said. "One afternoon, he saw one with the name Cosmos Mariner painted on the bow. That delighted him. The word 'cosmos'' appears often in his poetry, you know. That evening he went home and looked for mention of the Cosmos Mariner in the shipping news. There it was, in tiny type on the list of ships in port. The name was followed by the comment 'Destination Unknown.' That pleased him even more.
"Where is Aiken buried?" I asked. There were no other gravestones in the enclosure.
"Oh, he's here," she said. "In fact, we are very much his personal guests at the moment. It was Aiken's wish that people should come to this beautiful place after he died and drink martinis and watch the ships just as he did. He left a gracious invitation to that effect. He had his gravestone built in the shape of a bench."
An involuntary reflex propelled me to my feet. Miss Harty laughed, and then she too stood up. Aiken's name was inscribed on the bench, along with the words COSMOS MARINER, DESTINATION UNKNOWN.


John Berendt, Midnight in the garden of good and evil.

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