The Charlotte News -- Sunday, April 8, 1928

The Moving Row

"We are no more than a moving row of fantastic shapes which come and go."

By W. J. Cash

Site Editor's Note: Here we see something unique in the body of Cash's published writing, a romantic's muse unremitting in its scape--the budding voice of a novelist. Nowhere tangent to temporal issues, the piece sings to music so modern--fused of folk-blues and jazz--that one might expect B. Dylan or L. Cohen or B. Cockburn to have set the thing in notes in the last ten years. Nowhere are the strains of Beethoven, Sibelius or Mozart whom Cash so prized among his 78's--only those jazz rhythms for which he pretended not to care too much. Yet, fifties and sixties jazz rhythms, not twenties. It is a poetic remembrance of the days spent just the previous summer hiking France and much of the rest of Europe--but sounds more of a gentrified elder wistful of his magical youth.

In October, 1932, Cash's first application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, not accepted, proposed a study first in New Orleans, then Ireland and Wales, London, and finally residence in Paris, "the capital of literary romanticism", to write a biography of Lafcadio Hearn, "The Anatomy of a Romantic"--to be, as Cash put it, "not primarily, at least, the gathering and setting forth of new facts about the subject, but the using of the known facts and his letters as a basis for the study of his psychological make-up, and, through him, of romantics in general". It should not escape note that both biographers on Cash did as much with Cash himself, as a means of studying Southern romantic intellectuals--an oxymoron perhaps in most regions, but the grapes to the wine in the South--where the dewy morning halo brings the pungent-sweet wafts through the North Carolina piedmont country windows of bright leaf sprouting in furrowed muddy-red fields while corn and tomatoes and okra patches mix in a variegated salad on the neighbor's less prosperous plat across the road, and, deeper down, the fly-by of the ghosts in the cotton and the deep-singing magnolias. There--we of the South go a wandering at times, whether physically of the moment placed in the fields and valleys and hedgerows of France, of Germany, of New England, of California, or where you please, but always of that wandering muse so closely clinging to the slight breeze against the heat of the pine-encircled meadow, the ripening bud-bursts within the orchard, and the warm, misty drop-down valleys where the road less traveled takes a slight turn this way or that, with cicadas chipping time on their tiny stomachs as evening draws nigh--always these scenes which nurture the single-most common bond of all true Southerners, the authority of the imagination.

We have gone riding where the moon was riding.
Now we come back again from very far.
There was no end beyond those bright horizons.
Let us hold close the little things that are.

Where the wild banners beat we sing and followed.
Tramping Today at proud Tomorrow's feet:
What was Tomorrow that we gave all for her?
Only Today less young, less fierce and sweet!

There was a Grail, men said we have not found it.
There was a Quest ... yet small earth things are fair.
There are red flowers low among the grasses.
There is a wind at dusk that lifts our hair.

--Margaret Widdemer, in March Harper's.

______

On a morning, I sit in a cafe and Madame brings me a bottle of the beer of the Meuse. There is a toy harbor. Ships. Cobweb cordage and yellow spars shining in the sun, a sun casting upon the sea a molten path that like the glory of God is too lovely to be looked upon. Huge top-hatted yachts gazing through monocles at the yellow-washed backdrop that is the town, at the far, fantastic shadow, upon the opalescent horizon, which is the Alps. Mellowed sailormen, with haughty masts, smiling with the strange mirth of those who go voyaging in the stars. And, under the bulk of the breakwater, "The Lightfoot," of New Castle, hulk peeling, stack awry, swearing, sweating, like the plebian she is, over her cargo of rose wine for a gray land on the Western Ocean.

But more than all else there is the sea, the burnished cobalt Sea of the Ancients, slow, undulating, unbroken save for an elfin whitecap or two, silent, empty but for a sun-shot sail of scarlet, a topmast etched against the line beyond which is Africa.

I open the bottle. I puzzle Madame with my French. I must be matter-of-fact. Time presses. I must pass on to one shop for a bit of cheese, to another for bread, to a third for wine, then down the long road which leads past Nice to Mentone.

________

But the beer is kindly. Last night a Troubadour from a thousand-year forgotten Court of Love came and sang "O Sole Mio" beneath my window, and this morning in my heart stirs sweetly sad an old, old pain that has been locked away with leaves of yellow roses. Sirens sing, Amphitrite beckons. I eat of the lotus.

The argosy of storm-blown Ulysses rises upon the sea. Tired oarsmen scull happily for shelter under the lee of the islands that shoot out past a long headland. But the price of Helen is past reckoning. A gust of wind, rain-washed, heralds the Aeolian hounds of her divine enemy. The sun is blotted out. A crackling white finger gropes upon a black sea. Another. The Greeks dodge madly. An avalanche of sound makes the earth tremble. Rain drops. A wall of rain narrows my world to the sidewalk and the table. I sip the beer, delighting in the lightning, waiting. Abruptly the storm halts. A last roll of the drums as the gods depart, and the sun comes back to reveal the sea, the perfumed, fresh-bathed sea, blue, empty. Great Ulysses has flown.

