/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Agrippa (A Book Of The Dead)

William Gibson

William Gibson

Agrippa (A Book Of The Dead)

I hesitated

before untying the bow

that bound this book together.

A black book:



Order Extra Leaves

By Letter and Name

A Kodak album of time-burned

black construction paper

The string he tied

Has been unravelled by years

and the dry weather of trunks

Like a lady's shoestring from the First World War

Its metal ferrules eaten by oxygen

Until they resemble cigarette-ash

Inside the cover he inscribed something in soft graphite

Now lost

Then his name

W.F. Gibson Jr.

and something, comma,


Then he glued his Kodak prints down

And wrote under them

In chalk-like white pencil:

"Papa's saw mill, Aug. 1919."

A flat-roofed shack

Against a mountain ridge

In the foreground are tumbled boards and offcuts

He must have smelled the pitch, In August

The sweet hot reek

Of the electric saw

Biting into decades

Next the spaniel Moko

"Moko 1919"

Poses on small bench or table

Before a backyard tree

His coat is lustrous

The grass needs cutting

Beyond the tree,

In eerie Kodak clarity,

Are the summer backstairs of Wheeling,

West Virginia

Someone's left a wooden stepladder out

"Aunt Fran and [obscured]"

Although he isn't, this gent

He has a "G" belt-buckle

A lapel-device of Masonic origin

A patent propelling-pencil

A fountain-pen

And the flowers they pose behind so solidly

Are rooted in an upright length of whitewashed

concrete sewer-pipe.

Daddy had a horse named Dixie

"Ford on Dixie 1917"

A saddle-blanket marked with a single star

Corduroy jodpurs

A western saddle

And a cloth cap

Proud and happy

As any boy could be

"Arthur and Ford fishing 1919"

Shot by an adult

(Witness the steady hand

that captures the wildflowers

the shadows on their broad straw hats

reflections of a split-rail fence)

standing opposite them,

on the far side of the pond,

amid the snake-doctors and the mud,

Kodak in hand,

Ford Sr.?

And "Moma July, 1919"

strolls beside the pond,

in white big city shoes,

Purse tucked behind her,

While either Ford or Arthur, still straw-hatted,

approaches a canvas-topped touring car.

"Moma and Mrs. Graham at fish hatchery 1919"

Moma and Mrs. G. sit atop a graceful concrete


"Arthur on Dixie", likewise 1919,

rather ill at ease.

On the roof behind the barn, behind him,

can be made out this cryptic mark:


"Papa's Mill 1919", my grandfather most regal amid a wrack of

cut lumber,

might as easily be the record

of some later demolition, and

His cotton sleeves are rolled

to but not past the elbow,

striped, with a white neckband

for the attachment of a collar.

Behind him stands a cone of sawdust some thirty feet in height.

(How that feels to tumble down,

or smells when it is wet)


The mechanism: stamped black tin,

Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,

A lens

The shutter falls


Dividing that from this.

Now in high-ceiling bedrooms,

unoccupied, unvisited,

in the bottom drawers of veneered bureaus

in cool chemical darkness curl commemorative

montages of the country's World War dead,

just as I myself discovered

one other summer in an attic trunk,

and beneath that every boy's best treasure

of tarnished actual ammunition

real little bits of war

but also

the mechanism


The blued finish of firearms

is a process, controlled, derived from common

rust, but there

under so rare and uncommon a patina

that many years untouched

until I took it up

and turning, entranced, down the unpainted


to the hallway where I swear

I never heard the first shot.

The copper-jacketed slug recovered

from the bathroom's cardboard cylinder of

Morton's Salt

was undeformed

save for the faint bright marks of lands

and grooves

so hot, stilled energy,

it blistered my hand.

The gun lay on the dusty carpet.

Returning in utter awe I took it so carefully up

That the second shot, equally unintended,

notched the hardwood bannister and brought

a strange bright smell of ancient sap to life

in a beam of dusty sunlight.

Absolutely alone

in awareness of the mechanism.

Like the first time you put your mouth

on a woman.


"Ice Gorge at Wheeling


Iron bridge in the distance,

Beyond it a city.

Hotels where pimps went about their business

on the sidewalks of a lost world.

But the foreground is in focus,

this corner of carpenter's Gothic,

these backyards running down to the freeze.

"Steamboat on Ohio River",

its smoke foul and dark,

its year unknown,

beyond it the far bank

overgrown with factories.

"Our Wytheville

House Sept. 1921"

They have moved down from Wheeling and my father wears his

city clothes. Main Street is unpaved and an electric streetlamp is

slung high in the frame, centered above the tracked dust on a

slack wire, suggesting the way it might pitch in a strong wind,

the shadows that might throw.

