By Theo Czajkowski
5 November, 1848
These days, when I am most distraught, I turn not to God but Poe. He’s my neighbor and confidant.
I resolved to call on him. Another day my plot might have seemed self-indulgent, especially since he is still coping with the death of his wife, but I was in such a way myself as to not care. The thought of the visit lent me the grace to get through my Sunday tasks. I could barely concentrate planning my lectures for the week, in which I was to treat Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. I have been pressed to adopt an apologetic stance toward his work, as he is of Lutheran background, but I find his work all too provocative. Instead of reviewing the text, however, I went to the library to reread “The Raven,” and found myself as amazed as I had been the first time reading it. The poem is the only work of his that our fledgling college possesses, it being his most widely printed.
By the time I decided to make the walk to the poet’s cottage I had been reading by lamplight. It’s November and the evenings are interminable. After looking up the passage from scripture where the balm of Gilead is mentioned I returned my books. A steady drizzle came down as I started down the road, reduced to a disastrous swath of mud and puddles. There is something peculiar about rainy nights, as though the whole firmament were a dripping grotto. The difference between up and down gets muddled. Slogging down Kingsbridge Road I soon gave up hope of keeping my feet dry. As I drew further from the few lights of our humble campus, the darkness grew all around until the ruined road under me became my only guide. I rued leaving my lantern in my room. Meanwhile the rain began to fall harder. I might as well have been navigating the bottom of the ocean.
Rounding a bend in the road I spotted a tiny light ahead; this shone from the cottage. It was difficult to judge the distance between the light and me, but this did not seem to matter now that my destination was in sight. I trudged forward with renewed purpose.
Soon the whole of the poet’s little abode emerged from the murk. The home always seemed an apt representation of its inhabitant: pale and squared, with black roofing. Disarming in aspect. I approached across the slick yard, ascended the steps of the front porch, and rapped on his door. From within came the sound of some object dropping to the floor. I heard the door being unbolted, and then he was standing in the doorway, black shock disheveled, as though unable to find footing on his ungainly cranium. His eyes, trading apprehension for glassy surprise, were further sunken than ever.
“Thomas,” he said, with a smile that left as quickly as it appeared. “You’re steaming.”
“Er–may I come in and warm myself for a while? Am I interrupting your writing?”
“I was reading. I dare not turn away a man of God.”
He turned and started back toward the fire, leaving me to pull off my mud-caked boots. His breath was heavy with the smell of liquor. It was likely that he was quite drunk, but he was a quiet drunk, and I could never be sure just how wasted the man was. That evening I was inclined to assume he was quite lucid, having trudged all the way there in the freezing rain to confess myself to him.
The interior of the cottage had retained much of its charm since Virginia’s death—it was a little messier, with about a dozen empty bottles lying around, and a little weirder in its decor. Poe has an eye for such things. Even the empty bottles began to seem integral in the firelight. Several memento mori adorned mantles and other surfaces around the main room, mostly the skulls of various small creatures. Virginia’s portrait, atop a desk strewn with papers, might be counted among these now. Candlewax had run down from several sticks around the room, hanging in knotted fingers off the edges of furniture. Next to one burning on a small table by Poe’s armchair sat a volume of Shakespeare, open to a passage from Hamlet. As I removed and hung up my coat by the fire a single line, delivered by the prince, came to mind: What should we do?
Poe had dropped back into his chair next to the fire; I pulled up a chair opposite him. He busied himself fixing a pipe.
“What brings you knocking on such a miserable night?”
“Some evenings I feel I must escape the seminary. I’m one of the senior priests now; talking at any length with the others feels queer these days. How are you keeping, Ed?”
“Writing’s gone to hell,” he answered. Then, seeming keen to change the subject: “What of your teaching?”
“Difficult. Gratifying. I’m to force Kierkegaard on the boys this week.”
“He intends for his readers to struggle. I’m sure you’re up to it, my Jesuitical knight of faith.”
