27 June 1905
Every Tuesday, a middle aged man brings stones from the quarry east of Berne to the masonry on Hodlerstrasse. He has a wife, two children grown and gone, a tubercular brother who lives in Berlin. He wears a gray wool coat in all seasons, works in the quarry until after dark, has dinner with his wife and goes to bed, tends his garden on Sundays. And on Tuesday mornings, he loads his truck with stones and comes to town.
When he comes, he stops on Marktgasse to purchase flour and sugar. He spends a half-hour sitting quietly in the back pew of St. Vincent’s. He stops at the Post Bureau to send a letter to Berlin. And as he passes people on the street, his eyes are on the ground. Some people know him, try to catch his eye or say hello. He mumbles and walks on. Even when he delivers his stones to Hodlerstrasse, he cannot look the mason in the eye. Instead, he looks aside, he talks to the wall in answer to the mason’s friendly chatter, he stands in a corner while his stones are weighed.
Forty years ago in school, one afternoon in March, he urinated in class. He could not hold it in. Afterwards, he tried to stay in his chair, but the other boys saw the puddle and made him walk around the room, round and round. They pointed at the wet spot on his pants and howled. That day the sunlight looked like streams of milk as it poured whitely through the windows and spilled onto the floorboards of the room. Two dozen jackets hung from hooks beside the door. Chalk marks stretched across the blackboard, the names of Europe’s capitals. The desks had swiveltops and drawers. His had “Johann” carved in the upper right. The air was moist and close from the steam pipes. A clock with big red hands read 2:15. And the boys hooted at him, hooted at him as they chased him around the room, with the wet spot on his pants. They hooted and called him “bladder baby, bladder baby, bladder baby.”
That memory has become his life. When he wakes up in the morning, he is the boy who urinated in his pants. When he passes people on the street, he knows they see the wet spot on his pants. He glances at his pants and looks away. When his children visit, he stays within his room and talks to them through the door. He is the boy who could not hold it in.
But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?
In a world of shifting past, one morning the quarryman awakes and is no more the boy who could not hold it in. That afternoon in March long gone was just another afternoon. On that afternoon forgotten, he sat in class, recited when the teacher called him, went skating with the other boys after school. Now he owns a quarry. He has nine suits of clothes. He buys fine pottery for his wife and takes long walks with her on Sunday afternoons. He visits friends on Amthausgasse and Aarstrasse, smiles at then and shakes their hand. He sponsors concerts at the Casino.
One morning he wakes up and . . .
As the sun rises over the city, ten thousand people yawn and take their toast and coffee. Ten thousand fill the arcades of Kramgasse or go to work on Speichergasse or take their children to the park. Each has memories: a father who could not love his child, a brother who always won, a lover with a delicious kiss, a moment of cheating on a school examination, the stillness spreading from a fresh snowfall, the publication of a poem. In a world of shifting past, these memories are wheat in wind, fleeting dreams, shapes in clouds. Events, once happened, lose reality, alter with a glance, a storm, a night. In time, the past never happened. But who could know? Who could know that the past is not as solid as this instant, when the sun streams over the Bernese Alps and the shopkeepers sing as they raise their awnings and the quarryman begins to load his truck.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.