That particular part of the trip—the journey’s beginning—
he hadn’t figured out. Large hills terrified him,
and the train was climbing the north slopes of the Alps.
He was nineteen, and as night drew near he feared another attack
like those he’d had all year, brief moments when his mind
jolted an inch or two above and behind his head. So far,
they’d passed, but if they were portents of something larger—?
A glance out the window (the winter moon tinted the snow
a dangerous shade of blue), then, for distraction, memorizing
Rilke. Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
we are just able to bear. Where had he read that the Alps
were not always thought beautiful? Once,
they were simply dangerous, obstacles to avoid or overcome.
He dared another quick look: far below,
the lights of a village like a broken chain of beads,
and the headlights of a lone car inching up a mountain road
towards a second village, itself suspended
in night. Then a tunnel—abrupt as an attack—and his book
dropped, he braced himself and listened to the rhythm of wheels,
practiced breathing. The train emerged above a higher valley,
skirted the precipice, kept climbing.
At last it happened: he didn’t have to avert his eyes.
Somehow he found courage to watch, and by morning
the snowbound heights gave way to plum orchards
blossoming in southern foothills. His journal says
that up there in that wild night he started humming
the adagio movement of Beethoven’s A-minor string quartet,
that sublime work he’d heard a month earlier.
He’d sat in the concert hall, terrified
that if he let himself go too far into beauty
he might trigger the next attack. He’d never felt so foolish
in his life—he was six-feet tall and about to be destroyed
by a piece of music! His hands gripped the seat as the movement started,
but why go on living if he couldn’t listen?
I’m grateful now to that boy who closed his eyes,
folded his hands on his lap, gave himself up to all that followed.