I chuckled despite myself. Poe puffed his pipe, looking into the fire. Unless totally fraught, any conversation with him becomes stultifying, and never more so than when he has been drinking out of sorrow. Sometimes, in more sober moments, you catch him looking past you as though in trepidation.
I sighed. From his dismissive jest I gathered that my host would be none too forthcoming. Soon my plaintive words formed a deluge to rival the one outside. I emptied myself through the grille of Poe’s impairment.
“Have things always been this wretched?”
“How do you mean?”
“Politically, socially, spiritually. I’m not sure where to begin.”
“I used to think so. These days I’m less certain.”
“History moves in cycles, true enough. But what if these cycles aren’t part of some greater downward spiral?”
“Culminating in the rapture, presumably. Yes, it’s bad, very bad. But what set you on this gloomy rumination?”
“Nothing in particular. Last week the Society bid me go into the city. There’s been a shortage of clergy on Manhattan since the influx of Irish. I was summoned to the Church of the Nativity, on Second Avenue, and from there sent to various rooms around the city to consecrate the host, hear confessions, bless the sick, baptize infants. There are so many of them, Ed. You can never comprehend it until you see for yourself. Even then, you’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the population, being in that labyrinth of brick and stone. They are so desperately poor. The rest of us spit on them, and then these Irish turn and do the same to black folks, and worse. Of course, most of them would never have seen a colored person before arriving here.
“I know we men built the city, but I can’t help feeling as though it has long since surpassed us. How could anyone pretend to control it all?”
Poe shook his head slowly.
“I went down to the Hudson once to escape the tenements, only to encounter more foulness. Smoke and tar everywhere. Brown water. At one dock they were unloading a ship full of cotton. Some fifty men swarmed the deck, hauling the bales off and setting them outside a big store. I watched them for a half hour. The stuff was so white against the soot and grime that covered everything else. The sheer amount of it—soft and pure as it was—to think what was behind it. I was given a terrible chill, Ed. I reckoned I could see them in their shackles.”
I paused for a moment, gazing into the fire, then asked, “Have you read any Hegel?”
“Come now. I deal in ghost stories, not metaphysics.”
“Right. Well, they say Hegel’s an idealist. To me, his work invites such a dark interpretation—maybe because idealists so rarely see their hopes realized. You begin to feel, perusing Phenomenology of Spirit, that all is more entangled than we could imagine, that our control over the course of events is an illusion. Hegel has that term zeitgeist—it translates as ‘time-spirit.’ He claims none of us is able to surpass this force at a given moment. We live in a time of singular terror. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t end in some horrific war.”
Poe burped softly. “God knows I will never write a tale ghastlier than our own history.”
The poet rose, left the room, and returned a minute later with a jug of cider. He offered me a cup but did not insist when I refused. He sat back down in his armchair with the jug. The cat perched itself on his shoulder after a series of nimble hops. The firelight reflected weirdly in its eyes as they fixed on me.
“There certainly wasn’t anything I could do for Virginia,” Poe said eventually, taking a swig. “Five years watching her suffer was plenty long enough for me to realize the futility of things. My love counted for nothing.”
“I’m so sorry, Ed,” I responded, quite futilely.
He stared vacantly for a time, pupils struggling to focus. He was very drunk. Still, his words, particularly the last, harrowed me so that I forgot the litany of worldly problems I had put to him. Presently, as if addressing nobody in particular, Poe said, “She told me she would be my guardian angel.”
“And? Do you believe she is?”
“I see her in dreams sometimes. I don’t feel any better for it.”
“I believe in angels, though there’s much of which I am skeptical. Maybe my notions are less than orthodox. Whatever the case, I joined the Society hoping to transcend my mortal coil. I figured that by the time I died I would have become so holy that there would be little doubt in anyone’s mind.”
“I mean it. I wanted to prove that I didn’t need anyone. Women in particular, I suppose. I was to be sustained by the providence of a mysterious God. The black robes, the rituals, the scholarship. It all appealed to me as very exclusive.”
“You should have joined the Masons.”
