The train was blood red. It did not drip but flew across cracked skin, leaving a wound nonetheless, fresh and our own. The clink of tracks was muffled by expectation, by the polyglot snatches of conversation billowing around us, by the tour guide’s unerring attention to detail. Had any of us seen The Sound of Music, she asked. Some of us hadn’t. And as the story of the von Trapp family spun from her lips, I wondered what this sojourn in Salzburg must feel like to those who’d internalized its scenes and songs. Perhaps this was their pilgrimage, a chance to actualize fantasies spun in childhood. Every noise was itself music; we were its instruments.
From the patter of winter boots to the beetle-wing click of camera shutters, the space thrummed with activity, which could only be painted as if it were moving beyond the screen it was printed on.
Steps left their scuffmarks, leading to a family of three in deep discussion. I could only imagine the nature of their talk. I traced it toward the mountain villages nestled in pockets of telephone wires and thatched roofs. Those wires were my constant link from place to place. They drew jumps through foliage and wind, cutting the sky with gentle sags of communication.
If ever there was an essence to the act of travel into which we’d all been inducted, it was epitomized in one bird whose wings were clipped by the brevity of my attention. That flight and its forever-unconsummated alighting marked the blur of our passage. Its song was blindness.
The landscape gave up no secrets, for there were none to be had. Though it held me by the collar and whispered into my brain, by then its speech had transformed into light. Only the trees were audible through the glass, congregating by virtue of their seeding, shrouded by the crisp vibrations of hillsides and the veil of my photographic eye.
They granted these thoughts with naked bark but stood like bodies just the same, vulnerable to the same forces as we. Theirs was a social world. They needed one another, just as we needed them.
I knew nothing of their scent from where I sat. They were framed in such a literal way that I couldn’t help but treat them as my page. They shook me: where there should’ve been silence I heard a distant roar, and where I expected an announcement there was stillness.
So humbled, I captured my portrait in the opposite window with the whistling season as my canvas. It was the only way to know I was alive, to reach beyond the possibility of dreaming and claw my way into weightiness.
With vocabularies louder than all else, buildings with no apparent function sang a choir’s worth of antiphony in but a passing grace note. Along vanishing point diagrams of land I felt myself receding. Was this an illusion sent here to adore me, or had I been the illusion all along?
Farther, farther toward the horizon I gazed, the lens my only assurance of memory. I’d already neglected the others and was now holding out a needle in the hopes that something might come along and thread it. In the gentle hill-slope I heard the rhythm of my father’s breathing; in the clouds, my mother’s. And I, the child with and without a voice, was the indefinable edge between them.
With a turn of the ring, the edge drew a teardrop down the scrim. She was calling, she and the infant son.
The sun hovered in silent prayer, flush with need in bony pale. We heard the ice cracking beneath its feet, felt the earth shifting beneath ours, and held close, prepared to fall.
But when we opened our eyes, we were at the gate. A place where countless others had stood before, but for reasons not ours.
Details narrated something familiar. The smell of stone and ice was potent enough to smack our minds together like two lips. A time during which we might have been important enough to dance, if not also to be heard.
The face of a ram touched my shoulder: there before me was its sweetness. Not frozen, as they say, but ceaseless. It told me of things I must know:
that in the sky statues and smoke were one and the same, that both would find their exit from the gray, and that…. Before I could complete the list, a different music found us.
In a splash of color and personality, there he was: the composer behind this puppet show. The dawn had hinted at this reveal. With squeezebox poised at his chest like the many hearts he’d touched and a clef of chestnuts at his feet, he drew the curtain back.
Over the river, his songbook tailed us, each note a key searching to unlock every love that had ever fulfilled itself here. In each of these was a promise left behind, a key thrown to the waters below.
At the intersection, another man waited, uncaring of the erasure before him.
Salzburg’s main street was consolation in architectural form, a narrow embrace for the chilled. People wandered in and out of shops—some with bags, most without—and kept their eyes open to every color change.
Of those changes, a stockpile of classical fetishism stepped out of my nightmares and into the nearest window display. Unexpected, but adorable enough to balance out the dubiousness of it all.
Ornaments that would never know the touch of a bow hung in an alleyway display, each a memorial to the composer whose ghost remains locked behind every f-hole.
Overhead, a splash of wing beats.
The birds know where we’re headed. They live where we’re headed. Their fortress looms, grins.
A snow-capped statue bids us welcome. We step into her hand.
She launches us skyward.
In the pause flowers our wonder, not only at the layers but also at those who nest within them.