The house is heavy, unattractive, sheathed in stucco, not native

to the region. My grandfather, who sold supplies to contractors,

was prone to modern materials, which he used with

wholesaler's enthusiasm. In 1921 he replaced the section of brick

sidewalk in front of his house with the broad smooth slab of poured

concrete, signing this improvement with a flourish, "W.F.

Gibson 1921". He believed in concrete and plywood

particularly. Seventy years later his signature remains, the slab

floating perfectly level and charmless between mossy stretches of

sweet uneven brick that knew the iron shoes of Yankee horses.

"Mama Jan. 1922" has come out to sweep the concrete with a

broom. Her boots are fastened with buttons requiring a special instrument.

Ice gorge again, the Ohio, 1917. The mechanism closes. A

torn clipping offers a 1957 DeSOTO FIREDOME, 4-door Sedan,

torqueflite radio, heater and power steering and brakes, new

w.s.w. premium tires. One owner. $1,595.


He made it to the age of torqueflite radio

but not much past that, and never in that town.

That was mine to know, Main Street lined with

Rocket Eighty-eights,

the dimestore floored with wooden planks

pies under plastic in the Soda Shop,

and the mystery untold, the other thing,

sensed in the creaking of a sign after midnight

when nobody else was there.

In the talc-fine dust beneath the platform of the

Norfolk & Western

lay indian-head pennies undisturbed since

the dawn of man.

In the banks and courthouse, a fossil time

prevailed, limestone centuries.

When I went up to Toronto

in the draft,

my Local Board was there on Main Street,

above a store that bought and sold pistols.

I'd once traded that man a derringer for a

Walther P-38.

The pistols were in the window

behind an amber roller-blind

like sunglasses.

I was seventeen or so but basically I guess

you just had to be a white boy.

I'd hike out to a shale pit and run

ten dollars worth of 9mm

through it, so worn you hardly

had to pull the trigger.

Bored, tried shooting

down into a distant stream but

one of them came back at me

off a round of river rock

clipping walnut twigs from a branch

two feet above my head.

So that I remembered the mechanism.


In the all night bus station

they sold scrambled eggs to state troopers

the long skinny clasp-knives called fruit knives

which were pearl handled watermelon-slicers

and hillbilly novelties in brown varnished wood

which were made in Japan.

First I'd be sent there at night only

if Mom's carton of Camels ran out,

but gradually I came to value

the submarine light, the alien reek

of the long human haul, the strangers

straight down from Port Authority

headed for Nashville, Memphis, Miami.

Sometimes the Sheriff watched them get off

making sure they got back on.

When the colored restroom

was no longer required

they knocked open the cinderblock

and extended the magazine rack

to new dimensions,

a cool fluorescent cave of dreams

smelling faintly and forever of disinfectant,

perhaps as well of the travelled fears

of those dark uncounted others who,

moving as though contours of hot iron,

were made thus to dance

or not to dance

as the law saw fit.

There it was that I was marked out as a writer,

having discovered in that alcove

copies of certain magazines

esoteric and precious, and, yes,

I knew then, knew utterly,

the deal done in my heart forever,

though how I knew not,

nor ever have.

Walking home

through all the streets unmoving

so quiet I could hear the timers of the traffic lights a block away:

the mechanism.

Nobody else, just the silence

spreading out

to where the long trucks groaned

on the highway

their vast brute souls in want.


There must have been a true last time

I saw the station but I don't remember

I remember the stiff black horsehide coat

gift in Tucson of a kid named Natkin

I remember the cold

I remember the Army duffle

that was lost and the black man in Buffalo

trying to sell me a fine diamond ring,

and in the coffee shop in Washington

I'd eavesdropped on a man wearing a black tie

embroidered with red roses

that I have looked for ever since.

They must have asked me something

at the border

I was admitted


and behind me swung the stamped tin shutter

across the very sky

and I went free

to find myself

mazed in Victorian brick

amid sweet tea with milk

and smoke from a cigarette called a Black Cat

and every unknown brand of chocolate

and girls with blunt-cut bangs

not even Americans

looking down from high narrow windows

on the melting snow

of the city undreamed

and on the revealed grace

of the mechanism,

no round trip.

They tore down the bus station

there's chainlink there

no buses stop at all

and I'm walking through Chiyoda-ku

in a typhoon

the fine rain horizontal

umbrella everted in the storm's Pacific breath

tonight red lanterns are battered,


in the mechanism.