“You mock me, but we’re of the same generation, Ed. I have my saints; you pagans have your Blakes and Byrons. I love living out here in the country, where I can wander in nature; I love our library, and the society of bright, refined people, just as you do. Going into the city last week was naturally a shock. I came to take advantage of my anonymity, however.”
Poe raised his eyebrows ironically.
“We at the seminary aren’t ones for self-flagellation. The younger fellows drink and see women regularly; I drink more than I should. For this journey into the city, I packed my flask and lay clothes. Well, after the first couple of days spent running to and fro, blessing the sick and hearing confessions, neither of which I had been required to do for some time, I was out of sorts. The sick were succumbing to diseases that should claim no one in our modern age, and the sins confessed were either appalling or ridiculous. Stabbings, indecent thoughts, rapes, white lies, failure to cook the pastor’s favorite meal on Sunday. The poor family hosting me treated me as though I were the Second Coming. The couple gave up their bedroom for me and slept in chairs by the stove.
“When I told them one evening I was leaving the apartment to attend to priestly duties, they never thought of questioning me. I started drinking from my flask even as I descended the stairway of their building. Then I was in the street: so many souls, and none knew me. At first, this had been terrifying, but soon I felt as though the darkness was the devil himself walking beside me. This is not to say that I wasn’t still full of trembling. But I allowed that energy to course throughout, impelling me. The gaslight shone in its evil way, illuminating puddles and hitched horses. Everywhere the smell of piss—they don’t exaggerate when they talk of its omnipresence in the city. In the shadows, I felt invisible.
“I walked up the road a distance, drinking my whiskey as discreetly as I could. Eventually, I spotted a pub on the other side and made my way over. At the bar, I ordered a pint. The man behind the counter was an enormous whiskered German, and it seemed that most of his patrons were German too. They are supposed to be a tidy people, but if this is true, the ones running this shabby establishment were exceptional, or else had been corrupted by their new surroundings. Drinking from my stein I considered how ludicrous it was that a culture so enamored with beer should be cleanly anyway. At first, they looked at me suspiciously, but soon the alcohol ameliorated their opinion of me—and my opinion of the scene in general. I was no longer subject to the gnawing anxiety of before. My earlier sensations bled together into an elemental hunger.
“Since I had taken my seat at the bar a small man seated a couple of stools over had sipped beer from a mug and gazed at me intermittently. He appeared to be apart from the others. He wore a skullcap and his skin was as pale as anyone’s I’ve seen. After gulping down the last of my beer I managed to return his gaze at last. He smiled at me with dusky eyes, gesturing for me to come over to him. Without thinking I made my way down the bar and took a seat next to him.
‘Hi there, sailor,’ he said to me.
‘I’m no sailor.’
He laughed, his little body shaking. His voice was weak and nasal, and his skin like chalk, as though dandruff on his padded shoulders were dust.
‘Ever been to San Francisco?’
‘Modern Sodom,’ he muttered, searching my expression askance. ‘Boomtown lately.’
‘So I’ve heard.’
‘Gold, gold, gold.’
He chuckled to himself again, and I found myself joining in.
‘I’ve struck gold right here in New York, you know,’ he said.
‘Oh, yes. Such tasty gold. Come,’ he said suddenly, nodding toward the door. ‘Come with me, have a dig.’
“He got off his stool and beckoned with his hand. I hesitated for a moment. I had an idea of where he would lead me, though I could hardly abide my own intuition. I followed him out the door not thinking anything. Repulsive though this man was, he never struck me as being anything more dangerous than that. He addressed me as though we had known each other for some time. He had what I was after, but knew to leave a voluptuous void for imagination.
“I proceeded to follow him down a series of dim streets and alleys like the drunk fool I was. Had he drawn a pistol from his coat he could have robbed me blind. New York is daunting enough when you’re taking everything in from whichever street corner. But you only begin to appreciate the scale of the city moving through it, the blocks coming one after the next with no end in sight. I became anxious to reach our destination.