_______

The harbor quickens. Tousled fellows in patched trousers gather up the nets along the beach. Sails flap. Fishing boats move effortlessly out to sea. Saffron, orange, blue, green, red, crimson sheets dot the blue. The screaming of a wench announces that "The Lightfoot" is pulling at her moorings. She swings ponderously about and crawls cautiously out past the make-believe lighthouse, panting deep in her stomach.

Madame brings me another bottle without an order. Discerning Madame, charming in spite of the wart on her chin.

Out there the triremes of imperial Caesar slink landward. The little boats with the colored sails close with them. Those shaggy ruffians who I lately watched at gathering nets swarm up from their decks. With knives in teeth they mount the bulwarks, charge the poop. Flames leap up. The triremes turn tail leaving a companion to blaze, burn, crumple, vanish, beneath the purple. The gay little boats go back to their fishing.

________

The hull of the "The Lightfoot" begins to slip down under the horizon. Strange galleys rise--Phoenicians, come bearing purple and incense and sandalwood. "C'est beau, n'est-ce pas m'sieu?" says Madame, smiling, and the Phoenicians are gone. But in their stead the sinister banner of the Crescent waxes upon the skyline. The fleets of the Saracen sweep out of the sun, come down relentlessly, flicking aside the valiant little boats. Prows ground on the sands. Fire and death ride upon the wind. Women cry out. A tower is raised in the town.

After luncheon I sip coffee and Cointreau at the cafe again. A great fleet passes this way, ships bedecked with pennons of royalty. The King of France steers Eastward in quest of the Holy Grail. Lazily, half asleep, I watch them pass. There the banner of the Counts, the device of the Angevins, the standard of great Normandy. They fade against the sky, vanish. On the horizon "The Lightfoot" has become a smudge of smoke.

_________

The sun tarries, dozing, dreaming. In a saffron haze, the little boats bob peacefully, lulled by the waters streaked with lemon. A donkey drags a cart laden with grapes sleepily through the street. On impulse, I arouse myself, pick up my pack, pass down the narrow quaint way through curious eyes to the road beyond.

Yellow cliqs drop away to the grumbling, opal-splashing sea. Peasant girls, filling huge baskets in a vineyard, pelt me with purple grapes as I pass. Fantastic closes built about yellow and red houses with blue shutters. Mimosa forests and the nostalgic scent of pines. The road goes upward, through a fire-browned wood of cork-oaks, with stripped trunks the color of dried wood. The P.L.M. express roars through a gorge and vanishes in a tunnel. Naked tots bathe on a sandy beach in a tiny cove far below. The shimmering, languid sea expands into infinity as I climb.

_________

A tired castle sits sleepily on a hill, brooding over the slumbering red-headed town at its feet. An ox-cart creeps wearily past me and its piratical driver invites me to ride. Perched on a precarious seat, I share his wine. We top a rise and there below us, with the road spiraling down in long curves, lies a droll town, a tiny place of a dozen houses, lacquered and japanned in brilliant hues, set above a white strand, and backed by a brown mountain behind which the sun slides wearily to forgetfulness as we creak downward. The sea grows crimson, amethyst, and a strange red radiance lies upon all the land. The cart jolts to rest. We are there. Once more I drink to mine host in his wine and, swearing eternal fealty, we part.

Fishing boats are coming in. Nets are dragged upon the sands by bare-legged men. Then the fish are dumped in baskets, masses of wriggling, protesting life. One of the men finds a devil-fish entangled in the net, lays hand on it to have it cling to him. He is driven to cut it to pieces with his knife before it will come away.

_______

On bouillabaise and Bodin I make a merry dinner. Afterward, I fling myself flat in a tiny pine thicket which comes down to the white sands before the sea. How heavily black the water, how brilliant the moonlight, how strangely luminous the air. A mystery and a lure fit for the brush of a Turner. Long I lie, dreaming, remembering, silent before this world of ebon and wilver, this strange old world of forms and shadows, a world without men and so a world without color.

A shadow drifts across the moon trail, the shadow of a sail. It dips gracefully, the boat swings about and melts into the shadow of a nearby headland. Far away somewhere a bell tolls midnight. Satyrs laugh hoarsely as they flit suddenly to life, rush scornfully away to dance at the court of the Great Pan. There on the white road that is older than any man can say the great clamor rises as an iron-cased cavalcade swings northward--a Sforza hurrying to Avignon to pay homage to the Pope and win forces with his battle with the mountaineers, perhaps.

Ah, well, I'm tired. My eyes snap awake. A sleepy-eyed girl shows me to my room, smiles a "bon soir." And under my window is the slow lap-lap of the Ancient Sea.


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