“Inside it was as agreeable as one could have hoped. A cozy operation, with no more than ten girls in the wallpapered parlor. It did not take long to make my choice: a full-figured brunette with plain though not unpleasant features. The man called her his ‘Maiden from the Middle West.’ As she led me upstairs I had asked her where she was from; a place called Kalamazoo. I never learned her name. The chamber was windowless and tiny in area, with a single candle burning on a bureau in the corner. Its high walls made the candlelight seem all the more ineffectual as it clawed at the plaster. Before me, in near shadow, she undressed slowly as though shedding her skin.
“I stood there flushed, feeling at once very old and very young as I watched her take off her clothes. I thought nothing—I could only look, feel. That my quest for illumination should come down to so much groping in the dark—this digging around in flesh and bone, for what? Breasts. Buttocks. An opening. Within these arbitrary forms, I lost sight of every commandment and beatitude, mode and mood—not to mention my vows.
“Over the course of our brief embrace, I grew much more sober. Afterwards, I lay silent on my side, watching her dress above me in the wan light as coolly as when she’d removed her clothes. I was supposed to have conquered the flesh; here was its real mistress—this wench from the woods. The shadows of her shoulder blades elongated like wings as she bent to put on her hose.”
I paused. After contemplating the fire for a moment I addressed the poet.
“Whether your dear wife goes on or not, you’ll always have loved, Ed. I’m left to wonder whether I’m any more alive than she.”
Poe continued to gaze at the hearth, never responding. After some minutes I gave up hope of a reply and got to my feet. As I rose Poe looked up at me like a frightened child, seeming to have just noticed my presence. The jug sat by his feet, empty.
I took him by the arm and helped him to his feet. He went on gaping at me intermittently as I guided him to his bed. Entering through the doorway into his room he stumbled from my grasp and threw himself onto the quilt covering the mattress. He lay sprawled on his stomach, wispy locks falling across his forehead as he sunk into oblivion. His prostrate form amounted to a grim premonition.
I turned and started back toward my seat beside the fire. Installed once more in my chair I gazed into space for a time.
Presently I noticed the cat approaching from the shadows, padding gingerly, tail swaying. It vaulted into my lap and proceeded to make itself comfortable. Falling asleep it spread its warmth gradually throughout my thighs and stomach until the fire beat faintly against my own eyelids.
Not long thereafter I awoke to the sound of glass chinking against brick. My blinking eyes discerned a rumpled penis, outlined in the fly of dark trousers, directly level with my gaze. The rest of the poet came into focus, swaying beside the fireplace, eyes nearer being shut than open. He was urinating onto the hearth. His illuminated piss arced gracefully through the air before splashing on the floor, flecks flying like sparks. I did not move as he relieved himself—better to have let him do it all in one area than to risk trailing the stream across the floorboards on the way to the door. Besides, the apparition was so wonderful, and so generous in its view of the author’s private parts that I could hardly have stirred. After fumbling with his fly Poe tucked himself away and retired.
I took this spectral concession as a sign to leave. I would not bother with his mess—most of it would be evaporated by the dwindling fire anyway. I stood and collected my coat and boots, then turned to give the cat a farewell pat, finding that it had vanished into the shadows.
Stepping onto the porch I noticed that the rain had stopped, and felt an inexplicable nag of disappointment. Thinning clouds veiled the moon. It was now the early morning, and the air had gone deathly frigid. Ice-poised puddles were all that was visible by the faint light. The yard had frosted over, its blades bristling under me as I made for the road. The fire had warmed my coat and boots thoroughly and I set off toward campus with a sleepy serenity of mind. Soon Poe’s cottage, and the bleakness it concealed, would be no more than a bit of squat picketed charm over my shoulder. The city, meanwhile, lay well beyond the horizon so that it might as well not have been there.
I was pleased enough to be headed back to my little room in the dormitory, the same room I had quit in such agitation hours prior. I pictured the chamber in my mind: cold, bare, dark—peaceful as a crypt. No indignant rival needed to wall me into my place of rest. I would bolt the door behind me.
Theo Czajkowski graduated from the University of Michigan Residential College in 2017. He lives in Detroit and drums in a local rock band.